AOC and Kim Kardashian seize an opportunity

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

No one should be surprised that a Met Gala with a theme centering on America itself resulted in one of the more contradictory, controversial red carpets the event has ever seen.

Holly Thomas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” hosted some attendees Monday night, who seemed delighted to play along but played it relatively safe. The frequently outrageous Megan Thee Stallion smoldered, with hair in soft waves, wearing an old-Hollywood-inspired dress by Coach, a solidly US-based designer. Lil Nas X served up a triumvirate of brilliant golden looks; the second, a ripped suit of armor, coming with strong (but welcome) C-3PO vibes. Lorde wafted about in an ethereal Statue of Liberty-shaped headdress. But one Met Gala newbie, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and one old-timer, Kim Kardashian, were especially determined to make profound, if conflicting, statements.

Ocasio-Cortez made her Met Gala debut in a long white off-shoulder mermaid gown, with “Tax The Rich” scribed across the back in massive, flag-red letters. It was explicit, as close as you could come to having a placard at the gala without literally bringing one, and – though likely a clap-back to Joy Villa’s “Build The Wall” dress from the 2019 Grammys – exactly what you’d expect from someone who spends far more of her time campaigning than sitting in the front row at fashion week. She looked beautiful, but not stylish. Her outfit made a political statement that couldn’t afford the scope for misunderstanding that a more artistic, interpretive piece might allow.

The dress immediately stirred up a fuss in predictable quarters. Donald Trump Jr. led the charge, and Newsmax’s Benny Johnson and actor and comedian Michael Rapaport joined in to complain about the apparent hypocrisy of a politician who’s targeting the rich showing up to a $35,000-per-ticket event almost exclusively populated by the extremely wealthy and/or famous. They appeared unaware of the fact that, as Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Instagram, New York City’s elected officials are regularly invited to the Met Gala for free.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion.

The general social media backlash also sidestepped the peculiarity in calling a politician who consistently calls for higher taxes on the rich, and is part of the progressive movement pushing a wealth equity agenda as the Democrats’ budget bill moves through Congress, a “hypocrite.” By showing up at the Met showcasing that phrase, she did exactly what she always does when she’s in the spotlight and as a member of the House, hardly new to doing so surrounded by the uber-privileged.

Given her job and the America-themed event, it would be odd for Ocasio-Cortez to prioritize an abstract, subjective look over the opportunity to get her message across to an audience of millions. She understood the assignment and interpreted it true to form with the help of Brother Vellies, a Brooklyn-based designer, no less. As is so often the case – witness Sen. Joe Manchin’s patronizing reference to her as “young lady” over the weekend – Ocasio-Cortez’s critics underestimated her in assuming she’d not already considered the incredibly obvious points they’re now making.

At the opposite end of the Met Gala lookbook spectrum, Kim Kardashian’s Balenciaga dress was undoubtedly the boldest fashion statement of the night. Covering her entirely in black from head to toe, it came, in typical Kim Kardashian fashion, ripe with the potential to confuse and antagonize. Takes on the look ranged from “executioner chic” to “dementor,” “fetish facewear,” and “sleep paralysis demon.” There was some speculation it was an ode to her estranged husband Kanye West, either as a nod to their rumored reconciliation, or as a snub at his past comments that her outfits are “too revealing” and “too sexy.”

The very blankness of the outfit was fascinating. Being so famous that people recognize you by your silhouette alone, yet neutral to the point where people can effectively project whatever they wish onto you (this analogy included) feels like a fairly legitimate take on American celebrity culture. It’s Andy Warhol’s “Invisible Sculpture” meets the red carpet. Divisive, but captivating, just like the birthplace of superstardom.

Kim Kardashian arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York.

Of course, Balenciaga isn’t an American label. It was founded in Spain and is based in Paris. And Kardashian wasn’t the only one representing it. Tracee Ellis Ross and Rihanna both rocked it too. But in a country that supposedly celebrates eclecticism, or at the very least, ought to, shouldn’t that choice be OK at an event called “In America”?

Far more troubling than high-profile Americans choosing a non-US designer is recent criticism of the brand for cultural appropriation over its $1,190 sweatpants that show what looks like the top of a pair of boxers above the waistband. Commentators described the design as exploitation of Black culture, noting the style has historically been pigeonholed to demonize Black men. (The celebrities’ looks were likely planned long before this particular mess, though.)

Probably the most interesting thing about the Met Gala this year was the sheer breadth of the interpretations and the scope across the gamut for these to cause a discordant reaction the morning after. It was one of the more open-ended themes the gala has had, yet still so many decided that the guests had done it “wrong.”

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    The 2018 theme: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” by contrast, saw some of the most celebrated looks of recent years, from Rihanna’s bejeweled vestments to Zendaya’s armored Joan of Arc. But as was later pointed out, the theme itself was potentially offensive regardless of what anyone wore. The night saw a strange acceptance of ubiquitous cultural appropriation which would probably never have been signed off on had the focus been any other religion.

    The Met Gala 2021’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” theme offered almost limitless scope for individuality. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Kardashian seized that opportunity. Whether they pulled off their objectives or not, the result was emblematic of two people representing totally different worlds; both uncomfortably, but undeniably, American.