There is the Met Gala, and then there is all the stuff around the Met Gala: one of the reasons the Costume Institute’s annual event has risen in the public imagination in recent years is because of the way it has harnessed our widespread desire to talk and gossip and make memes about celebrities and what they wear. An awareness of the Gala’s digital potential was baked into this year’s event—Instagram was the evening’s primary sponsor. (Interestingly, the sponsor almost always says something about the theme itself: in years past, Apple sponsored “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” while Gucci sponsored “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”) As usual, the conversation around this year’s Gala was dominated by a bold celeb fashion choice, a gown notable in part due to the choice of designer but more because of what it said: the most talked-about outfit of last night was one worn by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: a white, tulle-hemmed gown with bright red script on the back that read, “TAX THE RICH.”
On the carpet and off, AOC sought to provide context: the gown was designed by Brother Vellies creative director Aurora James, a Black woman designer who started her brand in Brooklyn, and who founded The 15 Percent Pledge initiative last summer to call on big corporations to devote 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses and suppliers. “We must always continue to push ourselves, push our colleagues, push the culture, and push the country forward. Fashion is changing; America is changing,” James told Vogue ahead of the event. “The medium is the message. … The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich,” AOC wrote on Instagram afterwards, clarifying that the dress was borrowed, not purchased, from the brand, and that New York politicians are often invited to attend the very New York event. (Outgoing mayor Bill De Blasio also attended.)
The moment that AOC’s statement dress hit the Gala carpet, the takes took off. Many lauded her choice to display the message at such a profoundly public event, particularly such a glitzy one. (The Met Gala is, by nature, a fundraising event for the Met’s Costume Institute, with brands and sponsors shelling out for tables and filling them with celebrities.) Why wouldn’t a public official, particularly one as plugged into the power of online conversation as AOC, take the opportunity to attend, to put a vital slogan not only in front of the eyes of the event’s elite attendees but also the myriad eyes of the internet? Not to mention, the fervor does double-duty to promote James’s initiative—all good things.
Others wondered whether the statement landed at all, criticizing its delivery as too corny, too hypocritical, or both; image macros superimposing a screenshot of a Wikipedia entry about cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which contemplates the contemporary validity of anti-capitalism, onto a photo of AOC on the Gala carpet (how’s that for a digital palimpsest!) circulated on Twitter. Plus, with the Gala taking place just over a week after Hurricane Ida decimated homes across New York City, writer Shamira Ibrahim noted that AOC’s “constituents are just across the 59th street bridge still fighting to put their lives back together. How utterly dystopian.” (There were similar call-outs of AOC’s fellow attendee, the multimillionaire congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, who wore a showy “Equal Rights For Women” suffragist gown by Antonios Couture.) This wasn’t just a Twitterstorm, either; the dress garnered headlines from the New York Times to CNN to Fox News. Ultimately, it was exactly the sort of fashion-meets-culture flashpoint the Met is designed to generate, while also prompting conversation about the moral and political standing of the art and fashion industries, the political power of celebrities—and the powerful celebrity of politicians—all at once.
A photograph of a dress may say a thousand words—though it can’t also provide another thousand words of intended context. And while a scrawled statement on the back of an article of clothing is inherently a wink, the hand-painted look of the text on AOC’s dress—simultaneously recalling the Tao Downtown logo, Chick-fil-A’s marketing, and Melania Trump’s baffling-to-this-day “I DON’T REALLY CARE. DO U?” Zara jacket—conveys the haste its message requires. As AOC has stated innumerable times, shifting tax policy is vital, and clunky messaging or not, online discourse has been known to precipitate real-life change. There’s a fine line separating red carpet style from clunky statement-dressing—and while both can shift the conversation, neither is quite the same thing as an actual tax increase.