First Published in Spook Magazine
While the significance of the 2015 Met Gala red carpet may be lost on some, for any fashion-savvy pop culture addict, it quickly defined itself as a landmark moment in our cultural understanding. From Kim Kardashian’s subtle nod to Cher’s white sequined number circa 1970, to Karen Elson’s elaborate and regal Dolce and Gabbana gown, the Met Gala fashion was far more than an aesthetic spectacle – it was a celebration and promotion of women’s unique form of self-expression.
Fashion as an art form is all too often relegated to the margins of our cultural appreciation. We overlook the industry’s constant interaction with the political, economic, and social climate, at the same time as forgetting the ways in which our fashion becomes an articulation and identifier of selfhood.
Each year, New York’s Metropolitan Art Gallery benefit, otherwise know as the Met Gala, transforms its red carpet into a veritable playground where fashion, art, culture, and the age of celebrity collide to produce the definition of the word opulence.
As I scrolled through page after page of the lavishly gowned ladies on my lazy Thursday morning, I started to ponder what it was about the Met Gala red carpet that excited me so much. Was it the fashion? The celebrity? Or was it a heady cocktail of the two, each click intoxicating me with the promise of a gown reveal even more outlandish than the last? I fixed my gaze on the women, their figures looking powerful and strong as they posed across the crimson staircase, and realised there was one question that hadn’t yet sprung to mind: “where are all the men?”
In so many ways, the red carpet becomes a sphere specifically dedicated to the observance of a female expression. As Leandra Medine from The Man Repellersays, clothes make up the language that we as women use to communicate.
Like any marginalised group that has suffered at the hands of oppression, an intrinsic element of self-survival is the cultivation of group and self-identity. Throughout history, women have utilised decoration on their bodies as a way to exert choice, control, and express their spiritual or cultural underpinnings. While our vote may not have counted, or our daughters were prohibited from our inheritance, women found refuge in the freedoms of the fashion sphere; they could express themselves whichever way they chose. And it’s places like the red carpet – a public domain that celebrates artistic feats – where women’s assertion of self is finally heard.
This year’s theme, China: Through the Looking Glass, certainly raised some eyebrows and appeared dangerously ripe for cultural appropriation. It also, however, shone a light on Western designers’ fascination with Oriental style.Through the Looking Glass quite literally meant viewing Chinese culture through a (respectful) Western lens, and despite the few unsavory interpretations of the theme (sticking chopsticks in your hair really wasn’t a good touch, Emma Roberts), for the most part, the looks were culturally sensitive. The exhibit inside was filled with Chinese couture and candidly opened up about the ways in which Chinese culture has been appropriated by the fashion in the West.
The theme reminded me of the importance of celebrating cultures and stories that differ from the dominant discourse, and this included women’s culture.
On the red carpet, men quite literally sidestepped and made space for the girls. Kanye trailed behind Kim as she flaunted her body in the Roberto Cavalli, and Jay-Z stood back while his Queen Bey was very clearly feeling herself in the floor-length Givenchy.
For women who are taught to shrink their bodies, to fold their legs with the skill of a contortionist and bend to the whims of patriarchy, the concept of taking up space seems quite foreign. The female presence is even diluted in the realm of public debate with the example of politics, cultural criticism, or being seen as a voice of authority or credibility. Women’s expression of ideas, and in particular women of colour and their narratives, are not just sorely underrepresented in a broader cultural sense, but actively shunned and excluded.
Which is why this year’s Met Gala became such a highly significant event. It was not only a place where female expression in general was heralded as the most important, but was an evening where women of colour reigned supreme. It only takes a quick look at the majority of the top 10 “best dressed” lists for the evening to realise that the presence of women of colour on the red carpet was profound.
Naomi Campbell’s luxurious velvety jade dress, FKA Twigs and her Christopher Kane getup, and Zendaya’s custom Fausto Puglisi gown are just a few examples of the ways in which women of colour loudly and proudly represented themselves on the Met Gala red carpet. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a celebration of female expression without reviewing Beyoncé and her unashamed, strategically bejeweled, skin-tight caramel marvel. The image of Beyoncé as she propped one foot up on the staircase, her neck gently cocked forward letting her long hair cascade in front, and the impenetrable gaze as she fixes her eyes down the camera lens, was truly an iconic moment.
If fashion can be interpreted as women’s ammunition in a world that continues to encourage passivity, then the fierce looks at the Met Gala were firing shots all over the system.
Which brings me to the one and only Rihanna.
Rihanna walked into the Met that evening as a work of art. The timeless legacy of that regal yellow fur-trimmed dress unfurled behind her like the hand-embroidered scrolls of her train. As my friend astutely commented: “she ain’t no shrinking violet.” Rihanna continues to astound me with her red carpet fashion choices. She is highly political with her fashion statements, showing she doesn’t give a fuck about complying with Western fashion sensibilities, but takes great care in setting herself out a clear identity. That she also chose to wear couture from an actual Chinese designer, Guo Pei, was like the cherry on top of her already immaculate presentation.
When she unloaded that enormous yellow train at the met gala, a dress that weighed over 24kgs and took four on-hand attendants to help as she climbed the staircase, she certainly wasn’t ashamed about taking up space. No, she reveled in it.
We’ve all seen the Tumblr pages dedicated to posts about men taking up space in public areas, and even the term “manspreading” has slipped into the casual lingo. Men are certainly being pulled up on the ways in which they physically inhabit the world, and rightly so. But, as Rihanna and many of the other celebrities and their fashion choices convey, when women are given a carpet, it’s clearly their time to shine.
I find it sad that the importance of Met Gala fashion has quite likely been lost on many who would consider it a puerile example of our consumerist, celeb-obsessed culture. What they don’t understand is that it was so much more than a superficial dress parade. The power in fashion lies in the capacity for choice, for a visual articulation of self that transcends language barriers and communicates within a wider cultural dialogue. Even though it takes a red carpet for society to rightfully respect and admire women’s choices, this social and cultural feat is not something to be ignored.
People talk a lot about the male gaze, the idea that society is built through the looking glass of a male perspective. At the 2015 Met Gala red carpet, however, the female gaze reigns supreme. And she is staring straight at you.