Dressing up *is* a form of protest

Met Gala visionaries make political statements with their choice of looks for fashion’s biggest night out, reminding everyone of the power of personal aesthetic self-expression.

Every year the fundraising event known as the Met Gala is held as both a charitable benefit for the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and as an extravagant event of its own kind, showcasing the grandest fashion has to offer all in one night. Often lovingly referred to as “fashion’s biggest night out,” the museum invites various visionary artistic talents — from Hollywood stars to creatives to any other best examples of their industry — to attend a night of glamorous affair in both celebration and charitable sentiment of a museum with global influence. The Met is home to some of the most cherished collections, exhibits and bodies of art that exists, and offers affordable ticket prices to visit its grandeur — largely thanks to contributions of the Met ball each year. What varies every year is the theme of the night, and 2021’s theme of “American independence” naturally sparked several controversial conversations among the display of avant-garde, highly conceptual moments.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Met Gala 2021. Image via versace.com
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Met Gala 2021. Image via versace.com

This year, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez donned a clean, seemingly minimal white, fitted, off the shoulder trumpet gown that exploded into a thick layer of tulle at its hem — and most strikingly, the dress displayed a bold, large red text message on the back reading, “tax the rich.” At an event that embodies and encompasses a grand display of wealth by the most successful and wealthy people in our current society, many found the irony of AOC’s fashion choice too problematic to really appreciate the message she was demanding. They argued that her gown likely cost a significant amount of money, and the irony of a wealthy politician making such a statement on an expensive gown does not make sense. In reality, Cortez’s gown was borrowed — not purchased — by local and sustainable fashion brand Brother Vellies which represent a large pool of artists from Nairobi and maintain fair wage labor practices. By bringing a brand like Brother Vellies to the forefront view of the fashion industry on the most important night for fashion, their exposure can both grow exponentially and set an example for the future, and the loud message on the gown’s back commanded attention from all audiences.

Many people also criticized Cortez for attending such a lavish event in the first place when her message was, in essence, flat out defiance against her fellow Met party-goers. They fail to understand that elected officials of the state of New York are regularly invited and expected to attend the Met event because they are responsible for maintaining and upholding cultural institutions that serve the general jurisdictional public. The people critiquing Cortez for both spending money on a lavish dress and an expensive ticket are simply wrong because Cortez did not spend a dime of her own money on the Met in any capacity. Instead she used herself as free promotional branding for an up and coming brand that fosters sustainable and ethical practices and served her duty as an elected official. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a person who stands for Democratic socialist values, and her fashion choice was a statement of not only that but also her demand to push farther and harder in every realm of society towards a more inclusive, racially just, environmentally stable and more equitable future.

Those who are fixated on scrutinizing AOC for her decisions that night are also the same people who would not look twice if male politicians attended the same event. They would likely be wearing forgettable suits and tuxedos and would be largely missed by the general public, all while failing to use such an incredible opportunity and platform to push further on the work they promised the people. Cortez harnessed the significance of this moment because she understands and identifies with what is relevant to our modern times and how to relay a message to a wide audience effectively. She has proven time and again she can successfully identify with younger people — who are notoriously hard to reach for most politicians — by meeting them on their level, taking part in their interests, and creating a connection to them where it matters. These same people will be the faces of our future as a country, and fostering connections now will make meaningful impact later. Cortez knows that not only millions of eyes would be seeing her that night, but also that a majority of those are current and future creatives, visionaries, social disruptors, activists, politicians and so on, who will pave the way to brightness. Her courage and eternal commitment to her morals as a politician and human being are an incredibly vital example to others who consider her a role model. Not only did she boldly wear an important political statement but also knew well the impacts it would have for a woman of color — the most scrutinized person in America.

As a woman of color, AOC is under the harsh microscope of judgment for every action she makes, and much more so than her male counterparts — a typical circumstance in a patriarchal and misogynist society directed by white supremacy. Those who are criticizing Cortez but not judging the men who arrived at the event taking no advantage to make a political statement of their own are feeding into the toxic and violent qualities of patriarchal conditioning — something which Cortez is also actively fighting against and much more so than any male elected officials. If there is anyone to put under harsh scrutiny for their Met Gala choices, it’s the male politicians and so-called visionaries who failed to use the opportunity to relay important social messages and drive the conversation forward.

Above all, Cortez chose exactly the right event and audience to make such an important statement — that needs to be said again and again until it is enacted. The class divide in the United States has become so severe and poverty so inflated, exacerbated by the pandemic, that there is absolutely no excuse why the wealthy in America are not charged hefty taxes on their exorbitant incomes in support of their communities who desperately need it. During the pandemic, already existing billionaires increased their net values and made enormous amounts of money at the expense of millions of Americans who risked their lives — and far too many were lost — to work during a pandemic out of absolute necessity. Wealth hoarding is an absolute social crisis in the United States, and billionaires simply should not exist because no one person can possibly need that level of money — let alone continue to get richer while the poor get poorer and the class divides deepen. Wealthy, mainly white, Americans exploited lower class America and lined their pockets with an unnecessary surplus of wealth while the rest of the nation was forced to navigate the trauma of the American experience during an out of control pandemic. Despite the catastrophic results of leadership neglect on behalf of the American people, the American government continued to do very little to alleviate the economic and social impacts of these past two years while allowing the wealthiest to become exponentially richer. This already has and will continue to cause catastrophic sociopolitical consequences in the United States. AOC’s message is right on brand for our modern times and taxing the rich is an absolute necessity going forward.

Cortez spoke up on behalf of her most important pursuit in the setting of the perfect opportunity — and sparked a discussion around taxing the rich, which is exactly the point. Getting both the wealthy attending the event and the general public to discuss the importance of demanding taxes on the rich is Cortez’s job, and using every opportunity to push the conversation forward demonstrates she is good at what she does. She is aware that as a woman of color she puts herself under harsher scrutiny than her male counterparts but bravely does so anyway because she knows with conviction that this cause is greater than any level of discomfort it could temporarily put her in. Cortez proves to handle her haters with such class time and again that she is the ultimate role model for young aspiring politicians as well as creatives, activists, artists and so on — and especially so as a woman of color. She demonstrates to the world that true, meaningful change can only come from pushing ever harder against the status quo, that conversation around it is the spark of the revolution it will take to get there — and that employing influential figures in fashion, art, society, industry and visionary thinking is a brilliantly effective way to get there.

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