The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Benefit — more colloquially known as the Met Gala — is undeniably fashion’s biggest, and most exclusive social event in the US. The black-tie extravaganza is an annual fundraising gala, usually held the first Monday in May to raise money for the Costume Institute (a.k.a. the fashion department) in New York City.
Held annually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, celebrities often take fashion risks that they might not attempt on an awards show red carpet or in everyday life. Each annual event celebrates the theme of that year’s Costume Institute exhibition, and the exhibition which follows the event, sets the tone for the formal dress of the night, since guests are expected to choose their fashion to match the theme of the exhibit.
After this year’s event, John Boyega, Pacific Rim Uprising actor who is also of Nigerian descent, said on Twitter, “I think it’s time for an African themed Met gala…”
Now, while I agree with Boyega’s sentiments, I don’t think the MET Gala is ready to attempt an African themed gala. It’s easy to visualize how things could go horribly wrong. And I mean Kim Kardashian will probably (hopefully) find out that her braids aren’t actually Bo Derek braids, but Fulani braids? And the rest of the white population will realise that mini buns are in fact bantu knots? The horror. But even before all that, this year’s Met Gala is a good cautionary tale.
For this year’s Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibition: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, celebrities at The Met Gala had dressed to fit the theme. According to Vogue, the theme sought “to create a dialogue between fashion and the masterworks of religious art,” including “papal garb on loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican.” Rihanna, widely acknowledged as the Met Gala maven, fully committed to the theme by showing up in a papal ensemble, while others, like Greta Gerwig and Zendaya drew inspiration from figures like Joan of Arc and the clergy. Cardi B on the other hand, didn’t let her pregnancy come in the way of her Immaculate Conception-themed look for the Met Gala.
Many, however, took offence at the theme and the fashion that greeted the red carpet, with some calling it sacrilegious, heresy, and cultural appropriation. All of this despite the Vatican not only giving permission for the theme but also working together with the MET to provide clothes and other items for the accompanying exhibition. Curator Andrew Bolton was given access to the hidden chambers where nuns look after the pope’s clothes, apparently in a bid to celebrate Catholicism and open it up to a broader audience.
Although the idea that Catholicism was appropriated is laughable, it is not the first time the event has been accused of cultural appropriation. In 2015, the theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass”, and the accompanying art exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art focused on the impact of Chinese design on Western fashion over the centuries. For that event, some celebrities were accused of sexualising traditional Chinese clothes, while some wore kimonos, traditionally associated with Japan and not China, muddling up their Asian references among other politically incorrect moments.
The China theme didn’t exactly come out of nowhere though. It was a collaboration between the Met’s recently-renamed Anna Wintour Costume Center and Department of Asian Art, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. However, theming any sort of fashion event after a specific country, especially one with misconceptions in mainstream media, is bound to open up a cans of worms. For China, it was that the country often becomes a metonym for Asia – which shouldn’t be the case as China and Asia are not interchangeable.
During the Gala’s China inspired event, even the misguided Japanese kimono retained its original name in these spaces, but the pillage and erasure of African, and especially African-American contributions has seen more than its fair share especially in Hollywood and Western media.
Considering the fact that African-Americans, who often link back to the mother continent when it is convenient, have been in the US for hundreds of years, perhaps the ignorance is inexcusable. But then there are those ubiquitous ignorant Lion King references.
To be clear, the appropriation of a community’s culture can be noted when a person goes to a community different from hers, experiences their culture and returns to hers and acts like the originator of a hairstyle, dance, dress, lifestyle, all to capitalise on it, especially when the people from whom you got the style do not benefit in any way: profit, awareness to their lifestyle/culture, issues etc. Every culture appropriates, the question is less whether an idea is borrowed, than the uses to which it is then applied.
Chinese food, Thai food and Italy’s pizza are examples of cultural elements that retained their source despite journeying across the world. While examples of cultural appropriation can be seen in instances such as when Miley Cyrus ‘twerked’ and became the symbol and reference of the very old (and still very existent) African dance.
A MET Gala African inspired theme could seek to address and correct this erasure, as Google has made it easy for everyone to get their history and culture straight. Inspirations should also rely just not on the exotic, but be drawn from appreciation and understanding African influence in American culture and how these same influences are often seen as unattractive on the originators of these cultures, sometimes hindering their progress personally and professionally until it is made popular or mainstream. In essence, the MET Gala should be ready to rigorously confront racism. Anything short of this should be avoided. At all costs.