In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, the first of the two-part Costume Institute exhibition, celebrates the underrated facet of fashion history, helping to illuminate that American culture and creativity are a significant vehicle of contemporary fashion. From denim to Stephen Burrows's lettuce hems, the emergence of streetwear as a fashion category, Donna Karan's liquid jersey gowns, or even Nike's Air Force sneaker, American culture gave and continues to disseminate style for generations to come insurmountably. The aforementioned is purely design-related, but American icons, artists, and celebrities have been equally influential in fashion over the last century. These figures are forever ingrained in our minds like Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, Audrey Hepburn, Prince, Jackie Kennedy, and a few of the attendees to this year’s Met Gala like Rihanna --- and the list goes on.
The world watched the Met Gala 2021 red carpet as A-List celebrities, influencers, and fashion industry notables flocked the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art steps dressed in what we hoped to be an array of vibrant ensembles by dynamic American fashion designers from the past and present. Of those who wore ensembles by American fashion designers, the large share of creations was by designers Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung, Ralph Lauren, and Thom Browne. Some other notable designs amplifying the sophistication of American fashion include the billowing Oscar de la Renta chiffon gown worn by Billie Eilish, Eva Chen's rainbow column gown by Christopher John Rogers, or Keke Palmer serving her Diana Ross-inspired look in a sequined mermaid dress by Sergio Hudson. Conversely, despite the transparent American fashion theme, an incredible number of attendees were wearing fashions designed by European houses and creatives.
Despite American style, culture, and design inspiring many collections by major European fashion houses during the recent three decades, and tangentially inspired by American fashion icons within worlds of entertainment, sports, politics, etc. during the last one-hundred years, the American fashion system has always remained the underdog compared to its European counterparts. American fashion has been mislabeled as not as artistic as European fashion with its simplified, accessible, diverse, and elegant spirit. Conversely, some of the most artistic feats in fashion history emerged because of American ingenuity.
Since Monday night, many are debating that because American fashion has such a rich history, was there any reason for any European fashion-related presence for this Met Gala? Unbiasedly, American designers have worked for European houses like Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton -- Marc Jacobs was also there before Abloh worked in womenswear. Then there is Daniel Rosberry at Schiaparelli. Therefore, fashion is no longer built in a vacuum and is more globally connected than past generations. On the other hand, looking at the Costume Institute exhibitions and Met Gala themes in the past 20 years, they all have a heavy white-Eurocentric academic angle. Thus, this year could have squarely shown the vibrancy of American fashion and all of its creatively diverse perspectives. Additionally, there is no single American identity. This inclination may have motivated the vast amount of European fashion house designs on the carpet, which a mandate could have been sent to all designers and stylists who were dressing their clients in fashions from Europe to create outfits inspired by American culture. But to the earlier point, what a dynamic Met Gala it would have been to see all attendees wearing only American designers, highlighting that American fashion can stand on its own.
Looking at the designers represented at the Met Gala, there were undoubtedly some aesthetics that would have been amazing to see on the red carpet. For the gala night, many designers dream of having their outfits seen by millions across the world. Therefore, having a gala majoritively populated with fashions by American designers, not just fashion inspired by American design, culture, and people, would have sent a heralding message to the public and American creatives who felt overshadowed by the constant need to keep up with Paris. Firstly, there was a lack of designs by Indigenous creatives. Navajo designer Orlando Dugi has an incredible repertoire of developing couture-worthy creations with deep-rooted ties to his culture. Outside of Prabal Gurung and Joseph Altuzzara, there was a lack of young Asian-American talent as well. Jason Wu's quick ascendency came after he dressed First Lady Obama for both Inauguration Balls; thus, his talent would have undoubtedly shined that night. Another rising talent, Peter Do, is known for his tailored and deconstructed pieces and could have lit up the red carpet.
Aurora James and her Brother Vellies's "Tax the Rich" dress on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dress made news as a standout design for its messaging amidst an event geared toward some of the wealthiest people in the world. Yet, Carly Cushnie or even Tracy Reese's elegant and streamlined designs would have equally stood out alongside the Michael Kors Collection ensembles that flocked the carpet. Even though Cushnie's brand is defunct, she could have been asked to design something in the same vein as Zac Posen, whose business is also defunct, which he made a custom outfit for Debbie Harry. Speaking of classic American designers like Kors, whose design presence dominated the night out of the American designers, where were any designs by Marc Jacobs? Marc Jacobs's fashions almost always appear on the Met Gala red carpet. Jacobs was a vital fixture in American and global fashion transition from the 1990s into the 2000s. Keeping on the vintage route, we often see Mary-Kate and Ashley grace each Met Gala wearing vintage designs; although they did not attend, that doesn't mean wearing vintage is off-limits. A vintage Patrick Kelly button dress, a Stephen Burrows color-blocked liquid jersey dress, or a classic sensual Donna Karan scoop neckline dress would've made direct statements about America's place in fashion history. It would have been awesome to see other designers, particularly those who aren't afraid of playing with genderbending, like Telfar and Shayne Oliver, whose fashions would've also served in the same conversation as the plethora of Thom Browne designs seen throughout the night.
Turning to homages, Rihanna stunned the scene in a Balenciaga Couture gown reminiscent of opera coats in the early 20th century, in which she paid homage to American streetwear. Gigi Hadid evoked Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and even Halle Bailey gave us Tina Turner energy in her fringed Rodarte bodysuit. Between American icons who influenced fashion and the wide breadth of cultures that make the fabric of the U.S.and fueled the fashion system, there is no lack of inspiration stylists, designers, and attendees could have used. Maluma in his Versace fringed leather outfit and J.Lo in her Ralph Lauren gown exuded the prominent cowboy/Western narratives in their styles. From red, white, and blue colorways to the denim on denim ensembles, much of the inspirations were low-hanging fruit. To see homages to legends like Grace Jones, Prince, and Missy Elliot, or something more creative, i.e. films like Coming to America or Hunger Games, may have been fun to see reinterpreted on the red carpet. For instance, instead of Normani entering the lovely Valentino gown, seeing dancers on the red carpet welcoming Normani in a chainmail dress and hairstyle similar to the one Vanessa Bell Calloway wore in the Coming to America opening wedding scene could have also been quite the sight to see.
With that said, exclusion is never the answer, but to have American fashion designers as the dominant and sole subject from the carpet to the exhibition would have signaled a different type of motivation for American fashion we do not see often in the mainstream in favor of European fashion. The even more critical point is that the Met Gala is a fundraiser to help benefit the Costume Institute exhibition. Having an entire show dedicated to American fashion history this year and next is a more glorious achievement because the exhibition represents a permanent emboldened record of American fashion receiving the overdue recognition it deserves for shaping the contemporary fashion system.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue