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The Glossy: Met Gala's Fame Crucible
Tonight's excruciating, exhilarating exercise reveals the dislocations of Hollywood, celebrity and its embattled host
One of the pandemic’s lesser side effects, among so many, was the upending of the fame economy. In the last two years, TikTok became the top downloaded app in America, theaters struggled to stay afloat and the external validation of red carpets, premieres and parties that traditional entertainment types crave was cut off like an oxygen tank turned down to zero. As aspirants lip-syncing in bedrooms ascended culture’s leaderboard, Hollywood shows and movies (and thus, their stars) skidded down the ranks of Gen Z’s favorite pastimes.
And now, in this cultural chaos, enters the return of Monday night’s Met Gala, the first true post-2020 display of the current state of fame and its many dislocations.
Do people still care? Apparently so. In a world of algorithms and an endless internet, the event still relies on old-fashioned human curation to telegraph one person’s view on who is “trending”. In this case, the curator is Anna Wintour, now 72, and despite — or perhaps because of — her divisive cultural presence, the Vogue editor and Condé Nast’s global chief content officer is back in full force, holding court while wearing the battle scars of numerous cancelation attempts of the past several years.
Since Wintour took on the role as the event’s host in 1995, the ball — arguably the starriest event on the New York party circuit — has become bigger with each passing year as talent and designers struggle to find increasingly rare “tentpole” moments in the sea of noise to help shape their brands. And maybe, for stars, help market themselves on the way to a coveted multi-million dollar deal or role. Indeed, human curation seems even more valuable in an age of infinite choice.
The May 2 affair to celebrate “Gilded Glamour”, a node to the Gilded Age, will be the first big red carpet since…the Oscars. And we know how that ended up. (Just try conjuring in your mind one indelible image that isn’t The Slap).
To that end, the stakes feel increasingly higher to gain eyeballs. Tom Ford is an honorary co-chair, but, no surprise, so is Instagram chief Adam Mosseri, who also happens to be underwriting the event (whose financial folly at least once came under question). Because of that, all the ticket sales are pure profit. Since taking the helm 27 years ago, Wintour has fundraised more than $175 million (even as Conde Nast itself has lost $100 million a year in recent years). Tickets are a reported $35,000 each.
The 2020 event was canceled and, somewhat confusingly, a scaled-down version with a reduced guest list — though no real lack of famous faces — took place last September, honoring the first part of the Met’s “In America” exhibit, dubbed “A Lexicon of Fashion,” that is continuing its now-concurrent run in the Costume Institute’s basement fashion galleries. But this Monday is the official return of the full-fledged Met event, set to honor the second part of the exhibit, “An Anthology of Fashion,” a much splashier effort mounted in the period rooms of the museum’s American Wing.
Attempting to ride the currents of fame, Anna and Met Museum henchman Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s chief curator, are no different from anyone in Hollywood trying to figure out the zeitgeist. They wrangled nine Hollywood directors to design the individual fashion tableaux in the period settings for the Met exhibit, including Oscar winners Martin Scorsese and Chloé Zhao and marquee names Sofia Coppola, Regina King and Ford. Filling out the list are filmmakers Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Autumn de Wilde and Julie Dash. As usual, Wintour also recruited hosts for the event from Hollywood, with bold-face names Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Regina King (again) and Lin-Manuel Miranda heading up this year’s proverbial receiving line.
Last year, Vogue self-reported that its Met content pulled in more than 200 million views across all social platforms, including the nearly 15 million viewers who watched the magazine’s exclusive red-carpet livestream on Vogue.com and the magazine’s Twitter account. And if the gala is as much about the famous proving their place in the firmament, so it is as well for its famous host. Everyone, even she, is trying to ride the bucking bronco for as long as possible.
Accused of racism by the late Andre Leon Talley and former staffers, Wintour has more recently publicly displayed an embrace of inclusion with a fervent apology for, “publishing material that has been intolerant, as well as not doing enough to promote black staff and designers at the fashion magazine” over her more than 30 years at the magazine’s helm and long-overdue gestures like finally hiring the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover.
The specter of Talley, who died earlier this year of complications of a heart attack and Covid-19 — many surmise, literally, of a broken heart — also hangs uneasily over the Met Gala this year and presents some complicated optics. In his excellent 2020 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, Wintour’s former creative cohort and Vogue editor-at-large wrote that she had inflicted “huge emotional and psychological scars” and that his departure from the magazine “felt like I was just thrown under the bus.”
Talley also told Sandra Bernhard on her Sirius XM show that Wintour’s apology “came out of the space of white privilege. I want to say one thing: Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad, she’s a colonial dame,” adding, “She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”
Later, they reportedly made up and he extolled her for making “history by making me the first African American male EVER to be named as creative director of Vogue, in 1988.” A clearly-moved Wintour was one of the speakers at Talley’s memorial at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Friday — timed to coincide with the Met event—alongside Marc Jacobs, Carolina Herrera and Bethann Hardison.
The New York Times reported in the fall of 2020: “Black editors who have worked with Ms. Wintour said they saw her apology as hypocritical, part of a calculated play by an executive known for her ability to gauge the public mood.”
And thus, Wintour’s Met Gala has come to cannily reflect and benefit off of today’s manic desperation for fame. As the event endures perennial accusations that it is over, tacky, not fun, and faced Gwyneth Paltrow’s vow she would never return — only to have her return — it still chugs along, like a hurricane growing in force, and perhaps some might argue as destructive. Even Ford himself made headlines this week in an excerpt from former New York Magazine writer Amy Odell’s new book Anna: The Biography, by saying the party,”…used to be very chic people wearing very beautiful clothes going to an exhibition about the 18th century,” he ripped. “You didn’t have to dress like a hamburger,” a slam that nodded to Katy Perry’s 2019 Moschino getup.
Extreme costumes continued last year, having nothing to do with the theme of American fashion but rather focused on who could attract the most attention. Iconic model Iman wore a giant gold feather halo and matching tiered skirt inspired by ball culture; Dan Levy, a Loewe look that featured two sparkly male profiles kissing between the shoulder ruffles; and Kim Kardashian was a grotesque figure in a black Balenciaga that even hid her face.
The guest list increasingly reflects a world where “likes” and follows equal validation. Sure, the sisters Hadid, Bella and Gigi, get all the attention at a Met Gala — but even they are ceding to a new generation of YouTubers and TikTokers like Addison Rae, Emma Chamberlain, and Dixie D’Amelio, who made the guest list last year.
Wintour is doubling down on Kardashians this year, who, one might surmise, otherwise spend very little time within museums. The New York Post reports that whole family will be there: Kim and boyfriend Pete Davidson; Kourtney, making her Met debut with fiancé Travis Barker; and Khloé; not to mention momager Kris Jenner; and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, who have attended before.
It’s worth remembering the actual Gilded Age, an earlier era in New York City when the unimaginable wealth of industrialists with names like Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie and Vanderbilt was made on the backs of the often-underpaid working class.
In those times, the wealthiest two percent of American households owned more than a third of the nation's wealth. While those fortunes would eventually endow thousands of colleges, opera houses, public libraries, charities and museums — including the Met itself — it was also used as a justification of unrestrained capitalism.
Now here we are, 120 odd-years later and inequality in America is on steroids, a result of the immense riches of late 20th-century globalism and a new tech economy. But everything isn’t looking so rosy these days in the Met’s hometown of New York, where crime has skyrocketed along with wealth disparity. Church leaders are protesting Mayor Eric Adams’ crackdown on the homeless — though Adams is enthusiastically planning on attending the gala himself. “He’s been dying to go for years,” a friend told the New York Post. And who could forget AOC’s ill-fated attempts at fighting the power last year — while walking the steps in her “tax the rich” ballgown.
Yet, the flashbulbs and need for fame shall thrive for another year, without much insight or scrutiny over why this event even exists or the purpose it serves, except perhaps for capturing a moment in popular culture year after year. Reputations will be made, likes will be bestowed, an executive will reassert her control, and a staid institution of New York will make some much-needed funds (the best part of all). And we’ll all love to watch — whether with scorn or envy — at those who want, need and are so very desperate to be there. So enjoy the spectacle, and, in our social media age, remember the words of philosopher George Santayana: “The highest form of vanity is love of fame.”
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