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2021 Met Gala: Denim, Comfort and Statements on American Fashion

The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art unofficially capped off New York Fashion Week Monday with the first star-studded Met Gala since 2019.

The new exhibit “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” aims to establish a modern vocabulary of American fashion based on its expressive qualities. Open to visitors beginning on Sept. 18, the small-scale exhibit features 100 men’s and women’s looks that represent 12 emotions, including nostalgia, belonging, delight, joy, wonder, affinity, confidence, strength, desire, assurance, comfort and consciousness.

The exhibit is notably contemporary compared to the Costume Institute’s prior exhibits.

Sterling Ruby’s “Veil Flag,” a denim wrap made during the Black Lives Matter movement of Summer 2020, anchors the first exhibition space. The flag, which explores the concept of this symbolic item “as a signifier in flux and how our relationship to it may change when it is activated as a veil,” is presented alongside Jesse Jackson’s quote from the 1984 Democratic National Committee comparing the U.S. to a quilt rather than a blanket made from one piece of unbroken cloth.

The space is also home to upcycled, patchwork and quilted pieces from Heron Preston, Greg Lauren, Bode and No Sesso, as well a 1976 robe made from upcycled discarded denim garments from Serendipity 3, the NYC general store born in the 1950s that’s now a tourist hotspot for Instagram-worthy desserts.

Met Gala guests took both literal and creative approaches to dressing for the Costume Institute's “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" show.
“In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” Angela Velasquez

American flag sweaters line a hallway to the second floor. Heritage designs from Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are juxtaposed with Mexican American Willy Chavarria’s 2019 “Falling Stars” sweater reflecting the “fear and alienation experienced by immigrants in the United States.” Denim Tears’ 2021 “Tyson Beckford” sweater, a reinterpretation of Ralph Lauren’s design, replaces the American flag with a version of the Pan African American flag.

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The main gallery exemplifies the eclecticism of U.S. fashion spanning Christopher John Rogers’ F/W ’20 taffeta plaid ball gown, Thom Browne uniforms and a Halston shirt dress to Savage X Fenty lingerie. American fashion’s fixation on comfort is evident in A.Potts’ check flannel pieces, Matthew Adams Dolan’s duvet dress and a row of preppy leisure wear by Fear of God, Tommy Hilfiger, Perry Ellis and more.

The exhibit also touches on industry topics like inclusivity and sustainability. The same black slip dress by Christian Siriano is presented on mannequins of three different sizes and genders, while looks from Eckhaus Latta, Kidsuper and Imitation of Christ illustrate upcycling’s wide scope of possibilities.

A trio of denim looks represented the qualities of consciousness, awareness and mindfulness—themes that have been relevant in the global denim industry in recent years. Threeasfour’s look combined new denim with recycled paint-splatter jeans. The couture-like details on Who Decides War’s denim jacket and jeans—which designer Ev Bravado worked on for more than 40 hours—represent the elevation of streetwear, while Denim Tears’ collaboration with Levi’s shined a spotlight on the cotton industry’s slavery-based past.

Part two of the exhibit, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” will open on May 5, 2022 and will present sartorial narratives that relate to the histories of the museum’s American Wing period rooms.

Theme party

Just as the exhibit invites viewers to develop their interpretation of American fashion, Met Gala guests took both literal and creative approaches in dressing for the theme.

Along with dressing model Ella Emhoff, the stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris, Stella McCartney and long-time partner Adidas created the red, white and blue ensembles worn by the 30-person Brooklyn United marching band that kicked off the festive evening. The band donned Adidas by Stella McCartney jumpsuits and Earthlight trainers made with high-performance recycled yarn and a partially recycled midsole.

In a press release, McCartney noted that the sportwear looks marked a first for the Met Gala. “It speaks to the new world of the Met Gala; one that is more diverse, inclusive and with athletes and activists, not just celebrities and models,” she said.

It was a good night for denim all around. In addition to its strong presence in the gallery, guests turned to the all-American fabric for their outfits.

In line with his brand’s shift to sustainable denim, designer Tommy Hilfiger sported a custom Tommy Hilfiger x Denis Frison single-breasted tuxedo blazer made from upcycled vintage denim with red-and-blue-striped silk patchwork lining and upcycled vintage denim high-waisted pants.

“Fashion has always been influenced by the world around it, but it underwent one of its biggest transformations in the wake of the unprecedented events last year,” Hilfiger stated. “As designers and brands, we had to completely rethink who we are and what we stand for. What has inspired me on this journey of rebuilding is the opportunity to create a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive future for the next generation of fashion.”

For rocker Debbie Harry, Zac Posen designed a fitted denim jacket and skirt from torn red-and-white stripes that nod to the American flag. Actor and singer Ben Platt donned a ’70s-inspired denim ensemble by Christian Cowan. Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o paired DeBeers diamonds with a crystal-embellished Versace gown made with denim panels.

Statements were made on the Met’s grand staircase as well. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wore a custom Brother Vellies white gown and bag that read ‘Tax the Rich’ in red. The design was inspired by the “call to action to tax those who continue to build power and wealth at the expense of marginalized communities,” the label stated. Elements of the look also nod to Ocasio-Cortez’s Puerto Rican heritage, with the official flower of Puerto Rico, the Flor De Maga, featured on her footwear.

“Despite being held in New York City, the culture of the Met Gala is everything but,” Ocasio-Cortez stated. “NYC is often synonymous with inclusivity, inviting millions of people from different walks of life to call this city home. The Met Gala, on the other hand, is seen as elite and inaccessible. I’m attending today because I want to change just that and spotlight women of color who are often not included during events like these.”

In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, model and actress Leyna Bloom, singer and actress Audra McDonald and Gap Inc. CEO Sonia Syngal wore Brother Vellies. Aurora James, the label’s founder and creative director and the founder of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, recently starred in Gap’s “Generation Good” campaign.

Gap’s Athleta brand, meanwhile, made its own statement by working with Area to design the 88-pound crystal-covered dress seen on four-time Olympic gold medalist Simon Biles.

American poet and recent Vogue cover star Amanda Gorman made her Met Gala debut as a co-chair for the event. Gorman worked with Vera Wang to create a custom homage to the Statue of Liberty, including a book-inspired clutch that read “Give Us Your Tired.”

Others zeroed in on the United States’ cowboy past. Jennifer Lopez styled her Ralph Lauren crystal-and-feather embellished gown with a faux-fur bolero and Western hat. Kacey Musgraves wore an equestrian skirt and riding boots by the American designer. Pharrell Williams was bedecked in an all-leather Western getup by Chanel. Singer Leon Bridges stepped out in a blue suede fringe jacket by Bode.

Meanwhile, Kim Petras embraced horse girl chic with a Collina Strada gown outfitted with a horse head bodice.

Kim Petras in Collina Strada
Kim Petras in Collina Strada Courtesy


The gala was also home to looks that will go down in the annals of Meta Gala history simply for their impact on pop culture.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West continued to sport incognito looks at high-profile events, this time dressed in head to toe in black Balenciaga. In the tradition of Lady Gaga a la 2019, Lil Nas X maneuvered into three different looks before making it to the museum—a gold Versace cape, body armor and sparkly catsuit.

Rihanna, arriving fashionably late with boyfriend A$AP Rocky, dressed in a custom Balenciaga dress that riffed on a black puffer coat. The multi-hyphenate mogul styled her outfit with a black knit beanie and diamond accessories.

Along with showing another side of her personal style in a peach tulle Oscar de la Renta ball gown, co-chair Billie Eilish flexed the power that Gen Z holds over storied fashion houses. The New York Times reported that Eilish told the label that she would only wear Oscar de la Renta to the gala if the brand stopped selling fur, which they agreed to.