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From ‘Peg the Patriarchy’ to ‘Tax the Rich’: Political activism at the Met Gala

| Thursday, September 23, 2021

Claire Kirner | The Observer

The Met Gala, typically held the first Monday of May, was held on Monday, Sept. 13 due to delays in COVID-19 restrictions. Famous for its displays of opulence and luxury, the Gala is dedicated to raising funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Since its foundation in 1948 by fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, the event has had an elite guest list ranging from New York’s high society, members of the fashion industry and celebrities. The theme of 2021’s event was “American Independence” to honor the new “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibition.

Many attendees boasted traditional American gowns and suits, while others decided to make a statement. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wore a vibrant green, purple and yellow gown inscribed with “equal rights for women” sashes to pay homage to the women’s rights movement and women’s suffrage. On Twitter, Maloney stated, “I have long used fashion as a force 4 change.” Supermodel Cara Delevingne sported a white Dior vest and trousers with “Peg the Patriarchy” written in red across her chest. Both of these women made bold feminist statements, but the talk of the night was congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress. 

Designed by Aurora James, founder of the luxury fashion label Brother Vellies, the dress is a white mermaid gown with a red scrawl of “Tax the Rich” on the back. It’s safe to say that this dress sent the internet into a frenzy. People from a broad range of political backgrounds were criticizing her actions, including conservatives like Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted AOC was a “fraud” for “hanging out with a bunch of wealthy leftwing elites,” and liberal friends like Ana Navarro-Cardenas who tweeted,going to an event for super-rich with ‘tax the rich’ written on your ass, won’t change a thing.” She said, “It’s a stunt to justify her presence at a fancy shin-dig that doesn’t match her political persona.”

So, why is Ocasio-Cortez getting all of this media attention (which I’m aware of contributing to) when other attendants made political statements as well? Women’s rights are a widely uncontroversial issue. Most people agree that women should be allowed to vote and have equal rights. Ocasio’s “Tax the Rich” statement is also widely popular. According to a 2020 Reuters poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents agree that the rich should pay more taxes. Since the message of this dress isn’t very controversial, the anger from the public must be caused by something else.

Many people are accusing Ocasio-Cortez of being a hypocrite. The Met Gala is known for its excessive opulence. Tickets for this year’s event reportedly cost $30,000, which is roughly enough to put a family of 5 over the federal poverty line. In 2019, Jennifer Lopez wore a necklace with a value within the range of $200,000-$300,000. Billy Porter, who also attended that year, sported a bejeweled headdress with gold 10-foot-wings. A “Tax the Rich” dress at an event for the wealthy seems to ring hollow to the general public. It doesn’t directly do anything to improve the plight of working-class people except for spike searches for “Tax the Rich” on Google.

Some celebrities can attend the Met Gala for free if they’re at a table that has been paid for or if their dress has been lent to them. On Instagram, Ocasio claimsNYC elected officials are regularly invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing our city’s cultural institutions that serve the public,” sidestepping the issue of who bought her ticket. At least she claimed her “dress is borrowed via @brothervellies.”

Despite the criticisms of Ocasio’s stunt, she isn’t just saying an empty message. She is actively working on trying to pass the bipartisan infrastructure and reconciliation bill and working on the Build Back Better Agenda. On Instagram, she claims her goal was to “[have] a conversation about Taxing the Rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, and [puncture] the fourth wall of excess and spectacle.” She did exactly that — people just haven’t responded to it well.

She states, “The medium is the message,” but I’m not so sure. I think critiquing opulence and consumerism while also engaging in it ends up diluting the message. Is there a place for activism in fashion? Is there a place for it at the Met Gala?

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is the current Viewpoint Editor for The Observer. She is a senior from Fort Worth, TX with majors in Honors English and political science. She is interested in fostering free speech on campus, the latest non-fiction essay collections and Sufjan Stevens.

Contact Claire