Three 2022 Met Gala Fits Provided Important Overlooked History in Gilded Age Fashion
Part of the fun of the Met Gala for us plebeians online is to praise and critique the outfits that are worth more than some of us make in a year. I mean, seriously, the money that goes into this, and still, some can’t stay on theme. This year’s theme of “Gilded Glamour” referenced the time period from the 1870s to 1900s. This period encompasses the massive industrialization, scientific advancement, and more between the Civil War (and Reconstruction) and the eve of World War I.
However, the age was also a time of genocide and exploitative labor as much glamour as there was involved. On May Day, Union workers fought/died for the 8-hour workday in events like the Haymarket Affair. With such a busy decade (and this is still glossing over a lot), some attendees decided to forgo replicating the fashion and dress of the rich few but, instead, chose to pay homage to those everyday people whose struggles still reverberate today. This method is another way to play with the boundaries set by Vogue and The Metropolitan Museum of Art but still have a frank conversation about art and history.
The first standout was Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala Lakota activist and model Quannah Chasinghorse. People tried to say her dress was not on theme, but in addition to the necklace shape and use of blue tulle, she was in period-accurate attire—just not to those in power. She instead chose to represent the Indigenous people fighting for sovereignty during the end of the 19th century (and today) rather than dress up like the colonizers.
One of the ways the U.S. was able to reunify the country (kind of) after the Civil War was by prematurely exiting the south during Reconstruction and continuing our war against Native American nations. Troops, militias, and settlers killed (in some cases, massacred) Indigenous people. The government forced those left alive onto reservations and their children into reeducation boarding schools. Chasinghorse’s attire and dress are not just a seat at the table but also a reminder that Indigenous people are here.
People can express their cultures how they’d like, but it remains a powerful statement to put aspects of this culture (that continues to be erased) front and center.
Chasinghorse’s Atelier Prabal Gurung upcycled hand-pleated trapeze gown looked baby blue (like water) or turquoise (which she donned more prominently last year by wearing her aunt’s 2006 Miss Navajo Nation jewelry) depending on the lighting. Turquoise is an important color and gemstone to Indigenous people like the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni in the southwest United States. The jewelry (by Blackfeet and Cree artist Lenise Omeasoo) featured multiple Earth elements such as Dentalium shells, Porcupine quills, and tanned/smoked hide. Chasinghorse noted on Instagram that a traditional Lakota dress was showcased in the Met’s exhibit and featured these same elements.
Most people ignored Ahmed because he appeared to be playing it safe like many of the men, but we were quickly proven wrong when the British Pakistani award-winning actor spoke to Vogue correspondent Emma Chamberlain.
Well, you know, it’s the Gilded Age in New York so this is a shout out to the immigrant workers that kept the Gilded Age golden. […] Yeah man, that’s what makes this city run. This is some work ware repurposed by Forest Designs, done in silk. This jewelry piece is actually taken inspiration from a lot of Islamic jewelry from India. Just trying to elevate and celebrate that immigrant culture.
As nations abolished slavery across North and South America (we were among the last), the wheels of capitalism, thanks to cheap labor, had to keep turning. Like today, many turned to immigrants (of all ethnicities, but mostly across Asia and Eastern Europe) who had little protection. The “favor” wasn’t always returned, even at a national level. (See the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.) His ensemble paid homage to all parts of these labor communities.
His attire looks very similar to work clothes worn by millions today. In fact, the open jacket and white shirt will look familiar to anyone whose family works in plants and refineries. Ahmed looks like he’s about to kick off his boots. Salvadorian American designer Angelo Urrutia who helped create Ahmed’s look, added, “Immigrant workers made the gilded age and all the ages.”
Union and unions
In addition to Chasinghorse and Ahmed, Gabrielle Union also took this moment to recognize the marginalized communities. The Gilded Age brought forth the first wave of the KKK (1865–1880s), Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration (chain gangs began to be used widely in the U.S. after the Civil War). This time was the height of fearless journalism by reporters like Ida Barnett Wells. Union told red carpet host LaLa Anthony,
“Because when you think about the Gilded Age and Black and brown people in this country, this country is built off of our backs, our blood, sweat and tears. So we added these red crystals to represent the blood spilled during the accumulation of gross wealth by a few during the Gilded Age, off of the backs of Black people and people of color in this country.”
Maybe I’m biased because these are all people that seek to tell important stories and speak up for those more marginalized than themselves, but I don’t see any of this as shallow grandeur. They just understood the assignment and took it as an opportunity to make people confront what made the theme possible, for better or worse. Their attire was likely in conversation with the exhibition, too.
Congruent with the night, the Condé Nast union (under Vogue) picketed and shared this image reminding people of the invisible and exploited labor that makes this night possible. In a statement, they reminded everyone, “Without us, the Met Gala simply could not happen. But Condé takes our labor for granted, forcing us to accept low pay, long hours, and unpaid overtime all for the benefit of ‘prestige.’ Prestige doesn’t pay the bills. Prestige doesn’t pay the rent.”
(image: Dimitrios Kambouris, Jamie McCarthy, Mike Coppola, and Getty Images.)
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