Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (L) and Aurora James attend The 2021 Met Gala

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Brought Her “Tax the Rich” Message to the Met Gala & Everyone Has Big Opinions

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After a year off, yesterday marked the return of the Met Gala, the annual exclusive arts fundraiser where celebrities dress in elaborate couture and allow us normies to watch from afar and judge them and their adherence to a vague theme.

Among the movie stars and fashion icons, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also attended the event this year, where the theme was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” She showed up in a white gown with big red letters emblazoned down the back reading “TAX THE RICH.”

The outfit was designed by Aurora James, founder and creative director of Brother Vellies. James is also the founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on major retailers to dedicate at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

 

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A post shared by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@aoc)

“The medium is the message,” the congresswoman wrote on Instagram. “Proud to work with @aurorajames as a sustainably focused, Black woman immigrant designer who went from starting her dream @brothervellies at a flea market in Brooklyn to winning the @cfda against all odds – and then work together to kick open the doors at the Met.”

Speaking to reporters on the red carpet, AOC explained her outfit further, saying, “When we talk about supporting working families and when we talk about having a fair tax code, oftentimes this conversation is happening among working and middle-class people (on) the senate floor.”

“I think it’s time we bring all classes into the conversation,” she said.

Speaking with CNN, James issued a similar message: “I think ultimately a lot of these conversations that we have about economic justice usually happen in spaces with working class people…and [the congresswoman] wanted to make sure that this message was brought into that room and into a group of people who ultimately have to be more wiling to be more liberal with their economic values as well.”

When we talk about taxing the ultra-wealthy, Met Gala attendees are the exact people we’re referring to, as a single ticket to the event costs $35,000. But the reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s message is starkly divided between those who celebrate her decision to bring it into this room, and those who see it as hollow.

AOC clearly knew there would be backlash. Alongside an image of her dress, she tweeted: “And before haters get wild flying off the handle, New York elected officials are routinely invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing and supporting the city’s cultural institutions for the public. I was one of several in attendance in this evening.” (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was also there and even drew protesters to the event.)

Still, the backlash came, and it came from all sides. Fox News and right-wing celebrities called her hypocritical, but so did a lot of more left-leaning Twitter users. New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman called it “complicated.”

I understand the criticism, but I find myself appreciating the effort to subvert not just the event itself but the theme of American values and aesthetics. (Not to mention the ways in which her body, clothing, and appearance are frequently made to be the center of conversation.)

And given that AOC seems to have covered her bases to avoid actual economic hypocrisy (her dress was “borrowed,” her ticket gifted, etc.), what most people seem to be mad about is the appearance of hypocrisy—a view that is valid, but also entirely subjective.

Much of the anger or irritation at Ocasio-Cortez seems also to be due to the fact that her dress did not do anything to further legislation or other tangible efforts to actually change U.S. tax laws, with people saying the dress is performative and does not enact real change. And … yes. The dress is performative. It is a performance—one with a specific audience and reaction in mind.

In addition to being a massive fundraiser for the arts, the Met Gala is essentially a costume party requiring attendees to put a specific vision on display. It’s also a gigantic platform that gets an enormous amount of attention online for about 24 hours.

It’s hard to say Ocasio-Cortez didn’t make the most of that platform while she had it.

What do you think of AOC’s Met Gala appearance? Share your opinion in the comments!

Update 9/15: An independent artist and self-described lunch lady from Sausalito, California has called out AOC and James for possibly lifting her handpainted art for the dress. The lettering does, as artist “The Velvet Bandit” puts it, look “hella similar.” She posted on Instagram asking for acknowledgement from the two and a chance to collaborate in the future.

 

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A post shared by The Velvet Bandit (@thevelvetbandit)

(image: Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.