On the Met Gala Red Carpet, Playing It Unsafe

Posted May 8, 2018 10:13 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For anyone who has ever wondered why Costume Institute is the name given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion department, the gala red carpet for the exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” was the answer.

It wasn’t a Saints and Sinners Halloween party, it was the first Monday in May, but a viewer could have been forgiven for getting the two confused. The dress code was “Sunday Best” and never, even in the annals of Met Galas past, have boldfaced names raced so wholeheartedly toward a theme.

When even Anna Wintour, the longtime co-host of the event who generally presides over the evening in neutral Chanel couture, added a cross and a high collar to her ensemble, it was clear something new was going on.

There were cardinals! There were priests! There were Madonnas (and Madonna, who seemed to have gone from like a virgin to like a Sicilian widow in black Jean Paul Gaultier)! There were angels, and crusaders and icons dressed as icons. There was impossible-to-resist word play.

Ariana Grande came as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, interpreted by Vera Wang. Jared Leto came as a Gucci-fied Jesus Christ, Superstar. Zendaya and Kim Kardashian West were Versace holy warriors, glowing in liquid chain mail, minus the flaming swords. Lily Collins in Givenchy looked like a gothic version of Our Lady of the Sorrows, complete with tiny red tear dripping down her cheek. Chadwick Boseman was resurrected in a cross-strewn white Versace cape and suit after fading into dust in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Greta Gerwig displayed ecclesiastical restraint in The Row.

The looks were generally extreme. Occasionally absurd. Open to charges of sacrilege, though interestingly the digital watchdogs of this world seemed too busy picking their collective jaws up off the floor in amazement to get het up about it. Sometimes with a pointed edge: Lena Waithe’s rainbow Carolina Herrera robes atop her tuxedo suit, a flag of inclusion; Solange Knowles’ halo-and-du-rag combination atop futuristic Iris van Herpen.

And speaking of halos: The accessories of choice were a headdress and an endless train. Nicki Minaj’s red sequined Oscar de la Renta was so long it took two people to carry. Katy Perry’s archangel wings atop a Versace thigh-high boots were hard to imagine fitting through any door.

By the time Rihanna, another co-host, made her entrance in a Pope-tastic bejeweled white Maison Margiela minidress with overskirt and miter, and the internet broke, there was really nothing to say but: Oh my God.

In the lead-up to the gala there is often a lot of head-scratching about why this night is such a big deal; why, of all the red carpet events during the year, this one gets so much attention. It’s simple: Nowhere else would you see any of the above. No one would dare wear them to the Oscars, or the Emmys.

Awards shows (MTV’s Video Music Awards excepted, perhaps) have become play-it-safe zones when it comes to fashion, extensions of advertising contracts or auditions for them. Most recently, thanks to the Weinstein scandal, they became statement-making platforms of a non-style-kind. The Met Gala, by contrast, is an extension of the runway: the purest expression of fashion you will see on a real person (“real” being a relative term).

Indeed, for many it is the only time some of the most exaggerated catwalk looks, the kind where designers just let their imaginations and their ateliers run wild, will ever appear in any context beyond a show. There’s an element of freedom to that — of being unbound from these earthly constraints — and delight. You could see it in Frances McDormand, in a leaf-green Valentino taffeta cape, a matching halo of Philip Treacy leaves quivering about her face, vogueing her way up the Met stairs for the cameras.

As a result, the guests that played it safe — or safer — or opted for more subtlety, seemed boring by contrast.

In another context, the decision by Amal Clooney, another co-host, to wear a billowing Richard Quinn chintz skirt-and-corset over cigarette pants might have been newsworthy, for example (Quinn being the young British designer whose London Fashion Week show was attended by the Queen in February). According to an email from the designer, “Her decision to wear trousers was a statement to advocate female empowerment and modern religion by referencing the stringent oppression that women faced.” But at the Met, in the wake of the holy rollers, it faded into the background. Ditto Kendall Jenner’s off-the-shoulder Off-White jumpsuit.

Subtlety got you a bit further, at least if there was irony involved. Jaden Smith toting his gold plaque for his hit “Icon,” for example (wittier than Sarah Jessica Parker’s gold headdress, a literal interpretation of a Nativity scene). Or Zoë Kravitz’s exposure of her own heavenly body in an asymmetric black lace Saint Laurent column, tied on one side by a mere pair of bows.

But this was a night of heavenly smoke and mirrors, and worshipping at the altar of fashion. False god though it may be.