The Art Of Sartorial Activism Grabbed Eyeballs At The 2023 Met Gala Celebrating Karl Lagerfeld


It might be a little late in the day to enter the discourse around the Met Gala. Reams have already been written, and the internet and Instagram have hit it out of the park with their relentless coverage.

But, I have a concern: it’s been over two weeks since the party, and I am still ‘doping’ on the papped and snapped. Why? It’s doing something fuzzy to my brain, this red-carpet thing, and shutting down my soul, just as the dazzling celebrities had “shut down the red carpet”, to borrow from MC La La Anthony’s lingo, as she interviewed the A-listers from her perch on top of the Met stairs.

I’ve been desperately searching for my own verdicts, my own judgement, and indulging in some serious existential reflection, over and above all of those that have already been voiced. This mega event — one that has notched up a staggering “916 million total video views” — is it really a good thing or a major badass moment for our new-age, Insta-fed voyeurism?

Michaela Coel, co-chair of the Met Gala 2023.

Going down the rabbit hole of news bites, videos, reels, Insta posts, I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off co-chair Michaela Coel’s Schiaparelli gown that was studded with over 1,30,000 crystals and 26,000 mixed stones. I bet even the Mona Lisa wouldn’t merit such repeat eyeballs from me, having already honoured her with a couple of dekkos at the Louvre. How many dabs of paint did Leonardo da Vinci plaster on the canvas? Or how many man-hours did it actually take him to put the finishing touches on the masterpiece? Google doesn’t come up with that fine data. Alas, without this trivia, the Mona Lisa deteriorates into a pointless repeat watch in my data-fed brain.

Kim Kardashian in a costume by Schiaparelli that was layered with pearls.

Rihanna in a Valentino dress with a cape — the outfit boasted 30 giant camellia appliqués made of 500 petals and a billowing train.

However, in an interesting twist to this year’s online broadcasts of the Met Gala, was the prominent mention of technicalities of innumerable hours and painstaking workmanship that went into the construction of each garment, which were flaunted by both, wearers and designers, on their social media. So, I learnt to my satisfaction that the one and only OG influencer, Kim Kardashian, previously forbidden from attending the Met Gala, wore a Schiaparelli naked dress, strung together with approximately 50,000 freshwater pearls and draped over skin-coloured shapewear, and nothing more. That Rihanna’s show-stopping Valentino cape included 30 camellias — that pristine Lagerfeld leitmotiv — comprising 500 petals whose sheer number was meant to transport this all-white, silk faille creation, like the many others, beyond fashion and into the realm of art.

Now, these are heavyweight fabrications of historical importance which, presumably, makes them eligible to be archived in one of the precious glass cases at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Ostensibly priced at 50,000 dollars a pop this year, the celebrities showed up in full support of swelling the coffers of this venerable wing. And they took their mandate way beyond this year’s theme, Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty, which is also the title of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition that opened to the public a few days later. Though whether the fanfare surrounding the mega night leads to a run on tickets for the show remains to be seen.

Andrew Bolton, head curator of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in a conversation with the Business of Fashion editor-at-large, Tim Blanks, had said, “To me, his (Karl Lagerfeld) greatest disguise was a black-and-white uniform he created because it deflected away from anything. It was his greatest duplicity; he was creating this sort of, what he called the dolly or the puppet, which became this sort of image that people were obsessed with. I find that fascinating about him and was one of the reasons why I didn’t really want to focus in the exhibition on him, the man and the words. Because I feel as if that’s not authentic. What is authentic, and what is true to him is the work.”

Cardi B in a gown by Studio Cheng Peng.

There were, for sure, a few examples of celebrity couture that were clearly focused on creating historical archival value. Notably, Cardi B’s sculptural gown, had velvet camellias which seemed to be chiselled on its skirt. And, the top and bottom parts of actor-director Olivia Wilde’s white Chloé dress were connected by an appliqué with a violin-like contour.

Doja Cat in a gown by Oscar de La Renta. Her look was inspired by Choupette, Karl Lagerfeld’s cat.

Shapes dominated, mainly in the feline form, in deference to Lagerfeld’s pampered cat, Choupette. Art history students might well classify actor-comedian Chloe Fineman’s pink cat clutch and heiress Isha Ambani’s doll-shaped Chanel evening purse as objets d’art. Then there was singer Doja Cat’s prosthetic make-up that transformed her face to look more cat-like. She finessed her kitten couture with pointed ears topping the hood of her shimmery Oscar de la Renta gown. Actor Jared Leto in his furry cat costume introduced shades of grotesque-via-Halloween, holding the cat’s head in his hand. The more charitable critics compared him to a Disney character. A hand-drawn black-and-white portrait, with the likeness of Lagerfeld, appeared on actor Jeremy Pope’s 30-foot-long Karl cape by Balmain; the ghost of Andy Warhol had made a guest appearance. There was every shape and genre of art strutting as statement wear on the 2023 Met Gala red carpet.

I want to see real fashion, something I can borrow from, or aspire to, talk to my mother and daughters about, so I stay up one more night, scrolling till I emerge inundated with more titbits about the art and science of each outfit. Yes, British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor — known for his extensive use of mirrors — may have been exhilarated to spot Serum Institute of India’s executive director Natasha Poonawalla’s futuristic, mirrored Schiaparelli dress, which deserves posterity in the Costume Institute’s closets. I, however, much prefer to check out the street style Insta accounts any day! To imbibe the fine art of mixing and matching or possibly not matching at all.

Jared Leto in a fur suit inspired by Choupette, Karl Lagerfeld’s cat.

The Met Gala could boast no Bill Cunningham moments of pure spontaneity. His images captured on-the-move, instinctive fashion. I speak to fashion industry veterans to see if previous Met Galas threw up more fashion that I could have related to, in any sense. An old-timer, who had attended the event, went to the extent of saying that in her time it had been “a neighbourhood affair and not a Mardi Gras-type costume party”! The invitation to raise funds for the Costume Institute has today clearly translated into meaning “dress up in costumes, not real fashion”. I was surprised to find that the 2013 theme, Punk: Chaos to Couture, had less subversive fashion and more aspirational ensembles. Even though it lent itself to anti-establishment statements. Most of the celebrities, however, had played it safe and, among those who didn’t was who else but Madonna, outfitted in a studded plaid jacket adorned with chains and spikes. No coincidence that the exhibition that year actually flopped.

Is that perhaps why celebrities have been prescribed to up the ante, even at the risk of introducing a bizarre or an over-the-top quotient into dressing up. So, no wonder that, today, all the looks, down to every eyelash, have been carefully masterminded and curated by a professional army of highly trained, experienced designers, stylists and hair and make-up artists to make ’gram-worthy statements for their clients. These pros are the new Monets and M. F. Husains, unsung heroes of the Met Gala.

Actor Alia Bhatt’s Cinderella-like ball gown, constructed by the Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung’s New York atelier, was made of 1,00,000 hand-beaded pearls. More power to the behind-the-scenes Indian karigars who must have sewn them on, pearl by pearl, possibly burning the midnight oil. And at the other end of the world were 70 seamstresses who worked on over 500 metres of silk chiffon to create Pope’s cape that is mentioned above.

Jeremy Pope (left) with Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing.

Another hint of pop art showed up like a breath of fresh air, in Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing’s tote bag that read, “Karl Who?”. If we had looked around, we might have seen that the late German designer, Lagerfeld, who apparently got his inspiration from everyday life around him — including music, literature, film, sculpture and art — had, in fact, been immortalised in “fashion’s biggest night out”. Not only because of Anna Wintour’s emotional endorsement of her friend, Karl, at the start. It was the interpretation of Lagerfeld’s eternal black-and-white theme that went way beyond everyone’s individual imagination, and, collectively, the oversized bows, billowing trains and veils, enveloping capes and opera gloves had also created a sense of cohesion. A dress code that in its sheer repetition was transformed into an art form — pointillism achieved through collective homage.

The Met Gala has successfully mythologised fashion as high art — unwearable fashion, but wearable art. And watching the spectacle only helped me realise that the art of fashion-as-fashion no longer belongs to the individual. It’s now being composed and created primarily for viewing pleasure and the wearer is just the canvas. Illustrating this point literally was Lil Nas X who was dressed in precisely nothing but silver paint and a G-string, with glitter, pearls and crystals covering his entire body. No wonder that on the first Monday of May, when the Big Apple almost shuts down for a night, the hottest ticket in town is the Met Gala and the imposing carpeted staircase that leads one to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, as the frenetic paps wait to snap their big scoop, each celeb invitee looks for their 15 seconds of fame by blurring the distinction between fashion and art and focusing on the message. In this case, the couture — the medium — is the message. Call it a form of Insta-instigated sartorial activism, perhaps.

Lil Nas X — whose look was created by Pat McGrath — is seen in silver body paint, glitter, pearls and a G-string.

A bit of interesting trivia to note here: according to a recent column in The Times of India, 2012 statistics indicated that in the modern art section of the Met, less than 4 per cent of the artists who had shown at the fabled museum till then were women and 76 per cent representation was through female nudes. Until the 19th century, women were not allowed to “observe human anatomies”, said the same article. And, ironically, the disrobed woman was frequently the muse.

Seeing how the massive line-up of gowned and costumed power women at the glamorous fundraiser — including four of our own — far outnumbered the men, it can be viewed as a form of communal resistance against giving men the upper hand in the art and fashion world (Donald Trump was reportedly not invited from 2012). But then again, should we concede that the annual Met Gala spectacle enables social media-fuelled propaganda of all types?

Alia Bhatt appeared in a gown by Prabal Gurung for her first MET Gala.

Fresh from her wins as Best Actor in the powerful role of Gangubai Kathiawadi, who stood up for the rights of professional sex workers, Bhatt’s arrival at the Met Gala was an acknowledgement of her coming of age as an actor, who could stand on her own feet in a global arena. She did not need to be escorted by her beau who comes from one of India’s foremost and illustrious film families. Is the most elitist, and the hugely viewed event, then, also giving a voice or rather a stage to open up all conversations, even those that might create a backlash that could actually undermine its exclusivity? Did the steely arbiter of all things fashion, Wintour, officially give a nod to Leto’s irreverent theatre of the absurd in his life-size cat costume on the red carpet? Or is he having the last laugh, and cocking a snook at what the hefty ticket price and hoopla really mean to him?

I now have my answer, my personal manifesto for why I was stuck to the screen: that behind the obsession there is, perhaps, a curiosity for the zeitgeist which, for me, adds to the gala’s viral clickbait appeal.

Dim the lights, I’m just settling in to watch my, er, fifth replay.


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