9 Actual American Things About The American Fashion-Themed Met Gala

Photo: Arturo Holmes/MG21/Getty Images.

The 2021 Met Gala’s titular theme was, ostensibly, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” It was puzzling, then, that so many attendees chose to wear European designers.

Fashion has a grand tradition across the pond, to be sure. But the history of American fashion is equally rich with beauty, poetry, symbolism, and power. In the 1920s, flappers freed themselves from centuries of painful, dangerous corsets with their straight-cut dresses. Suffragettes, knowing their challenge in persuading hearts and minds, wore white to make their cause as palatable to the American public as possible. Respectability politics, in hindsight, deserves critique, but activists during the Civil Rights Movement wore suits and Sunday church apparel for just that reason. Later, the Black Panthers pioneered black clothes and natural hair to signify their fury with America’s racist legacy, a look that has sprung anew among today’s racial equality activists—Beyoncé paid homage to that iconic style in her “Formation” Super Bowl performance.

America has given rise to so many fashion styles that today, form the basis of our cultural identity. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rightly noted that she was a working-class woman of color at a tony event, but it’s proof that this country wasn’t built by the people who wore its fanciest clothes. It follows then, that the few instances of true, thoughtful Americana at the American-themed Met Gala were almost entirely from women of color. From Quannah Rose Chasinghorse in Indigenous turquoise jewelry to Gabrielle Union’s powerful inspiration behind her Iris van Herpen dress, here’s what brought the Met Gala’s theme to life.

Quannah Chasinghorse was the only person who really dressed on theme.
Photo: Kevin Mazur/MG21/Getty Images For The Met Museum/Vogue.

Indigenous model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse hit the red carpet in this breathtaking gown by Peter Dundas for Revolve. She is Han Gwich’in (from mainly Alaska and Canada) and Oglala Lakota (mainly South Dakota), and also wore handmade Navajo turquoise jewelry courtesy of her aunt, Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, who was crowned Miss Navajo 2006.

Nikkie de Jager, who is Dutch, pays homage to a trans Black American LGBTQ+ icon.

Nikkie de Jager, a beloved beauty YouTuber from the Netherlands, crossed the pond for her debut Met Gala. Her floral headpiece paid tribute to Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, who is credited with helping kick off the American LGBTQ+ equality movement. Johnson often wore fresh flowers in her hair; de Jager added mirrors to signify her own groundbreaking career. The words embroidered into the dress also paid homage to Marsha, who often said the “P.” stood for “Pay It No Mind.”

Rihanna reps immigrants.

It makes sense that America’s reigning fashion icon is an immigrant woman of color — after all, immigrants define the supposed purpose of this country’s founding, and so much American culture comes directly from communities of color. When asked how Rihanna’s Balenciaga outfit spoke to the American fashion theme, she replied simply, “You know what? I’m an immigrant, and that’s my take on it.” Boom.

Amanda Gorman channels the Statue of Liberty.

Poet Laureate and co-host Amanda Gorman’s beautiful Vera Wang tulle gown hit all the right notes on the red carpet, but her touchstone for the look was beautifully on-theme. She was inspired by the Statue of Liberty, and carried a book-shaped clutch bag that read “Give us your tired,” echoing the poem at the statue’s base.

Kim Kardashian makes a point.

Kim Kardashian knew that her Balenciaga look would prompt a lot of questions and comparisons. The alien from Alien, an undead Sim, a Dementor, your sleep paralysis demon, and the personification of the Vantablack feud. But she explained what made her European designer outfit “American,” writing “What’s more American than a T-shirt head to toe?!” on Twitter. And you know what? She makes a solid point. We Americans love our T-shirts.

Grimes carried a sword.
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What’s more American than open-carrying deadly weapons in public? The cynical jokes write themselves, as Grimes’ accessory of choice was a very real sword from Brooklyn brand MSCHF, forged from melted automatic rifles—a Colt AR-15A3, to be exact, reported Vogue. Given that America hadn’t even been discovered when people were still fighting with swords, it’s modeled from a “Western European sword from the end of the Middle Ages around 1400,” said Grimes. It’s worth noting: Swords are illegal in New York City.

Gabrielle Union’s dress represented America’s cultural transformation.

Gabrielle Union may have worn an Iris van Herpen creation (van Herpen is Dutch), but her inspiration for the look comes directly from her experience as a Black woman in America. “Some see different colors, some see different shapes, but it changes and that’s what it’s supposed to be,” Union said to W of the dress’s transformative construction. “As you move, there should be change, it shouldn’t be static. “It should feel a little weird to some, beautiful to others, out there to others. You should be able to have an opinion on it that doesn’t match anyone else’s because it’s about the evolution of what’s happening in America.”

AOC’s “Tax The Rich” dress made a political statement.

There is a long history of making political statements at fashion shows and red carpet events. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in her duty as a Congresswoman from a local district, attended the Met Gala in a custom Brother Vellies dress with “Tax The Rich” written in giant red letters. On social media, her look ignited fierce leftist criticism about performative socialism and structural class inequities, but on instagram AOC asserted that the “medium is the message.” As one of the few Latina-American women at the Met Gala, her presence alone demands our attention.

Black Lives Matter activists protested outside the Met.
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Freedom of speech is one of America’s bedrock principles. Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrated outside the Met Museum, and unfortunately, some youth of color activists were arrested by NYPD. Sadly, this may be the most authentically American thing to happen at the 2021 Met Gala.