Met Gala 2018: Marriage of Fashion and Religion

Officially, the first Monday in May is celebrated in New York by the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit, an event held at the Met that aims to raise funds for the Costume Institute, the museum’s only department that funds itself.

Unofficially, it’s more widely known as the Met Gala, with tickets starting at $50,000 a pop, and has been called the ‘Oscars of the East Coast’. The Gala celebrates the opening of the Institute’s yearly headline exhibit, and has transformed from an early New York local fundraiser, to a full-on juggernaut event thanks to Vogue Editor in Chief and Gala chairwoman, Anna Wintour.

The Met Gala is different to conventional red carpet fashion, that typically focuses on achieving the ‘best dressed’ title. It’s a costume gala, that asks its attendees to extend beyond the realm of tradition and what’s in to instead reach another level of fashion that invites conversation and challenges it’s audience to reconsider what’s cool. The changing yearly theme is merely a guide to celebrate what’s being shown within the Met itself, but invitees are expected, whether by social media or Anna Wintour herself, to dress accordingly and avoid the conventional.

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The Met Gala’s yearly themes have recently aligned with international trends, particularly those not just impacting the fashion industry. 2016 theme ‘Manus x Machina’ focused on the role ever-changing technologies has played globally, and this year’s theme focused on Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo and her radical ability to challenge the norm through clothing. The exhibitions typically infuse a melting pot of what’s trending, what can be considered art, and ultimately, what facet of fashion can draw in an audience to actually attend the curated exhibit being shown in the year beyond the Gala itself.

With this year’s theme championing boundary-pushing and looking beyond the norm, attention is now starting to turn to what may define the Gala in 2018. WWD this week reported that whispers coming directly from those in the know at The Met indicated ‘Religion and Fashion’ is set to be the theme for the 2018 Met Gala. What could possibly go wrong?

Religion isn’t unexplored territory within the fashion realm, with designers such as Dolce and Gabbana regularly referencing images of the Madonna in their clothing and runway presentations, and multiple female artists like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have blended Christian iconography with their own brands of pop.

Generally speaking, Dolce and Gabbana’s use of the Madonna and Child, angelic cherubs and crosses pays homage to the designers’ Catholic upbringing. Christopher Kane’s SS17 collection also directly referenced his Roman Catholic childhood in Scotland, through splattering images of Saint Christopher across sweaters and dresses.

Christopher Kane’s SS17 collection, courtesy of INDIGITAL

Although these types of references within fashion and ultimately, popular culture, hold direct links to their creators, there’s something specifically questionable about using religion as a theme for a costume gala. It’s hard to predict already what Met Gala attendees will be wearing, but with the wealth of Christian iconography that’s already utilised in fashion, it’s likely that the event will feature a heady mix of Hollywood culture and images that represent the Catholic faith. Combined with the Met Gala’s perceived exclusivity (invite only, and no cameras allowed once inside), it’s not hard to imagine how the event’s theme could be misconstrued as representing Christianity in an elitist manner, especially in today’s political environment.

Similarly, the incorrect use of religious garments could also result in a problematic brew of appropriation. The burqa has too often been used as a sartorial accessory for popular culture gain. Take Lady Gaga’s song ‘Aura’ from her 2012 album ‘ArtPop’, where she sings lines like ‘Enigma popstar is fun, she wear burqa for fashion. It’s not a statement as much as just a move for passion’. Kendall Jenner has come under fire for using the burqa as a ‘disguise’, and Gigi Hadid has experienced backlash for using the hijab as an ‘accessory’ on the cover of Vogue Arabia.

Karl Lagerfeld has also used verses of the Quran in the design of three dresses in Chanel’s Spring 1994 collection, where Jean Paul Gaultier used Judaism to create his self-described ‘Chic Rabbis’ collection in his Fall/Winter 1993 show. Prabal Gurung once bought Buddhist monks onto his runway, and Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2000 collection ‘Eye’ attempted to deal with Western fears of Islam and featured sexualised version of the niqab, along with models in burqas flying over beds of nails that had risen from the floor during the finale.

Courtesy – Vogue

Not to say this sort of thoroughly questionable spectacle will be re-enacted at the 2018 Met Gala, but the event is no stranger to controversy or misinterpretation of theme. 2015’s Gala theme was ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, and the exhibit’s theme was not to show the history of Chinese fashion and culture, but the history of orientalism in Western fashion. The curated exhibit itself may have achieved this, but the Met Gala red carpet was a bit of a crash-course in stereotypes and cultural appropriation: chopsticks holding hair buns together, sexualisation of traditional Chinese dresses, and an abundance of kimonos (which, in any case, are Japanese).

Although it’s possible that Rihanna may descend from the ceiling amongst a bed of angels and save the night, there’s also a definite chance that someone else may arrive wearing one of Karl’s Quran dresses. The 2018 Gala could also be defined by Dolce and Gabbana’s Catholic-inspired designs, which in itself might present another realm of issues (D&G have unashamedly been a go-to designer for Melania Trump, and have even received support direct from Catholic Church over their stance on upholding the values of a ‘traditional family’).

The Met Gala is an interesting anomaly in that it’s perceived completely differently from typical ‘red carpet’ fashion – by the media, but mostly, the audience. Only time will tell whether the navigation of finding an outfit that’s defined appropriate and respectful, as well as religious and fashionable both by its wearer and its audience, will be successful for any invitee. Possible (probable) appropriation aside, the Met Gala is already doing precisely what it sets out to do: it’s 10 months out, and we’re already talking about it.

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Photo Courtesy Daniel Arnold