Met Gala 2021: The Theme Party that Wasn’t

On September 13th of 2021, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, held the 70th Met Gala Ball in New York City. Though its intended purpose is to raise money for the museum, the Met Gala has become known more for its guest list and the guests’ fashion than for the actual event. This year was no exception. 

After the 2020 Met Gala was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people anxiously waited to see if the 2021 Met Gala would be held. Though hosted in the middle of September and not on the first Monday of May as is tradition, the 2021 Met Gala was able to go on without a hitch. However, there was one small problem: the theme. 

Since 1973, the gala has always had a theme, usually coordinating with the theme of the new costuming exhibit that is set to open that summer. This year, the theme was in conjunction with the first half of the American themed wing. Titled “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” the wing is meant to “establish a modern vocabulary of American fashion based on its expressive qualities.” Though many hoped that this year’s themed outfits would be on the same level as 2018’s “Heavenly Bodies,” they were soon disappointed when pictures of guests started being released. 

Turns out, there was a bit of confusion on what exactly “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was supposed to represent with Twitter user @Mirimah_FS asking, “What exactly is the theme here??? I am so confused,” while user @jolangfrds tweeted out that she was “still confused about the theme.” Meanwhile @fanoniscanon said the gala being American themed was perfect because everyone’s outfits were, “[…] pure chaos, [had] no consistency, bad vibes, [and were] incoherent.” Most of the confusion could have been cleared up if every guest had stayed on theme. However, there were many guests who chose not to, resulting in a mismatched night of looks that either stayed on theme, had poor execution, or missed the mark entirely. Let’s take a look at what some of the guests wore!

To start off on a high note, actress Yara Shahidi’s ensemble paid homage to Josephine Baker, the first A-list African American performer. Shahidi decided to recreate a Christian Dior dress Baker wore during a 1951 performance in the New York Strand theater (pictured below). As a new ambassador for Dior, Shahidi and her team were able to almost perfectly recreate the dress and their efforts did not go unnoticed.
Even if the dress was slightly modified for the night and for Shahidi’s personal tastes, from first glance, it’s clear that she was looking to channel Baker. Shahidi’s choice was not only a great homage to the singer and dancer, but a great way to stay on theme.


Always knowing how to get the public talking, Kim Kardashian showed up to the Met Gala wearing an all black, full body spandex suit designed by Balenciaga that covered every inch of her body. Many people were confused on what message Kardashian was trying to convey, but on September 14th, she revealed the hidden message on Instagram by posting photos of the night with the caption, “What’s more American than a T-shirt head to toe?!” 

Though the piece does somewhat resemble a picture from a 1970 photoshoot directed by American-Austrian designer Rudi Gernreich, who was always using his designs as a form of social commentary on feminism. However, there is no known evidence that suggests this is what she was trying to reference. Plus, Gernreich is not a designer the average person would be aware of, so a reference to his work would be lost on the masses. If Kardashian was attempting to reference the nearly forgotten designer, the message ended up being lost, because most people began to joke about how she resembled a dementor or the grim reaper, which I am sure, was not her goal.


Chance Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, paid homage to one of America’s favorite sports: Nascar. His jacket closely resembles the bumpers of the iconic race cars, which display the logos of the brands that sponsor each driver. Since Chance the Rapper could not actually show up to the Met Gala with an actual brand logo across his chest, he opted for a license plate and the word “STADIUM.” Thankfully, the bumper of a Nascar race car has cemented itself in American iconography and the rapper’s intentions were immediately clear. He paired the jacket with his iconic 3 hat.


Though actress and model Barbie Ferreira states that her intention was to harken back to the 1920s flapper and early Hollywood actresses such as Clara Bow, something about the outfit seems more reminiscent of a renaissance painting. The long, red hair paired with an all pearl dress designed by Johnathan Simkhai makes Ferreira resemble Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” more than she does a 1920s movie star. Had she curled her naturally short, black hair or worn a shorter wig, then that might have made her look a bit more in line with the 1920s.


If Chance the Rapper referenced one of America’s favorite sports, then singer Ciara chose to reference the most American sport of all: football. Wearing a gown designed by Dundas, Ciara used her costume as a way to pay homage to Seattle Seahawks quarterback and her husband of five years, Russell Wilson. The dress is not only in the same colors as the Seahawks uniform, but the number three displayed on her dress is the same number as Wilson’s jersey. Alongside her football shaped clutch, Ciara wore her husband’s superbowl ring, making this outfit not only unequivocally American but also a bit romantic.


When it was announced that rapper Montero Hill, better known as Lil Nas X, had been invited, many probably thought that the man behind “Old Town Road” was going to show up in something wild west inspired. Most likely looking to avoid being typecast as the “cowboy guy,” Hill opted for a three layer costume change. He arrived in a cape that made him look like a 15th century British king, threw it off to reveal a robotic gold suit, and then took it off to reveal a sparkly gold jumpsuit. All three gorgeous pieces were designed by Hodo Musa. The gold jumpsuit and the idea of “getting to the sexy ” could be a metaphor for Hill embracing his sexuality, over which he has long been outspoken. However, there is very little about the first two outfits that suggest any hidden Americana themes.


Similar to Barbie Ferreira’s outfit, celebrity singer couple Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, were trying to channel 1970’s disco, but something about the execution was a bit lacking. They were going for something that would make them look straight out of iconic New York night club, Studio 54, but their costumes personally seem downplayed for the Met Gala. However, subtly isn’t what’s throwing me off. I think what may have messed with their outfits, specifically Mendes’, was that the intentions were too vague. 

In the official getting ready video, while Cabello does seem to be going specifically for disco queens such as Cher or Donna Summer, Mendes explains he is going for “American rock star who drinks a little too much,” which does not have a specific look. Rock stars, especially from the 1970s and 80s, are known for their constant partying and excessive drinking. Basing a look off of that archetype would have to factor in aspects such as the decade, the exact subgenre of rock that was being performed, what member of the band he is replicating, etc. If Mendes had channeled a specific 70s rock star or even wore something Sonny Bono inspired to match with Cabello’s Cher, then the outfits wouldn’t have left the audience wanting more.


For her first Met Gala, singer Billie Eilish channeled two American icons with her Oscar de la Renta look. Her gown was a direct reference to her favorite line of Holiday Barbie dolls while Eilish’s hair and makeup resembled 1950s actress Marilyn Monroe. By recreating two of America’s most glamorous aesthetics, Eilish’s outfit ended up being one of the most classic American ensembles of the night.


Honestly, did we expect anything else from the singer songwriter who rode down to Mississippi in a houseboat with live chickens, ate spaghetti for every single meal for two years straight, and named her son after an aircraft? Doing what she does best, Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, showed up in a costume that was inspired by the 1965 Frank Herbet novel “Dune.” In her official getting ready interview with Vogue, Boucher states that she went for a Dune inspired costume because her people had been in talks with the producers of the upcoming movie adaptation with Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya stating that they wanted to hire her as a “professional fan or an influencer or something.” Because the official contract fell through before the Gala, Grimes and her team improvised and decided to accessorize with a sword, a Bible, and a steel mask that made her look more villainous than American. Furthermore, in an interview with Billboard, she revealed her sword was styled after a western European sword from the end of the Middle Ages around 1400. These two factors make the outfit not only inaccurate but disingenuous. 


There was a notable twinning moment at the gala with actress and talk show host, Whoopi Goldberg and New York Representative, Carolyn B. Maloney. Both wore ensembles that represented the suffrage movement. During the suffrage era, the colors of the movement were purple, green, and gold representing royalty, power, and strength. These two women who have been politically outspoken in the past both utilized these colors to bring the conversation of women’s rights to the gala. Goldberg’s dress was designed by Valentino while Maloney’s dress was designed by Antonio Couture


For their first Met Gala as husband and wife, singer Justin Bieber and model Hailey Baldwin-Bieber opted for all black outfits. Justin repped his clothing brand Drew House while Hailey wore a dress by Yves Saint Laurent. Though there is nothing wrong with their outfits, the decision to go for traditional evening wear is reminiscent of the 2019 Met Gala, where nobody seemed to know what to wear for the theme “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” The confusion in 2019 led many people to play it “safe” by wearing their usual award show garb, which was highly disappointing.


Considering that this was an American themed event, it’s surprising that more people didn’t come to the Gala wearing an American flag. Thankfully, 70s rock icon, Debbie Harry, decided to make a few modifications to the flag’s “parallel lines.” The lead singer of Blondie wore a red and white skirt designed by Zac Posen with a dark-wash denim jacket that was not only incredibly patriotic but also retained enough edge to pay homage to her rock and roll roots. 


Without a doubt, TikTok influencer, Addison Rae, was the most controversial presence at this year’s Met Gala. Around the same time the official Met Gala guest list was released, a fake guest list created by Instagram account @_metgala2021 began to circulate stating that many other influencers such as James Charles, Bella Poarch, and the D’Amelio sisters would also be in attendance. This list and the seating chart that hilariously put Addison Rae at the same table as Donatella Versace and Beyonce were quickly revealed to be fake, but many were disappointed to realize that Rae had, in fact, been invited to the rather exclusive charity event. Whatever you may think of her, nobody can deny that internet creators are the new celebrities and since YouTubers have been attending the event for a few years now, it was only a matter of time before Anna Wintour deemed a TikToker worthy to attend the event. 

Rae wore a Tom Ford dress in reference to the dress Britney Spears wore to the 2002 Grammys (pictured right). Though unlike Yara Shahidi’s nod to Josephine Baker, this outfit did not translate as well. While Spears’ chiffon dress is decidedly more timeless, even with the trendy at the time cowl neckline, the currently trendy corset bust on Rae’s dress and the balayage blonde takes away any relation it could have had to a look Spears had worn almost 20 years ago. Had Rae gone for a more classic dress bodice or even worn a necklace similar to the one Spears wore, the reference would have been a bit more evident.


Now, this one is a rather unique case of going off theme. Back in 2018, the Gala’s theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination,” which was designed to “create a dialogue between fashion and the masterworks of religious art.” During that year’s ball, Ella Yelich O’Connor, better known as Lorde, wore a regular cream colored gown that was better fit for the Grammys than the Met Gala. Fast forward three years later, and Lorde shows up to the “In America” party in a silk two piece designed by Bode that would have been more appropriate for the “Heavenly Bodies” event. This outfit could have been influenced by Lorde’s latest album, “Solar Power,” as it portrays a sun deity aesthetic rather than an American appeal.  

Most guests of the 2021 Met Gala decided to wear whatever they wanted. Though not pictured, other guests such as Timothee Chalamet, Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, Kaia Gerber, Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie, and Lily-Rose Depp, all wore outfits that were incredibly off-theme, but at least we can count on the host of the party, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, to “wow” us, right?


Wrong. Despite being the host, Wintour’s Oscar de la Renta gown goes entirely off theme.

Public consensus of this year’s Met Gala is that it was the most disappointing Met Gala since the camp theme two years earlier saw 90 percent of the guests in regular evening wear. An American theme should have brought out costumes that were much more exciting and patriotic, but the lack of cohesion may be indicative of an overarching change in America as a country.

In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the great divide that has come from how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a downward tick in American patriotism. In a study conducted by Gallup in July of this year, it was found that even though the numbers had gone up since the 2020 study, only 26% of American adults were very proud to be Americans. While most celebrities are trained to not talk about their political beliefs to avoid controversy, actions do speak louder than words. Thus, there is a possibility that the lack of patriotism in an Americana party is a reaction to everything that has happened in the past two years.

Had this party been held just a few years earlier, the results would have been incredibly different. There would have been cohesion and pride and a commitment to the theme. However, between the amount of people who could not attend due to not being vaccinated and celebrities inherent fear of looking out of place or tacky, many people were left displeased with the event. However, there’s always next year, which will see the expansion of the “In America” exhibit with “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” Who knows? Maybe 2022 will give us the sparkly top hats we craved from this year’s event.

Feature image from The Met.


Aime-Lynne Perez

A 20-year old from Virginia Beach who loves to create.