Gender and Fashion at the Met Gala: Power, Ideology, and Culture

By Hana Shaltout

Film and fashion are closely tied together, and trends are often created through both simultaneously. It is no surprise that the Met Gala is often called the fashion equivalent of the Oscars because that night has been known to produce some really interesting ensembles. There is also always an ensuing media ruckus about best dressed, worst dressed, and so on. However, this article is more focused on what fashion as a medium means in relation to the world today in terms of culture, and particularly US/UK celebrities .

To briefly introduce the event, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announces a theme that those attending are encouraged, though not necessarily obliged to, abide by and the theme reflects the exhibition that takes place inside the museum itself. This year, the theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass”.

Several bloggers and writers have voiced anxiety about cultural appropriation and orientalism at the Gala which, to be fair, is not entirely an unfounded claim. While the curators and experts behind the exhibition have pointed to the fact that the West’s fascination with China rests on a reproduction of China that is more imaginary than real, I wonder what it is like to represent a ‘real’ China. Is that even possible? The point here is: what does the Chinese-themed Met Gala tell us about gender and culture?

Part I: Gender, Culture, and Orientalism/Postcoloniality

In Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Elizabeth Wilson, a scholar on fashion from a sociological perspective, tells us that: “Fashion is obsessed with gender, it defines, and redefines the gender boundary” (p118). This becomes particularly prominent as we remember that costumes were crucial for silent movies: “Clothing can reinforce a film’s plot, theme, or mood and act as a metaphor for a certain character type. This was especially important in silent movies, where costume could be mobilised to say something about someone as a replacement for speech itself.” (Paul Jobling, “Border Crossings: Fashion in Film/Fashion and Film,” in The Handbook of Fashion Studies, p174). This was definitely the case at the exhibition, which combined film clips from various eras to augment the dresses and fashion attire on display, and was completely gendered. Other than the exhibition itself, there is no doubt that the articles and pictures of the Gala portrayed gender stereotypically. I wonder if different ways of dressing would even be “allowed”? All the men wore tuxedos, and almost all the women wore dresses (there were a few who wore trousers and tops).

But it is not just how fashion relates to gender, but how the theme of China was portrayed through the Gala. Wilson also tell us that we can understand fashion “as a cultural phenomenon, as an aesthetic medium for the expression of ideas, desires, and beliefs circulating in society…fashion may then be understood as ideological” (Wilson, p9). And from my own analysis, ideologically speaking, the attendees conjured up a whimsical mix of ancient-imperial-1920s-fantastical China; in sum, a China that was not “really” present temporally or spatially. We can see this in Sarah Jessica Parker’s headdress and Rihanna’s yellow robe. This is not to say that doing that is “negative” or “bad,” since, as a themed event it is highly likely that imagination would take over “reality.”

There are a number of points I want to raise. The first came from reading through the comments on some articles, where people had said that China doesn’t need to be treated as a child whose feelings could get hurt because someone wasn’t portraying it accurately. These kinds of comments really made me aware that I should not embark on a “I’m-Going-to-Save-China-from-Orientalism” crusade. We should not speak over or for others. The other really important point comes from Rey Chow’s amazing chapter, “Where Have All the Natives Gone?” which is something I recommend everyone read. As a cultural studies scholar who is also postcolonial, Chow smashes the idea of authenticity. There is no “authentic native” or even “authentic” moment in time. Authenticity, just like the “native” is a construct of scholars and historians. Trying to find either can be just as bad as colonialism (!).

Okay. So now we have established three things:

  1. Fashion and film are inextricably linked; a “reciprocal border crossing… enabling fashion to reproduce itself in the image of film and vice versa” (Jobling, p170) and that fashion and gender constantly influence one another in a dynamic and complex process.
  2. Orientalism is really important and we should not undermine practices of stereotyping and cultural appropriation, but neither should we act like we have all the agency and ability to speak for others.
  3. Trying to find, and replicate authenticity –whether through fashion or exhibitions –is futile since our interpretation of history is always a construction already, according to Chow.

Part II: Capitalism

Then what does the Gala signify? We can answer this through Wilson: “Fashion speaks capitalism” (p14) and “Hollywood certainly made glamour into a mass commodity” (p100 in “A Note on Glamour,” in the journal Fashion Theory). If the Gala is not about finding an authentic China and replicating it, but rather about fantasy, imagination and costumes, then we can turn to capitalism to understand more about the symbolic meaning of the Gala.

Without going too much into the theories behind capitalism, I am going to briefly conclude the article by analysing this meme:

rihanna

My main argument is this: media, fashion and culture, broadly speaking, have the capacity to uphold norms. These can be norms about gender, about culture (e.g. what we think of China), about sexuality, and so on. This is not to say that this is always the case, just that the capacity is certainly there, and has been used before. The reason that the meme, which is influenced by the Hunger Games, is so striking is that it shows two separate worlds, where on one hand, there is wealth, power and on the other, struggles for power (to say the least, and I know am doing this half of the meme gross injustice).

Chris Rojek, another scholar on celebrities and capitalism tells us that: “Capitalism requires consumers to develop abstract desire for commodities… The compulsion of abstract desire under capitalism transforms the individual from a desiring object into a calculating object of desire… Fashion… provides consumers with compelling standards of emulation.” (Celebrity, p187).

Fashion is not trivial, and trying to see the Met Gala only through the surface will not show how deeply celebrities, fashion, power, wealth, gender, culture and so on are complex systems that are all interrelated. The Gala, symbolic of capitalism, creates a desire to emulate fashion, for example, but it is also capable of obscuring two things. The first is that the gala can mask the fact that interpretations of history are constructions, and authenticity and “native” Chinese things are always mediated through that interpretation. The other is that it obscures power relations or struggles for power.

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