On Monday night, fashion lovers watched as the who’s who of art, culture and politics strutted down the red carpet at the Met Gala 2021, the fashion industry’s most anticipated event of the year. While attendees gave the global fashion world plenty to devour, one particular moment continues to stand out.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turned heads when she appeared in a white gown, designed by Brother Vellies, with red lettering across the back that read: “Tax the Rich.”
The Democratic congresswoman from New York reiterated her message on Instagram a few hours after walking the carpet: “The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich,” she wrote alongside a pic of her being fitted by designer Aurora James.
Though AOC’s message about economic inequality was genuine, it did not resonate for some who viewed her attendance as hypocritical, with several pointing out that the high-level event is attended by some of America’s wealthiest people.
According to Vogue, those on the guest list do not have to pay. But those who are not on the list may have to fork out around $30,000 for a seat — and buying a table can cost around $275,000.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attending the $35,000-a-ticket #MetGala in a Brother Vellies gown blaring ‘Tax the Rich’ is a complicated proposition,” Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic at the New York Times, wrote on Twitter. Other actors and thought leaders, such as actor Michael Rapaport and Ana Navarro, echoed similar sentiments.
Ocasio-Cortez later cleared the air by pointing out that she was invited to the event and did not pay to attend, despite some comments and reports suggesting otherwise.
“BEFORE anybody starts wilding out — NYC elected officials are regularly invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing our city’s cultural institutions that serve the public. I was one of several in attendance,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. She also noted that she had borrowed the dress from the designer.
Ocasio-Cortez was far from the only politician to attend the Met Gala. N.Y. Rep. Carolyn Maloney also used her attendance this year to send another political message by wearing an outfit embroidered with the text: “Equal Rights for Women.”
Across the country, women’s rights are under attack.
I have long used fashion as a force 4 change. As the Met Costume Institute reopens w/ their inaugural exhibit celebrating American designers, I am calling 4 the certification of the ERA so women can be equal once and for all. pic.twitter.com/ONbAJq4rOK
— Carolyn B. Maloney (@CarolynBMaloney) September 13, 2021
Ocasio-Cortez later took to her Instagram Stories to say that while “haters hated,” the event was an incredible opportunity to have “a conversation about Taxing the Rich in front of the very people who lobby against it” before acknowledging the double standard women of color face in politics.
“The more intersections one has, the deeper the disdain,” she said. “I am so used to doing the same exact thing that men do — including popular male progressive elected officials — and getting a completely different response.”
Using fashion to drive a political message — subtle or otherwise — is nothing new.
As Teen Vogue points out, denim played a significant role in the civil rights movement, becoming a “symbol of the Black freedom struggle.” Before that time, denim was often associated with Black sharecroppers in the South.
Fashion also played a prominent role during the women’s liberation movement, the publication notes. During the Miss America protest of 1968, protesters dumped items like lipstick, stockings and bras into a trashcan to send a message about unrealistic beauty standards women face.
The color white also has a historic meaning for the women’s suffrage movement. In the early 1900s, wearing white became an accessible way for anyone to join the cause — meaning women of any race or economic status could afford to dress the part. Ocasio-Cortez has spoken about the color white in the past and why she continues to use it today as an homage to suffragists.
The evolution of fashion activism reverberates today. Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards and former editor of British Vogue, tells Yahoo Life that today’s fashion is entering a new phase where self-expression and "slogan fashion" is at the forefront.
“When you see these ‘best and worst’ dressed lists, you don't even see the name of the designer on the list,” Cosgrave says. “You just see the person and they're saying ‘worst’ when they haven't even bothered to look investigate the actual identity of the designer, or the kind of inspirational sources behind the designer. That's what makes me angry. There is no ‘best or worst’ anymore. We're living in an era of fearless self-expression. Get used to it.”
While in the past, Cosgrave argues, red carpet fashion has been a great way to “make a political statement,” what she calls “slogan clothing” is a blossoming art that is “more overt.”
Red carpets are often the most powerful place to make such bold statements.
At the 2018 Oscars, attendees embraced the Time’s Up movement by wearing black or wearing Time’s Up pins in solidarity. In 2019, Joy Villa wore a bright pink latex dress that read “F*** Planned Parenthood” to the Los Angeles premiere of Unplanned, an anti-abortion film based on former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson’s book.
Cosgrave points to designers like Anthony Vaccarello, creative director at Saint Laurent, who found success in reviving Saint Laurent’s “Love” slogan by putting it on the back of jackets — a creative move other designers (and celebrities) followed.
“It’s a 'love' emblem, which is a very positive message and it was on T-shirts,” she says. “Then you saw a controversial sampling of that by Melania Trump when she wore the ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ jacket on her back. It’s 'slogan clothing' — and you see it all over the streets of New York.”
Still, she admits there is a double standard when the wearer of such fashion is in the political sphere like Ocasio-Cortez.
“When you're a divisive character, you can't win,” Cosgrave, host of the podcast A Different Tweed, says of Ocasio-Cortez. “Let's look outside of politics at someone like Madonna or even Susan Sarandon back in the day when she was going to the Oscars and wearing an AIDS pin. That was considered controversial by the Hollywood establishment [at the time], believe it or not.”
“If AOC went to the Met Gala in something sober — or something that’s just an afterthought — her critics would jump all over her anyway,” Cosgrave says. On the flip side, she argues, if Ocasio-Cortez had been gifted a beautiful ball gown by a luxury brand, she would have had similar backlash.
Instead, what the congresswoman decided to do was to raise the profile of an independent designer, James, who is known for spearheading the 15% Pledge initiative, which urges retailers and corporations to commit 15 percent of their purchasing power to supporting Black-owned businesses.
“She is a fearless character," Cosgrave says of Ocasio-Cortez. "And let's face it, she's an attractive woman. She knows how to project herself, and in that way she's going for it. She is using fashion as a platform to elevate a designer who needs the support, and at the same time, she's going to put some messaging into it. It's a collaboration, right? And it works. People are talking about it. Right?”