“Peg the Patriarchy” — The Evolution of Activist Attire at the Met Gala

Cara Delevingne's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2021
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Fashion has always been a symbol of one’s political allegiances. During the early 20th century, English suffragettes wore white outfits to communicate that England would become more pure if women could vote. Likewise, during America’s civil rights movement, Black communities began wearing suits to certain protests in order to combat the racist belief that Black people were unsophisticated and primitive. However, there’s one fashion totem that’s only recently become synonymous with protests and political dissent, the Met Gala.

English suffragist in white protest outfit, 1912
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The Met Gala, once known as the Costume Institute Gala, is an annual fashion event held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since its inception in 1948, it has been used to raise money to preserve the museum’s massive costume and fashion collection. This event has always been expensive and prestigious, with only the biggest names in the zeitgeist being invited to attend.  

While there’s no doubt that many outfits across the Met Gala’s illustrious history have featured political statements, mainstream media really began paying attention to such ensembles in the mid-2010s. During this era, audiences were hungry for their favourite artists to take a stance on each and every political issue. Likewise, some celebrities were more than happy to use this juncture to platform certain issues that they cared about. 

Since the mid-2010s, the practice of wearing a protest outfit to the Met Gala has waxed and waned. Let’s dive into the history of this phenomenon.

2016 — Emma Watson’s Calvin Klein Suit

Emma Watson's Meta Gala Protest Outfit
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Each year, the Met Gala has a theme and dress code that each attendee must adhere to, and 2016’s theme was “Fashion in an Age of Technology.” The actress Emma Watson adhered to this theme by wearing gorgeous black pants, a monochrome bustier, and a black train, all of which were made from recycled materials. By wearing this Met Gala outfit, Emma was protesting the fast fashion industry, declaring that we now have the tech to make sustainable outfits the future.

In a statement, Watson thanked Calvin Klein and Eco Age for creating her ensemble. She also explicitly remarked that her outfit was political.

“The body of the gown is crafted from three different fabrics, all woven from yarns made from recycled plastic bottles,” Watson said. “Plastic is one of the biggest pollutants on the planet. Being able to repurpose this waste and incorporate it into my gown for the Met Gala proves the power that creativity, technology, and fashion can have.”

“It is my intention to repurpose elements of the gown for future use. The trousers can be worn on their own, as can the bustier, the train can be used for a future red carpet look. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this. Truly beautiful things should be worn again and again and again.”

2018 — Lena Waithe’s Wes Gordon Cape

Lena Waithe's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2018
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In 2018, the Met Gala theme honoured Catholicism, being “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” However, due to the Catholic church being famously anti-LGBT, queer actress Lena Waithe and her outfit didn’t kowtow to this theme. The creator of Twenties instead wore a flowing Pride cape, a rainbow of defiance which was designed by the iconic Wes Gordon.

In the sea of crosses and veils, Waithe’s cape screamed that the Catholic church’s hatred of LGBT people will not be forgotten, nor will this community disappear quietly into the night. Waithe’s cape also symbolised a future she desired, where people everywhere could be free to express themselves without prejudice.

“I felt like a gay goddess,” Waithe said of the outfit. “When I saw the cape in person, I got emotional, not just because it was so stunning, but I knew we would be making a statement.” 

2019 — Lena Waithe’s Pinstripe Suit

Lena Waithe's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2019
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While Lena Waithe rebelled against the Met Gala in 2018, this statement fortunately worked in her favour. Waithe was invited back the following year. Better yet, she was appointed to the Met Gala committee. 

In 2019, the Met Gala’s theme was “An Exploration of Camp”, and Waithe decided to use her ensemble to honour the pioneers of this theatrical, intentionally exaggerated, queer aesthetic. She did so by wearing a hydrangea pinstripe suit designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond. On the back of her jacket were five words, “Black drag queens invented camp.”

“To me, I really wanted to make sure my outfit represented the Black drag queens who started this camp thing, being over the top and all that jazz,” Waithe said at the Met Gala. “People like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian, Willi Ninja, Ru Paul. These pioneers really started this whole camp thing.”

Jean-Raymond, Waithe’s designer and companion for the evening, also wore a pinstripe suit to the event, however, his was white and had a different message on the back. Jean-Raymond had some advice for the Haitian American community, a group of marginalised individuals who struggle to secure affordable housing, a group that he’s a part of. The back of his pinstripe said, “Fix your credit, pool your money, buy back the block.”

2021 — The Peak of Met Gala Protest Outfits

In 2021, there was a boom of politically explicit Met Gala outfits. We’re not talking about one or two people in a cluster of conformists, at least seven people went ham. This was partly due to the theme of the 2021 Met Gala being “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” America is a country with an insurmountable number of political, social, and economic issues, which gave each Met Gala attendee a wide variety of plights they could platform. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — “Tax the Rich”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2021
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To begin with, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used her Met Gala gown to protest the fact that the top 1% of American earners possess 99% of the wealth. Ocasio-Cortez believes that not only is this disparity unfair, it’s also perpetuated by wealthy people jumping through tax loopholes. The gala gown that Ocasio-Cortez wore was white, made by Brother Vellies, and had the words, “tax the rich,” written upon its back.

Dan Levy, Nikkie de Jager, and Megan Rapinoe

Dan Levy's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2021
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Meanwhile, actor Dan Levy, make-up artist Nikkie de Jager, and football star Megan Rapinoe, all used their outfits to honour America’s LGBTQIA+ community.

Nikkie de Jager's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2021
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Levy’s shirt, of two men kissing, was dedicated to the AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. Likewise, Jager’s floral green dress was a homage to the trans activist, Marsha P Johnson. Last but not least, Rapinoe held an ocean blue handbag, one adorned with the words, “In gay we trust.”

Megan Rapinoe's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2021
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Cara Delevingne — “Peg the Patriarchy”

Cara Delevingne's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2021
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Another notable ensemble was served by the actress Cara Delevingne. In 2021, Delevingne wore a white, Maria Grazia Chiuri vest with the words “Peg the patriarchy” written across the middle. America, like the rest of Western society, is controlled by patriarchal, male-dominant institutions, and Delevingne wants to challenge said status quo.

“If anyone doesn’t know what ‘peg’ means, you’re gonna have to look it up, because I’m not going to explain it right now,” Delevingne said at the Gala. “But peg the patriarchy is about women empowerment and gender equality. It’s a bit of a ‘stick it to the man’.”

2022  — Quannah Chasinghorse’s Chiffon Dress

Quannah Chasinghorse's Met Gala Protest Outfit, 2022
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In 2022, the Met Gala’s theme was entitled, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”, the second part of the 2021 theme. Unlike the 2021 Gala, though, hardly any of the attendees used what they wore to make explicit political statements. One of the only Met Gala protest outfits worth remarking on was worn by the Hän Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota artist, Quannah Chasinghorse

As an Indigenous Canadian and Native American, Chasinghorse wanted to use her outfit to honour these two cultures while rejecting the Western forces that subjugated her families. Chasinghorse did this by wearing two First Nations feather hairpieces and some custom Indigenous jewellery made by Lenise Omeasoo. These pieces were framed by a stunning aqua Prabal Gurung gown.

“I did not celebrate American independence, nor will I ever,” Chasinghorse said. “I celebrate my Indigenous bloodlines coursing through my veins… Over and over again, my people fought genocide, and we are still here!”

“It truly is an empowering feeling knowing that my presence brings much-needed visibility to Indigenous beauty, fashion, art, and our communities, along with many of the things we face as a collective.”

2023  — Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Silence

Jeremy Pope's Met Gala Outfit
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On 19 February 2019, the German fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, died from prostate cancer complications. Four years later, the Met Gala honoured this man by making its 2023 theme, “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” Lagerfeld is famous for reviving Chanel, creating several masterpieces for Fendi, and working for the French house Chloe. He’s also known for fat-shaming celebrities, disliking same-sex adoption, and calling the Holocaust “the greatest thing Germany invented”. 

Due to Lagerfeld’s legacy being soiled by intolerance, many voices in the fashion industry were displeased that he was to be honoured at the 2023 Met Gala. On the Sunday before the Met Gala, a nonprofit called Model Alliance protested this decision on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This protest was spearheaded by the Model Alliance’s founder, Sara Ziff.

“This year’s Met Gala, which happens to fall on International Workers’ Day, will honour the creative genius of Karl Lagerfeld,” Ziff said. “What will undoubtedly be left unsaid about Lagerfeld, who I worked with regularly as a model, is any mention of his problematic attitude towards women who didn’t fit his harmful and outdated standards.”

However, while plenty of people critiqued Lagerfeld before the Met Gala kicked off, all was quiet on the runway front. At the 2023 Met Gala, there were no ensembles that explicitly condemned Lagerfeld’s behaviour. Some of the guests wore pink, a colour that Lagerfeld occasionally disliked, but not a single celebrity wore a “Tax the Rich” or “Peg the Patriarchy” outfit. 

Is the age of Met Gala protest oufits over? Or will they make a return in 2024? Only the rich and powerful can make such a call.

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