For decades the first Monday in May has been the biggest night in fashion—the evening when the fashion-obsessed meet in costume on the red carpet at the Met Gala. This year, COVID-19 may have postponed the annual fixture in New York’s social calendar to the second Monday in September, but it didn’t fail to serve up its share of red carpet hits and misses.

The Met Gala, formally called Costume Institute Gala, is Vogue magazine’s annual charity bash feting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest costume exhibit.

But it's not charity that draws eyes every year. It’s the chance to get judgy with celebrity guests who are interpret the year’s theme through dress. Reviews can be slavish or brutal.

A mandate insisted that guests wear masks inside the event. The fashion savvy responded by matching their masks to their outfits. Those who flopped may have been glad for the opportunity to apply the disguise.

This year’s theme —“In America: a Lexicon of Fashion”—had some attendees dredging up the country’s bygone fashion and others trying to predict the future.

And, if political division can be considered a fashion trend, outspoken congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez struck directly at the current mood. Her full-length white gown by Aurora James was emblazoned with the words “Tax the Rich.” This was worn at an event costing $30,000 a person. With the defiant message “Peg the Patriarchy,” model Cara Delevigne’s vest from Dior’s Maria Grazia seemed rather like a warrior’s breastplate.

Still, the night was meant to be inclusive with an introductory video of the exhibit that evoked America as a patchwork guilt.  With all of the reasons we have had to alienate each other this year, it was wishful thinking.

The best looks were those that that took inspiration from the past, but added their own twists.

By far the most popular theme was to emulate was an Old Hollywood aesthetic. Cochair Billie Eilish became Maryliyn Monroe reincarnated in Oscar de la Renta, while Megan Thee Stallion, head to toe in Coach attire dubbed herself “Megan Monroe.” Kendall Jenner recalled Audrey Hepburn with her choice of Givenchy, the designer with Hepburn was so closely associated. Yara Shahidi in Dior channeled the stunning Josephine Baker.

Those who simply picked a decade-inspired dress fell flat. Seemingly, model Kaia Gerber and TikToker Addison Rae just reached in the closet marked “vintage dresses.” Seriously: at the Met Gala, you’re meant to do more.

Those who succeeded with past-era looks did so by recalling familiar characters. The actress Lupita Nyong'o in Versace revived the 90s with a nod to the iconic Brittany and Justin denim look. In Rodarte, rappers Halle and Chloe Bailey’s reached back even further, capturing the look of 80s’ singing star Janet Jackson.

The daring looked to the future of fashion. Singer Frank Ocean showed up to the carpet with a robot baby in hand, and Prada on his body. Also in Prada, the actress Hunter Scaffer sported in a metallic outfit, replete with silver spider on her face and white contacts to hide her eyes. The singer Grimes was startling with an outfit, from designer Iris van Herpen. Based on the American dystopian novel Dune, it included a sword made of melted guns.

At first glance actress Lilli Reinhart and singer Lorde didn't appear to commit to the theme. Then the complexity of their dresses sank in. Lorde was an Americana princess with a crown. She worked with designer Emily Bode to repurpose items in a dress that was hung with dozens of flattened pennies one of the kind made in machines at theme parks. Reinhart’s Christiano Sirano dress was adorned with the states flowers of each of the 50 states.

Some chose the easy way: wear red, white and blue and you’re automatically an American flag. Others found a way to make even patriotism avant garde. The Dutch model Imaan Hammam strutted in wearing a Versace silver star dress. Megan Rapinos, of soccer’s Team USA, accessorized a Sergio Hudson red suit and star-spangled blue shirt, with purse reading “in gay we trust.”

The gay theme didn’t end there. The actor Dan Levy, wore a hat from Jonathan Anderson that depicted two men kissing. Ben Platt didn’t bother with visual representation. In a red carpet interview he stated, say “America is Gay.”

But in a land peopled by immigrants, perhaps cohost Naomi Osaka in a collaboration with Nicolas Ghesquière, made the most American statement of all. Her dress paid tribute to both her Japanese-Haitan heritage. What’s more melting pot than that?

Abigail Bettridge is a contributor. 

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