Oh. Okay, I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.
For most normal people, the closest thing they’ll ever experience to the Met Gala is a lost night of drunken dress-up featuring a decade’s worth of problematic Halloween accessories hoarded after college. Meanwhile, for the Hollywood elite — and yes, this is the only appropriate time to ever use that phrase as a compliment — New York’s annual event on the first Monday in May is but a stretching exercise in the limits of celebrity privilege. And that’s actually quite a good thing.
Hosted by the inimitable (but also very imitable) Anna Wintour, the Met Gala is a chance for the Rihannas and Riz Ahmeds, Nicole Kidmans and Nick Jonases, and the nomadic earthly spirit of Sarah Jessica Parker to tread terra firma and show the world just how far they can push the zeitgeist’s boundaries of taste and textile. No train is too long, no fabric too chunky, no pattern too busy, no headpiece too bound by the laws of physics. It’s the kind of place where the tuxedos get tessellated, the dresses get scientific, and everyone in attendance looks like they’ve skinned a Pokémon.
I’ve only recently come to realize the power of the event as something of a singular experiment in a celebrity’s connection to the public and, in turn, our connection to a celebrity. Although it can feel like an outwardly alienating event, we all have a horse in this vogue race. Maybe I’m still just feeling the matzah high of Passover, but this one feels different; if year-round fashion shows all share the same negligible optics to a mass audience, the Met Gala is the one that demands attention.
There’s the basic truth that the Met Gala offers us all the chance to become instant fashion commentators, hobbled on an equal playing field of ignorance rather than an elevated field of expertise. Even those of us who can manage to pick out couture in a linen-up are but mere electoral points in the overall college that determines the evening’s wins and losses. It’s important to remember that no one is cool judging the Met Gala, and similarly, no one is cool judging those who judge the Met Gala. This year’s theme — reclusive Comme des Garcon designer Rei Kawakubo — will mean next to nothing to most people, but the spectacle’s theme has mattered increasingly less as the event’s visibility has grown large in recent years.
The rules of the Met Gala itself offer the kind of oscillating illogical criteria of popularity that have echoed on playgrounds for decades. They are unwritten, and for a reason, because we cannot yet fathom what it really means to come out a winner of this random red carpet. It’s a media circus where the most outrageous wins, but too outrageous gets you scolded. The beautiful get weird and the weird get weirder until the weird get so weird that they’re suddenly deemed beautiful by virtue of being so confident in their weirdness. If you weird-bait, you’re trying too hard; if you don’t get weird enough, you’re not trying. Throw a theme in the mix, and it’ll be represented in outfits on a graphic curve not far from the uncanny valley. The Met Gala is a realm where “can’t quite put your finger on” meets the upside-down smiley face and the difference between not enough and too much changes with a single accessory.
It’s all just such a Phantom Tollbooth Narnia crapshow, isn’t it? And best of all, the celebrities who go and willingly subject themselves to these Olympics of style are the reason the Met Gala becomes such a fun exercise in creativity, conceptualization, and the limits of self-seriousness.
Take Rihanna, who was arguably crowned queen of 2016’s event after her canary-yellow gown stole last year’s show (yes, even from Beyonce’s sheer bedazzled Betty Spaghetti). Rihanna’s arrival this year came with a palpable anticipation and almost insurmountable expectation. Did she deliver? We’ve decided, yes. Why? We’ve decided, she just did! It does not matter that she wove a bundle of fabric from elementary school Valentines and the leftover shards of Kim Kardashian’s 2013 maternity look. Because it’s beautiful! And it’s weird! And it might fit the theme, maybe! Scholars more qualified than I will debate her outfit’s merits, and scholars less qualified will, too, and that’s the beauty of the Met Gala: a sort of agreed-upon collective consciousness where dissenting opinions are lost in someone’s winning ruffles, which, at any other event during the year would be ridiculed, but at the Met Gala are deemed a stroke of genius.
Then we turn to Katy Perry, who famously stunned at this event in 2010 just months before Teenage Dream was released and changed her place in the game forever. In 2016, she drew jeers for what looked like a Prada goth treasure chest. This year, she was back again on the de facto worst-dressed list for dressing like a canopy bed in a horror movie. What happened? Who knows! Will she slay next year? Maybe! Is the Met Gala unhinged? Bon appétit!
And there are many more stories in between. Solange literally went as a sleeping bag, and everybody went wild. Blake Lively wore a stunning Versace-meets-Anne-Hathaway’s-character-in-Rio gown yet wound up dishonoring the theme. Jaden Smith brought his actual chopped-off hair as his plus-one! Celine Dion wore a T-shirt under a bathing suit! Even the Olsen Twins Apparated in for the event!
Nowhere else in Hollywood do we get the same potent mix of fun, danger, and — especially this year — a distraction from actual real human person things. The same argument can’t be made as conclusively or consistently for the other red carpets of our time. At the Oscars and Emmys, elegance is expected and deviation is only accepted in rare doses. The Grammys and VMAs draw sublime character from bold musicians, but it’s often just for shock value and not Haute style. I’m not saying that letting Tracee Ellis Ross drape herself in a sheet at the Met Gala is going to change the world, but it’s an opportunity to burst or dazzle or brood in a way that’s free from the rest of the star-machine gantlet.
Yes, the real winners of the Met Gala are the celebrities who stay home. But the laurels are boundless for those who do cash in their chips, bet on a few thoughtful photographs, and hope to emerge victorious at this wild conflagration of celebrity peril and a worldwide audience of backseat Wintours. Twitter becomes a damn mess of everything you hate about the social network, but it’s also forgiven by morning’s light, enshrined in time and remembered fondly like drunken texts sent in the waning hours of your birthday. The Met Gala is a fashion fever dream that bonds us in inanity. They call it the party of the year, and you too can learn to love the Met Gala once you realize that they’re not actually talking about the people going.