Political and social activism became powerful movements within the latter half of the aughts as Me Too, Black Lives Matter and annual events such as Pride Month began taking up ample space in the pop-cultural sphere. As younger generations, informed and inspired by digital activism, have begun fervently advocating for issues deeply embedded within the fabric of society, activism, which previously existed within the fringe was transformed, finding a firm footing within public life. Celebrities began to leverage their platforms by advocating for their political views, criticizing injustices, and even exposing sexual assault within various sectors, starting with the entertainment industry. Within this era of social upheaval, every corner of society has come to reckon with social upheaval; the world of fashion is no exception.
Revealing their frustrations and experiences, those in the public eye began making political statements through sartorial choices on red carpets, at galas, and on the runway; using fashion as a powerful agent for visibility and change. But while aestheticized activism is for some the epitome of new generations’ rebellion against the old guard, where is the line drawn between activism and mere virtue signaling?
The MET Gala is one of fashion’s most prestigious and high profile of the year for both those in entertainment as well as for the millions who gather online to ogle their favorite singers and actors in meticulously prepared ensembles. While the gala has a specific sartorial theme every year in support of the Met’s annual Costume Institute, attendees seem to be able to find a way to politicize their garments year after year regardless of the chosen theme.
The theme this year? “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion ”, covering America’s history of fashion in a creative manner through conversation surrounding racial injustice, gendered issues, indigenous identity, and more, and while some attendees chose to participate in the event with more traditional ensembles (haute couture gowns) some did the opposite. Two of the most striking outfits belonged to that of American politician and activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and British model and actor Cara Delevingne.
AOC’s white dress designed by Aurora James, a Toronto-born designer, donned “TAX THE RICH” in crimson red across the back, a sentiment most familiar to those who follow the politicians activist and anti-capitalist agenda. As a Democrat who has been vocal about social and racial injustice within America, she is adamant about the flawed taxation system in the United States which damages the middle and lower classes whilst favouring the 1%. An audacious stance in a country built upon unfettered capitalism, especially for a young female politician, no less a woman of color. To attain such a platform as the Met Gala, the pinnacle of the elite, and to use it as a platform for social reform is nothing short of impressive. Wearing a dress that boldly states that the rich should be taxed at one of the most expensive events of the year whilst dining with people who are widely considered to be among the wealthiest and most influential in the world takes gusto.
But, while one cannot confidently state that AOC’s actions were an example of mere pseudo-activism, it might have come too close. While New York’s elected officials are invited to the Met as a part of participating in New York’s cultural scenery, a ticket to the MET gala still costs a staggering 35,000 USD. Whether AOC paid for it or not, and whether or not the Congresswoman did in fact not pay, she still attended the luxe gala and rubbed shoulders with the elite. Is paying lip service enough to grapple with the cognitive dissonance? Some aren’t so convinced.
With partisan politics reaching a fever pitch, the rise of this sort of pseudo-activist virtue-signaling now runs rampant in elite Hollywood circles and media events. Cancel culture, after all, has a propensity toward tearing down the “successful”, and the ways in which to stave off the public’s disdain for the rich and famous? Pretend that you are critical of the very structures you participate within and benefit from.
Cara Delevingne, a bisexual model who has been adamant about her stance on sexual freedom and empowerment, likewise, donned a “political statement” at the Met this year. Wearing a bulletproof vest with the phrase: “Peg the Patriarchy.” Far from being a punishment or an act of violence, rather, Pegging symbolizes sexual freedom for men and women who had otherwise been constrained by traditional and outdated ideas of sexual penetration. Delevingne’s understanding of pegging as a sort of punishment toward patriarchy grossly misunderstands and stigmatizes queer sexual practice.
Both AOC and Cara Delevingne are incredibly influential public figures, and their choice to make the sartorial overtly political is undoubtedly polarizing in its very nature, but did their risk pay off? We’re inclined to think they may have missed the mark.
Alara is a contributing writer at liminul.
She is a senior Art History student at McGill University. Besides art and architecture, she is interested in fashion and literature, especially regarding issues of race and gender.