What does it mean, as the invitation requested, to dress “Avant-Garde”?
This was the question Monday night at the Met Gala, the annual fund-raising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and the answer was always going to be a doozy. On the one hand, the term avant-garde implies all sorts of things: pushing boundaries, breaking rules, going where no one else has gone before. On the other, the gala, one of the most-watched, celebrity-packed, red carpet events of the year, has come to imply a lot of other things, chief among them major fashion-brand marketing moments (you know: put movie star in dress, have movie star identify dress, send picture round the world). These are not necessarily compatible imperatives.
How to reconcile the two was the challenge. Especially because the obvious move — wear clothes from Comme des Garçons, the brand being celebrated at the event, the subject of the exhibition the party was honoring, and the inspiration for the dress code itself — seemed largely off the table. Though whether that was because the truly avant-garde nature of the work of Rei Kawakubo, the brand’s founder and designer, was simply too scary for most people-page regulars, or because CdG does not pay celebrities to wear its clothes, and has no official “face” or “ambassadors,” was unclear.
There were, for sure, some brave souls: Pharrell Williams, an event co-chairman, in ripped jeans, “Rei” inked on the knee, plaid shirt and motorcycle jacket; his wife, Helen Lasichanh, in a red jumpsuit that flattened and haloed the body and had no armholes; Michèle Lamy, the partner of the designer Rick Owens, in snaking red and pink vinyl waves; and Rihanna, swallowed up in a boa constrictor of chintz ruffles, femininity on the rampage. In CdG, all.
Also Tracee Ellis Ross in a terrific sapphire swaddling CdG coat dress that skewed her proportions in an elegantly off-center way and — best of all — Caroline Kennedy, the former ambassador to Japan, in steroid-stoked floral tiers that put paid to the idea that CdG was unwearable. If she could do it, well, what was everyone else doing?
Paying homage (or playing it safe — but that’s another story). Which is to say, taking bits and pieces from the CdG oeuvre and attempting to make them their own. The exhibition itself is titled “The Art of the In-Between,” and the ethos of the evening seemed to be “In Between Rei and [insert brand name here].” The results ranged from the interesting to the pretty silly to the eye-rollingly banal.
Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid seemed, for example, to have taken inspiration from Ms. Kawakubo’s statement in 2013 that she had decided to stop making clothes for her runway collections (she was making “objects for the body”) and decided that they, too, would stop wearing clothes; they would wear underwear!
So Ms. Jenner was in a La Perla crystal mesh scrim-like gown atop a body thong with a giant slash cut down the front, and Ms. Hadid was in an Alexander Wang crystal mesh catsuit. Nicki Minaj wore H&M satin hot pants beneath a flowing cape-dress of sparkling red and black, and Hailee Steinfeld wore a Vera Wang version of the same look, both open in the front to show the legs.
Because really, who needs a dress, when you can have the idea of a dress? Not Kylie Jenner, in floral-and-tinsel-strewn see-through Versace, or Halle Berry, also in Versace, with black and white feathers sprouting from the train. Though, pointedly, that former proponent of the naked look, Jennifer Lopez, was demure in powder blue Valentino. Ditto Kim Kardashian West in baptismal white Vivienne Westwood that showed — shock! — her shoulders. Sometimes what’s really startling is upending expectations.
Still, red, apparently in reference to Ms. Kawakubo’s “Roses and Blood” collection of 2014, was the color of the evening, on everyone from Katy Perry, an event co-chairwoman, who wore a sparkling, skeletonized Maison Margiela Artisanal red trench under a floor-length red veil decorated with a variety of doodads; to Emma Roberts, in a simple Diane Von Furstenberg sheath dress; Ashley Graham in ruffled and corseted H&M; and Rami Malek in a crimson Dior Homme tux. And the yin and yang of shredding and exaggeration were the design strategies.
See, for example, Kerry Washington in patchworked silver-and-black Michael Kors, the edges not quite lined up; Celine Dion in a cut-and-paste Versace ball gown/T-shirt; and Claire Danes in a rent-and-ruffled Monse pirate shirt, the asymmetric train framing her skinny black trousers (There were a lot of trousers, though my favorite was Evan Rachel Wood’s Altuzarra midnight-sky slip-dress/cigarette pant combo). See Janelle Monáe frothing and foaming at the skirt in Ralph & Russo, and Gigi Hadid in a half-samurai, half-boudoir Tommy Hilfiger number that got compared, on social media, to bad sushi.
Less obvious, and better for it, were Jaden Smith in simple black Louis Vuitton clutching his cut-off dreadlocks as an accessory (really), and Priyanka Chopra in a classic Ralph Lauren trench coatdress — with a witchy collar and a swirling, stair-sweeping train. Both played to tradition and entirely undermined it. Which is to say, they managed to enter into the spirit of the evening while also maintaining a certain elegant integrity.
It’s not an easy balance to achieve. Little wonder that many guests threw up their hands and chose to go with a theme of a different kind: Elle Fanning channeling “Frozen” in a strapless empire-waisted ice-blue princess Miu Miu; Zendaya in a Tropicana fantasy ball gown from Dolce & Gabbana; Katie Holmes in a ye olde Hollywood Zac Posen fishtail; Dakota Johnson in sexy Victorian-governess Gucci; and Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen in outfits that looked like they had been sourced from the costume department of “Game of Thrones.” That’s breaking the rules in a way, I guess.
Though perhaps ultimately the most avant-garde of all the approaches was the one evinced by both Anna Wintour, a co-chairwoman of the event, and Ms. Kawakubo herself: Ignore the dress code entirely. Ignore even the idea of a dress code.
Instead, Ms. Wintour chose Chanel, as she has done at every Met Gala in recent memory (this time a sparkle-encrusted T-shirt gown with a swath of fur at the knee giving way to lighter underskirt). Ms. Kawakubo chose a white jacket and black skirt, a simple variation on her usual uniform — with sneakers. It’s their party, and they’ll wear what they want to.