The Met Gala. It’s one of the most highly-anticipated events in the fashion world. An annual clash of upper-class peacocking and faux political statements. Social media buzzes about the event for months — and rightly so. It serves as a lavish means of raising money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as a celebration of its Costume Institute’s new exhibit. With each ticket starting at $30,000, it’s no wonder the event has raised over $13 million for two consecutive years since 2018. Although this year’s Gala was on a smaller scale due to COVID-19 concerns, it still managed to produce its usual quality of upscale fashion and celebrities. The theme for this year was “America: a Lexicon of Fashion” — a celebration of American industry and innovation.

Among the off-theme garb and eclectic regalia, one gown in particular made its way to the political stage, sparking an important debate on the class divide in America. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez debuted at her very first Met Gala sporting a beautiful off-the-shoulder white dress, “TAX THE RICH” scrawled in red grunge lettering on the back. The irony did not go unnoticed. On the surface, it is a simple phrase meant to call out the unfair taxation rates across different economic classes. But within the context of the gala, her message came across as a crass attempt at “woke” activism. Similar to Cara Delevingne’s “PEG THE PATRIARCHY” ensemble, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) dress represents the clamor to stay relevant in a highly performative society. Ocasio-Cortez is vital in providing a voice for more than 650,000 people across the Bronx and Queens, as she is the representative of New York City’s 14th district. Although she did attend this star-studded event, Ocasio Cortez is a “woman of the people,” and her core beliefs reflect the grass roots campaign that won her a spot in the House of Representatives. She’s known as a progressive who advocates for issues like climate change, civil justice and, more notably, the wealth tax.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her “Tax the Rich” dress. Photo by Jun Lu.

Many working-class individuals would agree to increased marginal tax rates, especially considering the glaringly obvious wealth gap between them and CEO giants like Jeff Bezos or celebrities like the Kardashians. During the height of the pandemic, while people struggled to buy bare necessities and COVID-19 deaths skyrocketed, big names in Hollywood proved just how painfully out of touch they are with a poorly-edited, poorly-sung rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon. Their luxurious homes in the background serve as a constant reminder of just how differently elites were experiencing the pandemic. Yet even before the pandemic, prominent public figures have often taken to kitsch slogans and performative gestures to satisfy their public relations quota for the month. So despite wealth taxes being an important socio-economic issue, the execution, as always, is disconnected from the public.

Simultaneously, outside the barricade between the starlit Met and 5th Avenue, protestors clashed with NYPD officers, ending the night with several arrests. The protest consisted of disgruntled New Yorkers opposing the Gala and Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists calling for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who attended the Gala, to defund the police. Both groups were there for different reasons, but the underlying issue was money. BLM supporters organized in defiance of the NYPD budget, which provides the department with $11 billion in resources. Meanwhile predominantly Black and Latinx communities aren’t given even a fraction of that aid despite being in desperate need of help. Neighborhoods like these were hit the hardest during the pandemic, with people of color suffering higher mortality rates from COVID-19 and more severe economic setbacks. The Met Gala was a distasteful display of wealth and privilege in a city still healing from the wounds inflicted by the pandemic. 

In a way, this year’s theme did succeed in representing America — its values, its political climate, its reality. Amidst a deadly pandemic, historic rates of homelessness, a devastating eviction crisis and inflated unemployment rates, New York City witnessed the upper-class throw money away at a glorified costume party. While the city still struggles to crawl its way out of financial ruin, its inhabitants were able to see just how generous the rich and famous are when it serves their interests, and how disparate the class divide has become.

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