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When Art and Fashion Collide

Next year, the Met Gala should try on a new theme: ‘Shmatta: The Lower East Side Remembers’

Rachel Shukert
May 06, 2015
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala in New York on May 4, 2015. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala in New York on May 4, 2015. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

“You guys, what actually is the Met Ball?”

This was the pressing question Monday night on the Facebook feed of a very pop-culturally plugged-in friend of mine. And given the general consternation from his equally celeb-savvy friends (I mean, I don’t want to drop any names, but some of them were actual celebs, or at least, people who have, like, done the make-up of actual celebs!) I thought we might all be able to use a brief refresher course before we dive into the carnage of Monday night’s main event.

The Met Ball is often referred to as the “Oscars of Fashion,” which means it’s an opportunity for movie stars and supermodels to get dressed up in ludicrously expensive couture gowns, made all the more extravagant due to the lack of concern for having one’s sartorial choices ripped apart by the rapier-like wit of Giuliana Rancic. By attending the gala, celebrities assert their status among God’s Elect—God, in this instance, being Anna Wintour, who organizes the whole shindig every year. So, you know, God.

However, the Met Ball is not an awards show, or even a classy non-televised awards ceremony. Rather, it’s a giant benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s noted Costume Institute, dedicated to the preservation and display of garments deemed essential to fashion history. It’s basically an incredibly high profile, star-studded gala event for the care and feeding of a bunch of old clothes. It’s the shmatta business all dressed up and pretending its Old Money. As lavish as the results are, I can never quite treat it with the seriousness its organizers seem to demand. As my grandfather—who was quite a macher in the small-time rag trade himself—would say: “Who do they think they’re fooling?”

Obviously, there’s a long tradition of extremely rich people gladly donating vast sums of money to institutions that are, when you get down to it, not exactly charitable. The wealthy also donate funds to things they just like, or like to go to, or like to appear to like to go to: your ballet, your opera, your symphony.

Since the beginning of time—or at least since the Medicis were in Florence and Holbein was making the rounds of the various royal courts of Europe—art has never been a self-sustaining enterprise, but rather one that humanity requires to sustain itself.

Revolutionary artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Bertolt Brecht have, at various times in their career, relied on aristocratic patronage to realize their visions, making a Faustian but ultimately practical bargain: the artist sacrifices some small measure of integrity and/or autonomy in order to acquire the means to create, and the patron sacrifices a portion of their wealth in the service of artistic endeavors.

But fashion, on the other hand, has never been a not-for-profit endeavor.

Though clothes can be items of extreme beauty and deserve to be seen, they were not made to elevate the human spirit, or even to just be aesthetically pleasing; nor were they made to hold an unflattering mirror up to, reflecting their time. Instead, clothes were created for commerce-sake: to sell shoes and bags and jewelry and perfume.

With that in mind, the Met Ball can’t help but seem like the red carpet equivalent to Ralph Lauren ads that run before Downton Abbey, where it’s all polo mallets and tea on the lawn…and then Ralph Lauren, bless him, opens his mouth for the voice-over and sounds like he’s behind the counter at B&H trying to get you to settle on a digital camera already before he has to close the store for Shabbos. And that’s fine! But why take it so seriously? If we really want to celebrate the New York Fashion World, why not go back to the beginning? Why not let the proverbial shikse goddess let her hair down and show her nice dark roots?

Thematically, this year’s Met Gala was a step in the right direction. The theme, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” was also the theme of my grandmother’s living room. And while we didn’t get to see Donna Karan in a gown made out of mahjongg tiles at this year’s gala, there were still quite a few evening purses shaped like take-out boxes. Oh, and Grace Coddington showed up in her pajamas. So that’s something.

But here’s my suggestion for next year’s theme: “Shmatta: The Lower East Side Remembers.”

Imagine the possibilities: Greenhorn chic. Dresses painstakingly beaded to look like the fragrant skin of a half-sour pickle. Sarah Jessica Parker in a corseted bodice and flame-inspired headpiece to symbolize the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Now that would really honor New York fashion history. Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t making money off it would at least have some fun.

As Jewish fashion hero Michael Kors said so indelibly on Season 2 of Project Runway: “Lighten up! It’s just fashion!”

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

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