“Who gets to be American?”
This year’s Met Gala – New York’s most exclusive fashion event of the year – set out to answer exactly that question. Two exhibitions with unique themes, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, and In America: An Anthology of Fashion, aimed to celebrate the broad and multi-layered nature of individual fashion choices throughout US history.
In order to answer this question, many began by asking a different one: “What is American fashion?” According to Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, the problem centres “the idea of reducing American fashion down to one definition is totally antithetical to what the exhibition is about”.
In the fashion universe, America’s unfashionable relationship with Europe is all too familiar: the simplified younger sibling of a much more refined and elegant elder. Though American fashion has been heavily influenced by European fashion trends – from the fashionable Empress Eugenie de Montijo of France in the 19th century, to the European imprint of fast-fashion through stores such as Zara and H&M, Europe has also benefited from US trendsetters. The 2021 Met Gala has been criticised for demonstrating a white-Eurocentric pattern with unyielding stubbornness.
American designers have worked for European fashion houses – such as Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton, and Marc Jacobs before him. But a simple question arises in the context of our vastly interconnected world: does that make the brand, more American, or the creative director, more European? Few know the definite answer, and many were left confused by the curator’s choice to correspond each outfit with a particular noun, unable to decipher the true meaning of any one exhibited piece.
One thing is certain: fashion is in the public eye, and style choices are often dedicated to what we see and hear, with the latest trends adorned by our favourite stars. In America, things are no different. From the silky gowns worn by Jackie Kennedy in the 60’s, to the ripped jeans of the noughties, the thinking goes: we wear what they wear. The essential quality of fashion in the US stems from its democratic quality, allowing everyone to clothe themselves however they choose. For example, President Reagan was once photographed wearing a shirt, tie, and sweatpants on Air Force One.
Due to the polarised identity for most countries (Brexit or Remain, Conservative or socialist, pro-vaccine or anti-vaxxer), finding a single sentence to describe what makes anything truly American is impossible. Instead of focusing on design, many of the country’s most prominent designers understand American fashion – and fashion globally – as a reflection of the nation’s people. What defines fashion in the US instead are the simple yet elegant pieces explaining the success of brands such as Supreme and Obey.
We all know why. The average person wears ripped jeans and muddy sneakers, dressing according to their budget. UEA students don’t dress up in Oscar De La Renta dresses and Gucci sweaters for a night out. From Norwich to New York, Los Angeles to Birmingham – affordability and comfort have become the most important ingredients of any successful fashion statement. Consequently, the Met Gala disappointed more people than it inspired.