Opinion: The best looks from the 2023 Met Gala were acts of resistance

Celebrities put defiance, sustainable practices and the joy of diverse representation on display

Since 1948, the first Monday of May has been reserved for what is widely regarded as fashion’s biggest night – the Met Gala. Influential figures from a range of industries are invited by Vogue to attend. The fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City doubles as a social gathering for the nation’s rich and famous. 

The theme of each Met Gala, and the basis for the museum’s subsequent, year-long exhibit, is selected by the Costume Institute’s chief curator, Andrew Bolton. Themes are subject to rigorous research and an extensive approval process that can take years. Guests are then responsible for coordinating the appropriate attire, resulting in one-of-a-kind, high-end designs. 

This year’s theme – “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” – was intended to honor the late fashion designer who, for over five decades, collaborated with luxury brands like Chanel and Fendi. His distinct style defined haute couture in the 1990s as well as the runway culture of the decade. 

The decision to dedicate the Met Gala to Lagerfeld, however, has caused controversy and drawn criticism from coordinators, participants and viewers at home. Since his death in 2019, Lagerfeld’s legacy has come into question over fatphobic, misogynistic and racist statements made in interviews throughout his career. The Met’s decision to recognize Lagerfeld through their prestigious and far-reaching platform stirs a recurring pop culture debate: can, and should, an artist’s work be separated from their character?

My answer to that question is no. I believe that the incredibly harmful nature of Lagerfeld’s comments should prevent all celebration of his legacy. Fashion has moved beyond Lagerfeld’s peak in the 1990s in what I believe is the right direction. Now, the industry is inclusive to plus-sized models and models of color and has increased women’s safety in a highly exploitative line of work – all things Lagerfeld was openly against. Even just embracing more than the hard lines and limited color schemes characteristic of Lagerfeld’s designs is progress. The so-called elegance in Lagerfeld’s designs is boring. His personal views are deplorable. I think memorializing him through the Met Gala threatens to put fashion in reverse. 

Collaborators and invitees alike have also chosen their stance, choosing whether or not to attend this year’s Met Gala. 

“A lot of us are actually part of the communities that Karl Lagerfeld has targeted in his hateful speech,” a High Fashion Twitter coordinator said in an interview with TIME. “And a lot of the people who participate in our event are part of those communities as well. It’s not that we’re not acknowledging his legacy and we’re not denying it either, but part of his legacy are the harmful things that he’s said and we don’t really want to partake in celebrating that.”

Lagerfeld’s damaging rhetoric aside, I do believe there is some nuance in navigating this issue. Those who did attend the 2023 Met Gala made it the triumph in diversity and advocacy it was. Media coverage of the event and fashion analysts around the world have since compiled rankings of their top outfits, eager to crown a winning look as the best of the Met. In my opinion, the true winners, no matter where they fall on designer aficionados’ lists, are the attendees who contradicted the man behind the very fashion they wore. 

While some such celebrities were outspoken, using their outfit and attendance at the Met as a platform for activism, those who simply found joy within a creative space should also be recognized. Active resistance can also mean taking pride and achieving excellence in an industry with significant barriers to access and a history of leaving minorities behind. 

For a predominant share of the Met’s past, attendees were almost entirely white, beautiful by conventional, Western beauty standards and of a specific body type. This year, Black, Asian, Latin and LGBTQ+ celebrities dominated the red carpet. Non-binary actor Bella Ramsey shared the stage with ground-breaking Asian actress Michelle Yeoh. Salma Hayek’s gorgeous red gown incorporated elements of her Mexican heritage while Quinta Brunson paired her breathtaking look with an Afrocentric take on the beehive hairstyle Lagerfeld’s shows were known for. Global superstar musicians Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa took a stand against the single-use, environmentally destructive fashion industry by implementing sustainability practices. 

Indigenous model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse’s stunning ensemble was the best of the event by far. In a resplendent, bedazzled pink tulle gown, her traditional Yidįįłtoo face tattoos accentuated by handmade Lakota jewelry, Chasinghorse’s third appearance at the Met Gala was meant to reinforce indigenous belonging in high fashion.

“When I got to the top of those steps, I looked behind me and I reminded myself why I went,” Chasinghorse said. “It was to represent my people and indigeneity.”

Pulling off a Lagerfeld-inspired creation, or in some cases, wearing an original by the artist himself, while promoting an important message should be valued over the outfits of participants who just restricted themselves to the theme, no matter how on-point they were. If fashion is to continue to be a rallying cultural force of the people, Lagerfeld must be left behind. Standing in solidarity with or providing representation for a community a powerful figure has harmed should gain more attention.