No, those aren’t Botticelli paintings flooding your news feed. Celebrities were snapped dressed in angel wings, gold brocade and ornate beading on the red carpet outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The theme for Monday night’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit, commonly known as the Met Gala, was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
Devout Catholics might balk at the sheer amount of gold that adorned pop stars walking down the red carpet, but the event comes with the Vatican’s seal of approval. Also known as the East Coast Oscars or even “an ATM for the Met,” the ceremony is an opportunity for the Met’s Costume Institute, the only curatorial department at the museum that needs to fund itself, to raise money.
For the director of the Holy See press office, Greg Burke, the Met Gala is a way for people to experience the beauty of religious art through a new medium. “Most people have experienced that through religious paintings and architecture,” said Burke. “This is another way of sharing some of that beauty that rarely gets seen.” The theme was an opportunity for Italian powerhouses to stand out and show their heritage — Valentino and Fendi were practically founded in the shadow of Vatican City.
Despite its billing as “controversial,” the Catholic theme was a relatively safe choice compared to the last few years — 2015’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” being one of the most questionable in recent memory — and yielded some truly inventive looks from newcomers and mainstays alike. In a year in which red carpet looks have become platforms for social movements, costume institute head curator Andrew Bolton explained that the Met Gala’s dress code was meant to be “a reflection of contemporary interests.”
Co-host Rihanna dressed as a female pope in a Maison Margiela cape, dress and miter. The John Galliano-designed ensemble was inspired by a catwalk look created by Galliano in 2000, during his time at Christian Dior.
Donatella Versace, another co-host, dressed a handful of well-known models and celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Cindy Crawford. Versace’s crowning achievement was Zendaya’s modern Joan of Arc, the house’s signature figure-hugging chainmail made complete by Zendaya’s donning of the famously cropped haircut.
Headpieces, crucifixes and capes were worn in abundance. It was the year of the ornamental crown, worn by celebrities such as Blake Lively and SZA. Janelle Monae’s Marc Jacobs look — in keeping with her usual black-and-white menswear dress code — included a beaded head wrap topped with a gold, halo-like hat by Stephen Jones.
Darker interpretations included Lily Collins in Givenchy, Bella Hadid in a Chrome Hearts patent leather corset and Cara Delevingne in Dior. Other celebrities such as Ariana Grande, dressed in Vera Wang, and Salma Hayek, wearing Altuzarra, took inspiration from Renaissance paintings.
Supermodels can usually coast by at other award shows such as the Oscars by keeping things simple. At the Met Gala, however, it comes across as careless and boring — this is an event celebrating innovation in fashion and the avant-garde, after all. Hailey Baldwin, Kendall Jenner and Karlie Kloss opted to skip the theme altogether, sticking instead with tried and true silhouettes, in bland but literal interpretations of the “Heavenly Bodies” theme.
The event typically lets men off the hook with simple black tuxedos, but Chadwick Boseman in Versace and Jared Leto in Gucci showed that elaborate, unusual and exciting costumes should be mandatory regardless of gender. Migos and Darren Criss wore mural-inspired blazers, though the rest of the male guests, such as Tom Brady, stuck with minimal brocade detailing.
There were a fair share of surprises and controversies throughout the night, including the deeply unsettling first public appearance of Elon Musk and Grimes as a couple. Jaden Smith brought a gold record for “Icon,” a song from his 2017 album Syre, as a date. Anna Wintour revealed to James Corden that Donald Trump, who proposed to Melania at the 2004 Met Gala, was not sent an invitation this year.
The Met Gala reminded us how fashion can play a role in social change. Solange Knowles wore an Iris Van Herpen dress, halo and durag with “My God Wears a Durag” bedazzled on the back — a celebration of black culture in an industry that historically prioritizes European fashion. Lena Waithe donned a rainbow cape, with added black and brown stripes to promote visibility for LGBTQ+ people of color, over her Carolina Herrera suit in what has been interpreted by some as a protest against the Catholic Church’s position on same-sex marriage.
Fashion is indelibly linked to culture and history. The “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” theme provided an opportunity for artists to explore ways in which fashion can honor, or more importantly, break with tradition. Taking advantage of the intense media coverage that comes with such an event, the Met Gala gave designers a chance to open up a dialogue about religion — understanding how to best celebrate its history and push past its limits.