To celebrities, the red carpet of the Met Gala is like an average person’s front lawn: a place for making bold statements. The event, an annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, is made for flaunting ostentatious couture. The dress code is determined by a theme—this year’s was “American Independence,” in honor of a forthcoming exhibition—that can be interpreted however an attendee prefers. Tickets are $35,000 a pop. And for four hours, the invitees—normally the most relevant cultural figures of the year—get to mug for the camera before heading inside. As a red-carpet co-host, the actor Keke Palmer, declared at the top of last night’s show, “You can never go wrong with a message.”
And so, plenty of attendees accessorized with a declaration. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a dress with the words Tax the Rich scrawled in red down the back, her fellow Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney chose a gown festooned with support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the model Cara Delevingne donned a top that read Peg the Patriarchy. But for all the overt political messaging, only one look managed to land as both a red-carpet showstopper and a medium for actual change: Billie Eilish’s peach tulle ball gown.
At first glance, the singer’s slogan-less dress is simply showy glamour, made for the spotlight and nothing else. Working with the fashion house Oscar de la Renta, the 19-year-old pop star leaned into the blond-bombshell aesthetic of her latest album for her first Met Gala. She looked to the Holiday Barbies she’d wanted every Christmas growing up and the Old Hollywood sophistication of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe for inspiration, choosing a gargantuan confection of a dress with a 15-foot train that covered almost the entirety of the Met steps.
But Eilish, a vegan and an animal-rights activist, agreed to wear the Oscar de la Renta number only if the company stopped using fur—a debate that has apparently carried on internally for years. Alex Bolen, the brand’s chief executive, had refused to end fur sales, even when the company’s own creative directors argued that the material had gone out of style and stopped incorporating it into their collections. In pushing the fashion house to officially end the practice of selling fur products, Eilish has become, according to The New York Times, “perhaps the only Met Gala guest in history to elicit an ethical policy change from a company as a condition of wearing its gown to fashion’s version of the Super Bowl.”
In one Met Gala look, the singer managed to balance pageantry and activism without coming off as false or performative. The dress, with its soft hue and floaty design, felt fresh for a celebrity known for baggy and logo-heavy clothing; for years, her signature look involved dark hues and lime-green, dip-dyed hair. And the condition she enforced in its making is a game-changing approach to using the Met Gala’s cream carpet as a platform. In a sea of loud, cheeky messages displayed on formal wear, she took public opinion out of the equation, altering a fashion institution before she ever debuted the gown. She allowed her look to trend for its artfulness—not for the conversation it might provoke or the awareness it might raise. The matter, in other words, wouldn’t be left for debate. “I’m honored to have been a catalyst and to have been heard on this matter,” she wrote on Instagram after the gala. “I urge all designers to do the same.”
Ahead of the event, industry veterans criticized the Met Gala for inviting social-media influencers, worried that the youth-skewing focus of this year’s show—its co-chairs, including Eilish, were all under the age of 26—would tarnish the night’s prestige. They needn’t have been so concerned. If anything, influencers such as YouTuber Emma Chamberlain and TikToker Addison Rae did little to make an impact; Chamberlain arrived unfashionably early, and Rae opted for a forgettable dress, neither indulging in the one-upmanship expected of social-media celebrities.
But even among her peers, Eilish proved a singular presence, as a younger star hyperaware of her image and savvy enough to anticipate public reaction. She didn’t opt for an outrageous outfit or slink into the shadows, instead threading the needle so that her time before the cameras would be a chance to embrace her stardom and subtly underline her influence. “I’ve always wanted to do this but I was just scared and I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin and I feel like I finally did,” she told Palmer. The carpet at the Met Gala can get crowded with attendees vying for attention. With her work done before she arrived, Eilish turned it into her own stage.