The red carpet as a concept stretches back, as far as we know today, to 458 B.C. In the Aeschylus play Agamemnon, the hero of the Trojan War returns home to find that his wife has rolled out a crimson carpet for him to walk upon—a visual celebration of his wartime escapades. Agamemnon, however, resists stepping on “these tinted splendors”: The carpet is the walkway of the gods, he explains, and he—“a man, a mortal”—cannot claim such a luxury for himself.
The red carpet of today, pranced upon by gods of a distinctly mortal variety, knows no such modesty. On the contrary: It has become its own kind of war zone, one that demands that those who walk upon it slay, and kill it, and otherwise win. One in which the work of unseen strategists—designers; stylists; publicists; manicurists; facialists—is finally put to the test of battle. The red carpet is a Darwinian competition that has also, in the manner of the circuses of the ancients, become a form of public spectacle.
Nothing is a better reminder of that than the Met Gala, the event that styles itself as “fashion’s biggest evening.” Monday’s version of the event—theme: manus x machina, or the interplay of clothing and technology—was, like its recent predecessors have been, fashion at its most pure: fun, whimsical, a little bit magical. Fashion that is less concerned with beauty than it is with making a point, and making a statement. The gala may not be “fashion’s biggest evening” in the minds of the public at large; that honor traditionally goes to the Oscars, or the Golden Globes, or the Emmys. That’s unfortunate, though, because what the Met Gala offers is fashion stripped, wonderfully, of pretense: fashion that feels no need to justify itself. If the red carpet is a war zone, the Met Gala treats clothing—not beauty, or grace, or wealth, or status, but clothing—as its primary weapons.
Compare the Met Gala, for example, to the Oscars. Every year, inevitably, there is backlash against some inanity that’s taken place as the awards show fosters its awkward collision between “celebrities as celebrities” and “celebrities as people.” Every year, watchers get justifiably annoyed by the fact that actresses get asked about their outfits, while actors get asked about their work. Every year, something happens along the lines of E!’s “mani cam”—some misguided attempt to make the red carpet more than it is. Every year, in other words, producers of the Oscars—and of every sub-production in the awards show’s orbit—try to make the Oscars’ red carpet about more than the red carpet, more than the fashion. Every year, that carpet—and all the people, and all the clothing, walking upon it—are washed not only with bright lights, but also with a vague sense of shame.
The Met Gala carries no such qualms about its purpose or its point. It celebrates the red carpet clothing the way viewers, at home on their couches, tend to see it: as something fun and low-stakes and, in that, interesting in its own right. It presents fashion as art in itself. The gala does that not only in its meta-messaging (the fact that the event raises money specifically for the purpose of displaying clothing in a museum), but also in every bit of its execution. (It’s no accident that Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue and the Met Gala’s chair, “oversees every detail, down to timed entrances for guests.”) Fashion, here, is entirely—honestly, refreshingly—the point.
That’s not to say that the red carpet is the event in itself. Sure, there’s also a dinner (Madonna, last night, made a point of mentioning that she was looking forward to the breadsticks). Sure, there’s performance of a more traditional strain (Nas, last night, joined The Weeknd for a live rendition of “Tell Your Friends”). Sure, there will occasionally be some human dramas to crowd out the clothes. (The Met Gala is the event that, in 2014, preceded the now-infamous elevator tussle between Solange Knowles and Jay Z.)
None of those things, however, are broadcast as part of the Meta Gala’s official proceedings. As far as the public is concerned, the performance it offers is relegated to the red carpet. The performance is the red carpet. The images from the color-swathed steps of the Met Museum are captured not just by a cavalry of professional photographers; they are also, at this point, Facebook Lived and Periscoped and Vined and Instagrammed and snapped. They become fodder for public discussion on Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp. Through that, the clothes exist in a dialogue with the broader public, via memes and appreciations and, quite often, Joan Rivers-style snark. And that conversation, whatever tone it takes, carries the broader recognition that fashion is itself worthy of conversation and discussion. And that, despite all the couture on display on the red carpet, there is something wonderfully democratic about fashion as a form.
It’s notable, in that sense, that one of the most prominent designers displayed on the red carpet last night was—in addition to Calvin Klein and Michael Kors and Vera Wang—H&M. It’s notable that one of the most striking outfits was not a ball gown, but a track suit (worn, with pearls and heels, by Miuccia Prada). And it’s notable, too, that the Met Ball has a way of making the beautiful … a little bit boring. Even Claire Danes’s fanciful Cinderella-style confection—an enormous Zac Posen number that glowed in the dark—and Georgina Chapman’s airy, LED-studded gown were slightly dull next to, say, Karlie Kloss’s bare and thought-provoking architectural number. Or Madonna’s goth-inflected chaps. Or Kanye’s bedazzled Balmain. The Met Ball is elitist in many, many ways; on the other hand, though, it rewards effort, and hunger, and originality, and individuality. The gala is in that way refreshingly democratic: Its red carpet, say what else you will about it, is made for mortals.