This conspicuous glamour worship would probably not be so noteworthy if not for the utter hilarity of these particular results: Here was a collection of America’s Most Gazed-On, solemnly strutting in a series of highly confusing, multi-thousand-dollar concoctions, apparently unaware of how foolish they looked, and indeed how foolish the proceedings appeared to onlookers beyond the fashion bubble. It was not simply that the emperor had no clothes, it was that the ones he he’d chosen were so terrible. Didn’t he know better?
Amid the full body ribbon dresses and the deconstructed tuxedos, the absurdity of what was already a fairly absurd event took on a new level of delusion—coming, as it does, at a moment when the country stands as divided as it has been over matters relating to identity and culture. It is hard to imagine most Americans clicking through the red carpet photographs of the event and feeling as if society’s elite was not living in a strange and unsettling alternate universe.
Moreover, many of these red carpet denizens—Katy Perry, Lena Dunham (who wore a Planned Parenthood pin underneath one of the ruffles on her dress), Kerry Washington, Amy Schumer—were the same artists and entertainers who had been on the campaign trail just months earlier, urging voters to elect a candidate who shared their values. And now, apparently, they were wearing shoulder pads on their heads. What kind of values were those, again? This was visual confirmation for skeptical voters that certain people were just not like the rest of us.
But the preening, celebrity self-consciousness on display at the 2017 Met Ball does not exist in a vacuum: America has, after all, elected its first reality-TV-star president, a man for whom social media has become an indispensable organ of statecraft, and who judges his own staff by the “ratings” they get. President Trump proposed to now-First Lady Melania at the Met Ball; the pair, although absent last night, had been regular attendees for many years. The very same voters who resent coastal elites elected a president who appears to thoroughly enjoy the red carpet of the Met gala and has (prior to the election, at least) consorted with the same celebs who are not like the rest of us.
Trump is the figurehead of a culture that has become obsessed with the gilded cage, and the men and women who have the keys to it, whether at Trump Tower or elsewhere. Perhaps there’s some sort of sad unity in that reality, a tacit acknowledgment that—though they may differ on whether processed lunch meat is an appropriate sartorial inspiration—Americans mostly agree that it is reasonable to celebrate and elevate the men and women who lead lives much (literally) richer than their own.
If there was a lesson buried deep underneath all those sequins and organza at the 2017 Met Ball, perhaps it was that idolatry is infectious, and that hollow self-regard may very well be a sign of these times.