The personal style of left-wing women has often been subjected to ideological purity tests. I still dimly recall the frenzied fashion coverage of Nguyen Thi Binh, a Vietcong activist who headed the South Vietnamese delegation to the Paris Peace Accords, where her American counterpart was Henry Kissinger. At the time, there were very few women anywhere in the world in such visible leadership positions. (The exceptions included Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi.) Nguyen, known as Madame Binh, was a bona-fide communist revolutionary. She had, she told a journalist, years later, stopped in Moscow, on her way to Paris, to shop for a few essentials. She didn’t own a winter coat, and she fell in love with a fur, though of course she didn’t buy it. (She settled for a sewn-on fur collar.) “I felt very tense, but I always tried to smile and speak softly before the media,” she continued. Some of the journalists, she recalled, “asked me where I had my ao dai made or got my hair cut. They were very surprised when I answered that I do it by myself.”
Even for a progressive American politician challenging the capitalist status quo, any sign of frivolity or materialism is a risk. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has learned this lesson before. Last year, she was criticized for appearing on “The View” in what the New York Post called a “luxe designer dress.” (Members of Congress typically earn a hundred and seventy-four thousand dollars annually. Was she supposed to go on television in sackcloth?) None of her fashion choices, however, has occasioned as much reproach as the gown that she wore to the Met Gala on Monday night. The theme of this year’s event, “American independence,” elicited the predictable red-white-and-blue tropes. Jennifer Lopez killed in a cowboy hat. A.O.C., however, made her entrance in what looked, at first, like a bridal gown—a shapely white satin sheath with a mermaid flounce—except for the slogan scrawled on the back in bold red letters: “Tax the Rich.”
The gown’s designer, Aurora James, who posed with Ocasio-Cortez on the beige carpet, is the founder of Brother Vellies, a line of shoes and accessories inspired by African designs and handicrafts. The brand’s Web site advertises its commitment to sustainable practices and to the creation of artisanal jobs. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, last summer, James launched the 15 Percent Pledge, a nonprofit initiative that encourages retailers to reserve fifteen per cent of their shelf space for the products of Black-owned businesses. A.O.C. made a point of describing James as a woman of color (her father is Ghanaian) and an immigrant. The press quickly noted that James had emigrated from an upscale neighborhood outside of Toronto, and that she was dating Benjamin Bronfman, the son of a billionaire industrialist. The media also griped that tickets to the event cost thirty-five thousand dollars, and that A.O.C.’s had been comped (a courtesy routinely extended to politicians).
The storm of criticism came from both the right and the left. The former decried Ocasio-Cortez’s “hypocrisy” for appearing at, and seeming to enjoy, a ritzy, ultra-exclusive celebrity fund-raiser that supports an élite cultural institution, one to which few, if any, of her constituents would ever be invited. (The Met’s Costume Institute raises the greater part of its annual budget at the gala.) The latter accused her of paying flippant sartorial lip service to a legislative goal that she and her caucus have yet to achieve. But both sides missed the point. Whatever you thought of the dress (a lovely and flattering confection), there was nothing hypocritical about its message. A.O.C. is a stalwart advocate for progressive issues—tax reform and income inequality prime among them. And whatever you think about her effectiveness as a congresswoman, she is entitled to enjoy the perks of her prominence and charisma, not to mention of her youth. (Early labor activists faced the same sniping. One of them, Clara Lemlich, when she was twenty-three, defied her critics—including those among the male leadership of the garment workers’ union—by dressing fashionably for the picket lines. It was, in her view, an assertion of self-respect that challenged the image of working women as pathetic, downtrodden victims.)
What constitutes protest fashion? That, I think, is the real question the Met brouhaha raises. Politically engaged women have often used fashion to highlight their oppression as a sex or a class. They have sometimes done so by co-opting male attire when it was forbidden to them. Lady Godiva used nudity. The suffragists wore white. Black activists of the nineteen-sixties adopted African styles of dress and grooming. A.O.C. is in some ways in a trickier position. She is a powerful woman whose ambition is to serve the disempowered. She also happens to be chic enough to hold her own in a crowd of models and fashionistas. Bernie Sanders, in his rumpled windbreaker and Inaugural mittens, might have been stopped by security. (He also might have chosen to hang out with the protesters outside the museum.)
Ocasio-Cortez’s dress offered no overt criticism of conspicuous consumption or of the economics of the fashion industry, whose moguls belong to the .01 per cent. It was preaching to a choir of Democratic donors and liberal celebrities, including Ivanka Trump’s sister-in-law Karlie Kloss. (Too bad they didn’t offer to wear buttons with the slogan “Tax Me—I’m Rich.”) In that regard, A.O.C.’s outfit registered more as a stunt than as a protest. It was designed, consciously or not, to enhance her brand—or firebrand, in this case. It did, however, perfectly embody the spirit of the evening, since what is more fashionably American than self-promotion? The Bronx congresswoman was aware that the dress would provoke controversy—from “the haters,” as she put it, in an Instagram post, noting that her body has been “heavily and relentlessly policed from all corners.” She added that a woman in her position who shies from confrontation and errs on the side of caution is then “criticized for being ‘inauthentic’ and ‘too calculated.’ ” But perhaps that was the problem with her dress: it didn’t go far enough.
Protest fashion has the greatest symbolic power when it represents a show of solidarity rather than a flamboyant individual provocation. The Black Lives Matter T-shirts worn by W.N.B.A. players in 2016 were a stirring and graphic use of clothing to protest injustice. The white pantsuits and dresses of congresswomen in the audience of Trump’s State of the Union address, in 2019, conveyed a version of the same message: we stand together against the evils that bedevil American society. Even those Pepto-Bismol-pink pussy hats, which have justly been criticized as reductive feminist symbols, were, at the Women’s March against Trump’s election, in January of 2017, an expression of collective revulsion at the elevation of an avowed pussy grabber to the White House.
So let’s consider, for a moment, what a more meaningful fashion protest at the Met Gala might have looked like. Kim Kardashian, I thought, missed an opportunity. She might have accessorized her black couture shroud, by Balenciaga, with the Grim Reaper’s scythe, and a banner that announced, “The End Is Nigh for Anti-Vaxxers.” Debbie Harry modelled a saucy denim biker jacket over a postmodern hoop skirt whose exposed wire frame was festooned with red and white ribbons. Did it represent a deconstructed flag—the emblem of an unravelling republic? Was she alluding to the storming of the Capitol? If so, a pair of longhorns might have been a nice touch. Amanda Gorman, the petite Inaugural poet, also made a patriotic allusion—to the Statue of Liberty. She looked adorable in a cobalt-blue minidress that sparkled with crystals under a sheer overskirt. But if it hadn’t been for her minaudière, shaped like a book, with the title, à la Lady Liberty, “Give Us Your Tired” (to which the event’s waitstaff, security guards, and harried assistants might have sighed, “Amen”), you could have been forgiven for thinking her allusion was to a sugar-frosted blueberry pie—a Fourth of July staple.
In that tame context, Ocasio-Cortez’s fashion statement was bolder than anyone’s, though perhaps not as bold as it might have been. She and Aurora James might have defied the protocols of the event’s organizers in restricting the guest list to a stringently vetted A-list. They might have invited one of the artisans who made the dress or a representative of Workers United, a union that represents the garment industry. (They would then, of course, have been accused of hypocritical tokenism.) Or, like so many guests at the Oscars, A.O.C. might have brought her mother, Blanca Ocasio-Cortez. The elder Ocasio-Cortez, according to Alexandria, “mopped floors” and “drove school buses” to support her children after her husband’s death. Blanca is one of her daughter’s staunchest supporters in, as she puts it, “fighting for the working class.”