Why AOC’s Met Gala dress doesn’t make her a hypocrite

Why AOC’s Met Gala dress doesn’t make her a hypocrite
Commentators from both the left and right have decried the ‘Tax the Rich’ dress Rep. Ocasio-Cortez wore to the event, which fetches over $30,000 per ticket

Among the many standout moments of last night’s Met Gala — I’m looking at you, Balenciaga-cloaked Kim Kardashian — was one created by the single politician in attendance. Decked out in a white gown designed by Brother Vellies, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York wore her heart and mind on her sleeve (or, more accurately, her bodice). “Tax the Rich,” read the dress in red lettering, a call-to-arms at an event that purportedly fetches over $30,000 per ticket.

The masses took no time at all in criticizing Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s choices. A jab by the conservative daily The New York Post called the representative a socialist — in quotation marks. On the other side of the spectrum, the actor Michael Rapaport — who is known, among other things, for his assertive and leftist social media presence — decried the choice as a publicity stunt. “Stop treating ANY of these people like celebrities,” he wrote on Instagram. “They are public servants and work for us.”

The implication in the criticism of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is that this segment of the arts — fashion — has no business involving politics. But actually, fashion has long been a conduit for political thought, and those who think otherwise lack a true command of fashion’s complicated history.

Before we knew and acknowledged the adage about wearing white after Labor Day, for instance, women wore white to signify something broader than season. In 1908, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a Suffragette, made official three colors of the American women’s suffrage movement: purple, gold, and white. These colors were later winnowed down. To wear white, as a woman, meant nonverbal dedication to the cause. This tradition is still observed; in 2016, when accepting the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wore white. At the 2019 State of the Union address, three years later, Democratic Congresswomen carried on the same tradition.

Thirty years after white became the signature color for suffragist, a woman named Helen Hulick showed up to court in Los Angeles wearing pants. Hulick, a kindergarten teacher, was set to testify in a burglary case. The sitting judge, appalled by Hulick’s pants, sent her home and rescheduled the hearing. She returned in pants and was reprimanded again. On the third pass, the judge held her in contempt. That contempt citation was later overturned by an appellate court, freeing Hulick to dress as she pleased.

The truth is, women have always used clothing — the most accessible medium — to express their politics. One might say that such choices in the everyday sphere have been more subtle. Ocasio-Cortez’s dress, of course, was anything but. And that was entirely appropriate for the space in which the statement was made.

It’s no accident that the theme of last night’s gala was American Independence. In some ways, the Congresswoman’s dress was merely answering a question posed: What does it mean to be an independent American? What does American independence look like? For Kim Kardashian, it means to be shrouded from the world. For Nicki Minaj, who could not attend the gala due to her vaccination status and who tweeted concerns about swollen testicles, it means to deny science. And for Ocasio-Cortez, it means to raise questions about economic inequality, in bold red letters.

There is no difference between Joy Villa’s Trump attire seen at the Grammys and Ocasio-Cortez’s political messaging seen last night (apart from the fact that the former is on the wrong side of history). And even those who choose to wear major labels without inscription still make themselves a part of something political, intentionally or no. Coco Chanel, a vocal anti-Semite who had a relationship with Nazi officer Hans Günther von Dincklage during the Second World War, is more than just a perfume, more than just a quilted bag. To wear Chanel’s clothing is to embrace the designer’s history, all of it, political baggage and all. Your fashion says something about you — something you may not even acknowledge.

And so, no, Ocasio-Cortez did not err in conflating fashion with politics. Her choice, rather, carried on the long tradition of speaking without saying a single word. An AOC in white, or a Nicki Minaj in denial? The choice is clear.

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