Who is political slogan fashion actually for?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's "Tax the rich" Met Gala dress may have turned heads, but does it actually mean anything?

by Alim Kheraj
14 September 2021, 3:54pm

The Met Gala has never really been a space for overt political statements. Across the years, celebrities and designers have slid politics and social commentary into their designs or outfit choices, such as Madonna’s 2016 Givenchy get up (which, in typical Madonna style, was a commentary on ageism and sexism) and Lena Waithe’s 2018’s rainbow flag cape (which spoke to the Catholic Church’s views on LGBTQ+ people). However, there's rarely a whack-you-around-the-head-with-it political declaration or examples of true activist fashion.

At this year's Met Gala, a few choice attendees decided to use their time on the red carpet to make a point. Cara Delevingne arrived at the event with the words "Peg the Patriarchy" etched onto a white bullet-proof vest designed by Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri. "Equal Rights For Women" were the words emblazoned on congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney's Suffragette-inspired gown. And Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was attending the event for the first time, appeared in a white Brother Vellies gown with the slogan "Tax the rich" printed in big, bold red letters on the back.

This last outfit and the woman who was wearing it has caused quite the furore, which was no doubt the point. The look, AOC told Vogue's livestream host Ilana Glazer, came together following a conversation she had with Brother Vellies creative director and founder Aurora James about "what it means to be a working-class woman of colour at the Met". "We said we can't just play along," she added, "but we need to break the fourth wall and challenge some of the institutions."

Of course, wearing a dress that calls for greater taxation of the rich at an event attended by some of the wealthiest and influential people around is a bold move that's bound to get people talking. It's also worth noting that AOC is hardly just a slogan-wearing slacktivist: throughout her career as a democratic socialist, she has repeatedly advocated for free medical care for all, the abolition of ICE, free public college education, a Green New Deal, anti-poverty and greater access to social welfare, better labour rights, and the introduction of a marginal tax rate of 70% for those earning above $10 million. Basically, she practices what she preaches.

Still, it's understandable that the optics of it are being brought into question. While it's important to remember that the Met Gala is, first and foremost, a fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, writing on Twitter, the New York Times fashion director Vanessa Friedman dubbed AOC attending the $35,000-a-ticket Met Gala a "complicated proposition", even if she did get the ticket for free. (AOC later explained that New York elected officials, of which she is one, "are routinely invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing and supporting the city's cultural institutions for the public".)

TV writer Raina Morris joked that wearing a dress with "Tax the rich" on it at the Met Gala was akin to "swimming at seaworld in a wetsuit that says save the whales", while others on Twitter called the outfit's political statement "empty", especially given the arrests made outside the event at a Black Lives Matter protest. 

Fans and supporters of AOC have praised her for having the confidence to stand amongst the rich wearing such a statement, with left-wing political commentator and writer Owen Jones noting that AOC should be applauded for being "effective at reaching a mass audience with left ideas in novel, creative and funny ways". Indeed, on the red carpet, AOC herself told Reuters that the dress was "incredibly important, because when we talk about supporting working families and when we talk about having fair a tax code, oftentimes those conversations are happening among working and middle-class people", adding: "I think it's time that we bring all classes into the conversation about having a fair country."

Of course, we can't know whether AOC cornered Anna Wintour, Frank Ocean and Jennifer Lopez by the bar to chew over marginal tax rates (hopefully she did, because it's an image that we'd like to hold on to). However, whether she did or not is sort of besides the point: people who earn vast sums of money know they should be paying more tax, which is why they go to such great lengths to avoid doing so. What's not clear, then, is who such overt political slogan fashion is actually for. 

Undoubtedly, fashion does have political ambitions. It would be obtuse to suggest that clothing doesn't denote our political sensibilities, social class, economic status and how we view and present ourselves in society. That is particularly true when it comes to the marriage of political slogans and fashion: think about the proliferation and social impact of the red MAGA hats, Katharine Hamnett's iconic anti-nuclear "58% Don't Want Pershing" t-shirt, or ACT UP's powerful adoption of the slogan "Silence=Death". What separates these from AOC's "Tax the rich" dress, though, is that they either target a specific individual, denote a sense of collective belonging, or bring much-needed attention to an overlooked health crisis affecting marginalised individuals. "Tax the rich", while important, just doesn't hold the same sense of urgency. 

The thing about the Met Gala is that it's an opportunity to really deconstruct and critique the fashion industry and, in this case, America itself. Take Grimes, for example, who appeared at the event wielding a sword from the Metropolitan Museum's permanent collection that was made out of a Colt AR-15A3 automatic rifle in a commentary on gun control. Or Indigenous model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse, whose gold lamé gown from Peter Dundas' collection with Revolve and authentic Navajo turquoise and silver jewellery was a commentary on the erasure of Indigenous American history. If, as the writer Sean Bernard has suggested, AOC's dress had contained some more subtle or considered commentary, it could have truly broken the fourth wall, as she and designer Aurora James had hoped. 

Who, then, is such sloganised fashion for, and what purpose does it actually play? For fans and supporters of AOC, it demonstrates the congresswoman's ability to deftly navigate various spheres and the celebrification of politicians while confirming what they already believe and know about AOC. For her detractors, it provides ammunition to support the idea she's fame-hungry and her activism performative. It is, essentially, mindless fuel for the culture wars, a headline grabber that's designed to stoke division. Or perhaps it's just a dress. "The medium is the message," AOC wrote on social media about the outfit. Maybe that says it all. 

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