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14 September 2021

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Met Gala gown won’t change the system

The congresswoman’s “tax the rich” dress was a clever wink to how things could be – but it hasn’t altered how they are.

By Emily Tamkin

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswoman from the Bronx, New York, and one of the most high-profile progressives in the US, attended the Met Gala on Monday night. Known as fashion’s biggest night out, the gala is an annual fundraising effort for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Attendees are supposed to dress according to a theme; this year’s was “In America”.

Ocasio-Cortez showed up in a white dress that read, on the back, “TAX THE RICH”. “As a working class woman, [I] wanted to enjoy the event but also ‘break the fourth wall’ and challenge the industry,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

However, some have dismissed Ocasio-Cortez as hypocritical for choosing to attend the expensive and elite event, particularly in a dress calling for higher taxes. Donald Trump Jr, the adult son of former president Donald Trump, called Ocasio-Cortez a fraud

Such criticism of the congresswoman is not new. When Ocasio-Cortez was on the cover of Vanity Fair last year, the New York Post wrote an article observing that the outfit she was in cost $14,000. In 2019, she was blasted by the Washington Times for spending $300 on a haircut and highlights (despite this being, as Allure helpfully explained, what a haircut and highlights cost).

So was attending the Met Gala a misstep by someone who advocates for the redistribution of wealth? Or a shrewd political statement?

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Ocasio-Cortez did not require wealth herself to attend the event: the ticket was complimentary and the dress was borrowed from designer Brother Vellies. She has said she attended the event as part of her duty as a New York official. And to state the plainly obvious: a person can show up to a fancy party and still believe that rich people should pay more in taxes, as Ocasio-Cortez, an avowed socialist, has long said she does. 

More importantly still, Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2018 unseated the powerful congressional Democrat Joe Crowley in a primary and has continued to make headlines ever since, is a very savvy politician who understands how to start and change conversations.

Other celebrities in attendance were also wearing political statements. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wore a dress signalling support for equal rights for women, while football star Megan Rapinoe held up a little sign in support of gay rights.

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Yet while the dress made a highly public political statement, that statement had its limits, and should not be confused with achieving political change.

The Met Gala remains a fundamentally inequitable event, access to which is generally limited to the rich, famous or powerful. The fashion industry ultimately remains unchallenged: it exists today as it did yesterday.

Outside the event, Black Lives Matter protesters assembled, and were arrested. The dress was a clever message, a wink to how things could be – but the Met Gala is still a symbol of continuity, not disruption.