On Monday night, celebrities, models, influencers, and politicians made their way down the gold carpet, showing off their fashion chops with the return of the annual Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. As guests arrived and revealed their looks, some came bearing messages for equality, environmental action, and animal rights. 

This year's theme, like those that came before, was open for wide interpretations. The fundraiser's theme “American Independence” ran in conjunction with a two-part exhibit celebrating American fashion, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”.

A global pandemic continues to rage on with America’s continuing death tolls attributed to holdouts on COVID-19 vaccinations. Half of the country burns while the other half treads water, racial injustices continue being ignored or swept under the rug — what does a couture celebration of American independence look like in our time?

This year’s Met Gala was marked by a series of evolutions for the most exclusive and disciplined fashion event of the year. The invitees were younger than ever, and the exhibit celebrating American fashion and designers was intentionally youth-focused. Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, said the move toward centering young designers was intrinsic to the theme. 

“American designers, particularly the younger designers, are at the forefront of conversations about ethical issues, environmental issues, inclusivity, and diversity,” said Bolton. 

Fashion and activism have long gone hand in hand. From feminism and mini skirts to voting rights and “Sunday bests,” fashion, as an art form, can mean freedom of expression, exemplification of autonomy, and a definition of one’s role in society.

So when it comes to protest fashion on theme with a celebration of America, there’s no shortage of potential and opportunity. 

Here are six ways celebs made a statement at the 2021 Met Gala.

1. Billie Eilish 

Donning a glamorous Oscar de la Renta ball gown, Billie Eilish turned heads and changed attitudes with her Met Gala debut. A vocal supporter of animal rights, the 19-year-old vegan superstar (and Global Citizen Live artist) used the fashion event to influence change in the luxurious fashion house. 

“It was an honor to wear this dress knowing that going forward Oscar de la Renta will be completely fur-free!!!!” Eilish wrote in an Instagram post. She went on to thank the creative designers for making a change to benefit causes she regularly champions: the planet, the environment, and animals. Eilish also used the opportunity to urge other designers to follow their lead. 

2. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A regular advocate for equality and the environment, US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has never turned down an opportunity to make a statement. “Tax the rich,” inscribed in red on her white gown, quickly took over headlines and stirred up online debates, both being regular challenges AOC is all too familiar with

In an Instagram caption, AOC made sure to credit Aurora James, the Black woman and immigrant who designed the gown read around the world. She also noted that her whole team for her look that night, including makeup and hair, was composed of only BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ talents. 

“The time is now for child care, health care, and climate action for all,” she wrote.

3. Dan Levy

Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek fame took to the spotlight to showcase a custom design made in collaboration with the designer Jonathan Anderson. The puffy-shouldered ensemble took on a global look, literally, and drew inspiration from American artist and activist David Wojnarowicz. Vanity Fair reported that Levy and Anderson created the design to highlight “the resilience and the love and the joy” of the LGBTQ+ community.

While Levy’s outfit was born out of celebration for the LGBTQ+ community, the inspiration for its messaging came from a time of struggle. Wojnarowicz was a vocal AIDS and gay rights activist whose work called attention to the vulnerable community ignored throughout the AIDS epidemic. Levy notes that while this design came from a place of joy, there’s still work to be done. 

“Jonathan described [the look] as a superhero for the community, and when I put it on, I definitely feel that. And to me — that’s an America that I want to be a part of” Levy said to Vanity Fair. 

4. Carolyn Maloney

The young may have dominated conversations around the event, with Gen-Z icons Amanda Gorman, Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka, and Timothée Chalamet hosting the night. But there was also US Rep. Carolyn Maloney. The 75-year-old congresswoman from New York used her attendance as a rallying cry for women’s rights. In a purple, white, and gold dress meant to represent the women’s suffrage movement, Maloney did not hold back on her messaging. 

On Twitter, Maloney posted a photo of her in her dress, striped with the phrase “equal rights for women.” Her purse even read “ERA YES,” referring to a proposed amendment to the constitution which would add discrimination based on sex to the Equal Rights Ammendment. 

“Across the country, women’s rights are under attack. I have long used fashion as a force 4 change. As the Met Costume Institute reopens w/ their inaugural exhibit celebrating American designers, I am calling 4 the certification of the ERA so women can be equal once and for all,” Maloney tweeted.

5. Nikkie de Jager (Nikkie Tutorials)

YouTube creator, makeup guru, and LGBTQ+ activist Nikkie de Jager paid homage to the late trans icon Marsha P. Johnson with a bright aquamarine dress, accented with flowers and a sash reading “pay it no mind.” The phrase was Johnson’s response to those who questioned her gender. De Jager, a Dutch trans woman, paid her respects to Johnson the morning of the event, laying flowers by the shore where she was found deceased. 

“I knew I wanted to pay homage to a trans icon who was at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots … Marsha P. Johnson paved the way for so many of us, and I hope I made my community proud tonight,” de Jager wrote on Instagram. 

6. Naomi Osaka 

Osaka, the 23-year-old Japanese tennis phenom, used the American-centric theme to express her perception of the country. Osaka, who has been criticized from all sides for her mixed heritage, made her Met Gala debut in a watercolor-inspired gown, paying homage to her Japanese heritage. Osaka, of Japanese and Haitian descent moved to the US when she was three years old. 

"To me American means a mix of all cultures and this dress and this look represents my two backgrounds, American and Japanese," she said to Yahoo. 

At a time where the US grapples with the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans due to xenophobia and stereotyping in response to COVID-19 fears, Osaka’s gown seemed to ask: What does it mean to celebrate a country, a culture, that often leaves you behind?

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

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By Kate Nakamura