On Monday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting its annual ball known as the Met Gala, an iconic cultural event that assembles luminaries in the arts, athletic and intellectual worlds to raise funds for the Met’s Costume Institute.
Guests of the gala are required to adorn themselves in a specific historical theme that corresponds with the Costume Institute’s opening exhibition. This produces a live presentation of aesthetic political history — a visual representation of how clothing has been used to create, reflect and contest the values, mores and challenges of a particular historical moment.
This year’s theme celebrates the career of Karl Lagerfeld, a designer whose career spanned from the 1950s to his death in 2019. Consequently, attire on Monday could gesture, as Lagerfeld’s designs have, to the optimism of the 1950s, the “youthquake” of the 1960s, the rebellion and revolution of the 1970s, the materialism and glamour of the 1980s, the practicality and functionality of the ‘90s and the transition from the Y2K avant-garde mode of the early 2000s to the eco-friendly and sustainable clothing options of the 2010s.
Certainly, Lagerfeld engaged and embodied the ideas and spirit of the eras in which he lived. But he also found inspiration for his work by studying the “age of revolutions” in the 18th century — a time of vast historical change with dramatic and decisive political contestations within America, France and Haiti. In choosing to use the eruptions of the 18th century as motivation for employing aesthetics to demonstrate the changes of his time, Lagerfeld emulated one of the most famous ambassadors of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson spent his public life using visual mechanisms — for example, clothing, paintings, architecture, sculpture and the presentation of food — to engage with and comment on the politics and ideas of his era.
For instance, although Jefferson came into the presidency with a reputation for having a penchant for fine dressing and a knowledge and appreciation of fine arts, he often conspicuously eschewed the formal dress code of a statesman to wear more-plain clothes. He sought to emulate the “common man” to champion the notion of a democratic-republicanism. Scandalous stories frequently emerged about Jefferson donning mismatched jackets and trousers, old bath robes and slippers, with disheveled hair while receiving prominent guests at the White House. Most famously, Jefferson seemed to have offended British envoy Anthony Merry, who arrived to meet him in full diplomatic regalia, only to find the president unkempt. Merry interpreted Jefferson’s appearance as a personal affront to him and the entire English government, recounting ad nauseam the story of the offense to anyone willing to listen.