This year’s America themed Met Gala featured celebrities walking up the steps in extravagant gowns and suits made by exclusive designers. Though there were many outfits that stood out, it was United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) dress that sparked controversy online — a white gown adorned with red letters that spelled out “Tax the rich,” designed by Guelph native Aurora James.
James is a Ghanaian Canadian designer, who is known for starting the 15 Percent Pledge following the passing of George Floyd. The pledge asks American retailers to reserve a minimum of 15 per cent of their shelves for Black-owned businesses. Recognizing the same discrimination north of the border, James aims to also create the 15 Percent Pledge Canada.
James explained to Vogue, “In the early pandemic, we already knew 40 per cent of black-owned businesses were closing which was far and above any other group.” To combat this statistic, she provides the simple solution, saying “15 per cent of the population should consider 15 per cent of the shelf space.”
Although James’s work has made a positive impact in the Black community, it is also worth noting that a week after the Met Gala the New York Post published an article claiming James currently owes debt in multiple states and has three open tax warrants from New York state resulting from ‘failing to withhold income taxes from employees’ paychecks.’
“Tax the rich” is a slogan made famous by AOC that reflects her current work advocating for changes to the tax code by raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy to help support more social services and to narrow the ever-growing wealth gap between America’s rich and poor.
AOC received large amounts of backlash and criticism about her dress and appearance at the Gala, as many thought it was hypocritical of her to be at such an exclusive event, with the dress thus having an “inauthentic” message.
Dr. Anna Drake, a Political Science professor at UW explained, “I think a lot of the time when people critique something like AOC’s dress being out of place, what gets lost is the fact that design and politics are connected; it’s just whether or not people think of it that way.”
She also emphasized that this critiquing and need for separation between the topics “is a way to silence talking about politics that people who have power don’t enjoy talking about.”
Although this combination of politics and design was new for some, many agreed that the conversation of wealth and taxes is one that needs to be included in the Met Gala and is part of ‘who we are’.
Each year the Gala’s theme is chosen in coordination with the Met’s spring exhibition which aims to tell a story and remember history. Many celebrities were scrutinized for not following this year’s theme of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” but many would argue that AOC’s dress perfectly represented the theme.
Drake commented on AOC’s adherence to the theme. “Her wearing that tax the rich dress was making a deliberate point about what, according to her, America ought to do and then used all the publicity to talk about what we could do with money from taxing the rich, which is to address climate change, education, healthcare and then bring it right back to the focus on America.”
The Met Gala is known to have an exclusive guest list. However, in an interview with Vogue, Ocasio-Cortez said, “The Met is an institution that belongs to the people. What are we doing if we aren’t growing that table and bringing more people into that conversation? This year’s Gala is the opportunity to have conversations about the communities where we are from”.
She also explained that she hoped to send a message by debuting her Met dress and tell the youth from all over that ‘they belong here and they belong everywhere’.
James, the dress’ designer, is the founder of Brother Vellies, an accessories brand that aspires to preserve traditional African design techniques. In 2015, James inspired Ocasio-Cortez, who was a bartender at the time, by winning the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.
Ocasio-Cortez describes how James’ story of moving to New York with $3,000 while selling clothes at the Brooklyn Flea market to now being a guest and designer at the Met Gala is “really the story of our city.”
The choice of a sustainability driven, black immigrant designer, who strives to uplift the Black community further reinforced Ocasio-Cortez’s message that ‘everyone belongs at the Met’ and that ‘this is America and our story’.