NEW YORK – The cost for a seat at Monday night’s Met Gala started at $35,000, and tables went for $200,000 to $300,000. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., walked into the room full of celebrities and rich people (often one and the same) with a message: A white gown with blood red letters on the back reading, “TAX THE RICH.”
Speaking with The Washington Post as she walked up the event’s beige carpet, Ocasio-Cortez said she was anticipating some blowback for attending a gala seen as elitist, and in the middle of a pandemic no less.
“I mean, I think I’m kind of at the point where no matter what I do, if I wake up in the morning, there’s going to be someone who has something to say about that,” she said as Megan Fox and Diane Kruger crossed the carpet behind her.
Formally known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit, the black-tie extravaganza ranks as one of the most photographed events of the year, an equivalent of the Oscars, but with many more fascinating fashion risks. (Kim Kardashian, for example, wore a head-to-toe black Balenciaga haute couture outfit that rendered her ghostly and faceless, drawing comparisons to a bank robber wearing a pantyhose to disguise their face, or a Dementor from Harry Potter.) All the pomp has a noble purpose: The night is a fundraiser for the museum’s Costume Institute, which is putting on an exhibition on American fashion. The 2021 gala raised a record-breaking $16.75 million and is the primary source for the institute’s annual budget.
Instagram sponsored the gala and plenty of billionaires were in attendance, including Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb. Invited celebrities, including celebrity congresswomen like Ocasio-Cortez, are part of the draw and attend for free.
Indeed, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Mayor Bill de Blasio were on that same carpet, too, and barely raised an eyebrow. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wore a gown adorned with the purple, white and gold colors of the suffrage movement and a sash that read “Equal Rights for Women.” Her bag read, “ERA YES,” referring to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment that would amend the U.S. Constitution to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex.
But none have received the conservative backlash heaped on Ocasio-Cortez. One Twitter user pointed out that she needed help getting down the steps, as did most women in their gigantic gowns, as if she were royalty. Another joked that she was now selling “Tax the Rich” caviar for $10,000 a can. Someone else replaced “Tax the Rich” with “Let Them Eat Cake” in a photograph. “BACKLASH: AOC Under Fire for Wearing ‘Tax the Rich’ Gown to NYC’s Ultra-Elite Met Gala,” Sean Hannity wrote on his blog.
There was one unlikely defender, though. “Not an @aoc hater. But come on, going to an event for super-rich with ‘tax the rich’ written on your ass, won’t change a thing,” political commentator Ana Navarro-Cárdenas said on Twitter. “It’s a stunt to justify her presence at an fancy shin-dig that doesn’t match her political persona. She still looks better that Kim K in the bat outfit.”
Ocasio-Cortez, 31, has been a conservative lightning rod ever since she was elected as the youngest congresswoman in history in 2018, and is seen as representing a liberal faction of the Democratic Party that is often at odds with moderate members and sometimes even President Joe Biden. She’s been one of the most outspoken members in Congress advocating for reforming the tax code and taxing the ultrawealthy to pay for social services such as child care and health care. When Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., slept on the steps of the Capitol to protest the end to the pandemic-related eviction moratorium, Ocasio-Cortez was one of the first of Bush’s colleagues to join her.
On Wednesday, she retweeted Biden, who’d written, “It’s time the super-wealthy and big corporations pay their fair share in taxes.”
Accompanying Ocasio-Cortez was the dress’s Black, Ghanaian Canadian designer, Aurora James, founder and creative director of Brother Veilles, a luxury accessories brand centered on keeping traditional African design techniques alive, as well as founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, a nonprofit that boosts Black brands. Like the congresswoman, she wore suffrage white. Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, often pairs such guests with designers who custom-design what they wear as a courtesy.
“I feel like if the congresswoman was going to come to the Met, she might as well come with a message,” said James, who pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s dress was the product of a lot of hard work by many people in New York’s Garment District .
Ocasio-Cortez was still a bartender when she first heard of James, she said on the carpet Monday evening. “And I remember being totally blown away at the time, working from behind the bar saying, ‘Oh, my God, it’s possible and she did it,” referring to James winning a prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2015.
She’d been inspired, Ocasio-Cortez said, by how James “started out just a couple of years ago with three grand in her pocket,” selling her clothes at the Brooklyn Flea market, and was now at the Met Gala. “That’s really the story of our city,” she said. “It’s the story of we should be centered, especially as a Black woman immigrant designer in an industry where that is severely underrepresented.”
After the gala – which included a menu of plant-based dishes from 10 rising New York chefs and featured a performance by Justin Bieber – Ocasio-Cortez appeared to be trying to head off some criticism before it started.
“And before haters get wild flying off the handle,” she tweeted, “New York elected officials are routinely invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing and supporting the city’s cultural institutions for the public. I was one of several in attendance in this evening.” It ended with a hugging face emoji.
So she released a statement on Instagram Tuesday.
She’d thought about the criticism she’d get for going, Ocasio-Cortez wrote, “but honestly I and my body have been so heavily and relentlessly policed from all corners politically since the moment I won my election that it’s kind of become expected and normalized to me.”
If she’d been afraid of the criticism and not worn the dress, she wrote, she might have been called “inauthentic” or “too calculated.”
“But we all had a conversation about Taxing the Rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, and punctured the 4th wall of excess and spectacle,” she continued in the statement.
She was there in her capacity as a public official trying to support a public arts institution, she concluded. Then she encouraged everyone to go to the Met to see the exhibit, adding that New York City residents can even pay what they wish.