Welcome to this year’s Met Red Carpet Gala, which lived up to its “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” premise by being so direct yet so broad a theme that it essentially required a level of participation where you were either wearing Catholicism cosplay or probably off the brief! You got us again, Catholicism, you sneaky thing.
(Red carpet; “Madonna and Child with Saints,”Giovanni di Paolo, 1454)
And boy, there were a lot of feelings about Catholicism happening on this carpet and in the internet-mosphere. One thing I saw that I’d like to discount fairly wholesale before we get started is that an exhibit like this is disrespectful to Catholicism.
On the surface, this seems like a fair enough flag, along the lines of the flags raised about the China exhibit in 2015. However, the China exhibit was largely curated by outsiders, using clothes designed by outsiders, and so any concerns about misunderstandings and slights in the exhibit itself were likely well-founded. (I found parts of the exhibit very interesting, but the curatorial captioning was often blatantly disingenuous, trying to sell the idea of appropriation as cultural exchange, and if you’ve seen The First Monday in May, you know that curator Andrew Bolton and Anna Wintour ran into several tough questions they couldn’t answer when they went to China for press and potential exhibit pieces. At one point, Wong Kar-Wai had to talk Bolton out of putting a Mao suit in the same room as a Buddha, so.)
Meanwhile, Catholicism (the religion in which I was raised, just to get that out of the way) is one of the most widespread, powerful organizations in the world, with two thousand years of history, much of which was spent conquering others to fill its own coffers, and it’s such a ubiquitous entity that it’s built one of the most universally recognizable visual dictionaries in the world. It spent several hundred years developing a very intricate system of visual signals for a stable of hundreds of saints that could be instantly parsed by an illiterate public, from heraldic colors to mysticism. It raised church after church and sent out missionaries and conducted the Inquisition and waged war in the Holy Land and spurred the colonization of any land that could bring money from the newly faithful, and the whole idea, the entire time, was to create recognizable iconography that would legitimize its desire to possess all things.
The carpenters and fishermen are flooded with gold leaf on their altarpieces; the Vatican’s art collection is a treasure of the world; the medieval and Renaissance vestments currently in the Met collection were overtly meant to compete with the garments of royalty to legitimize the impression of worldly authority over the people. Catholicism absolutely wants you to know when it’s there. It wants you to love things that look Catholic. It wants you to think of it when you’re away.
It’s why we understand this is a Catholic-themed event without any crosses necessary. (It’s also why vampire stories work, but somehow, almost no one in this entire red carpet was willing to go Gothic enough to do vampire anything? Gigantic missed opportunity, everybody. Prime group costume material. Really disappointed.)
Catholicism has been asking people to understand and adopt its imagery for a long, long time, and has put money and blood behind the effort. If Rihanna wants to dress like the Pope, and your first instinct is that’s disrespectful to the Pope, 1) please check the history of the Pope taking advantage of the Church’s unfathomable wealth for his personal use via vestments, jewelry, and the Vatican art collection, 2) tough.
She did, by the way. Straight-up Pontifexed herself.
That doesn’t mean this was an easy brief! You could tell by looking at the red carpet that it was, as usual, too much of a brief for many of the participants. It is, however, a brief it’s possible to take extremely literally, in a way it’s almost impossible to do with, say, Manus x Machina, which inherently demands some interpretation. You can go absolutely full Catholic at a moment’s notice; all that imagery is designed to be striking, and designers are ready to assist. Vestments, portraits of beautiful women explained as Mary and the saints, the crown of thorns, the garden of Eden, the heavenly hosts, the brides of Christ, the brides…
There are so many options, in fact, that it seems almost impossible to stumble off the brief if you wanted to be on it. These are not niche looks, and they do not have particularly niche meanings! I put Catwoman in the McQueen on that top row precisely because the cardinal cape suggests Borgian power grabs! This red carpet is an absolute gimme!
Honestly, you wouldn’t even have to stick to these filtered interpretations. The Catholic imagination is wide and its inspiration vast. There are a hundred ways to wink at Catholicism. A thousand! Gold, brocade, layers, heavy drape, jewels, halos, the works! It’s very likely easier to be Catholic entirely by accident than to completely fuck up this red carpet!
This is the Met Gala carpet. You can’t just suggest; you have to sell.
So despite a much easier brief than the last two years, this year’s Met Gala still has all the problems of any other Met red carpet. Celebrities who attend are often at the whim of the designer who invited them, and many of them are very conscious of a public image that relies on personal style over Fashion, and they flat-out don’t want to risk looking foolish on a red carpet because they committed too hard to the brief. (Nobody wants to be Reese Witherspoon at the Halloween party in Legally Blonde; they wouldn’t be, at the Met Gala, but I understand that the concern is hard to shake.) Some people were busy bringing the Catholicism to the carpet metaphorically, like Grimes, who brought Elon Musk with her as a reminder that the devil is alive and at work in the world. (See also: Jared Leto, who is not here because we don’t need that shit.)
There are practical considerations, too. I assume several of the pieces above are so on-the-nose that they’re actually in the exhibit, and there’s some “don’t wear the band’s shirt to the concert” feeling there. And for some people, there might be personal reasons to avoid visibly buying into Catholicism, and that’s perfectly fair. Even if I wasn’t comfortable with the brief in a given year, I likely wouldn’t turn down the Met Gala red carpet, particularly if my career was image-based; I, too, would be one of the scrambling many, and people scrolling past my photo would make a tiny sad trombone noise and keep going.
But there’s also the problem that is universal to red carpets, magnified here, which is: Can you carry it off? On a normal red carpet, if you can’t carry off a particular statement dress, the worst case scenario (particularly as stylist teams have begun to keep a tighter and tighter hold on their clients’ public image and cut any chance of Tacky off at the pass) is that your very nice dress wears you. Largely that’s a no harm, no foul situation.
If you can’t carry something off on the Met carpet, though, you are going to look like a damn fool.
On the left: Zendaya, looking absolutely incredible, making 75%-in-character Joan of Arc eye contact with the cameras all the way up the red carpet. On the right: event hostage Shailene Woodley, who must have had a hard time getting through the rest of the night after Zendaya got there.
It’s also a red carpet that has become exponentially more public over the last decade. This is no longer an exclusive Fashion event where designers and celebrities show off to each other; they now have to show off to everyone, and that means that any mistakes are amplified, and that the red carpet itself has become a performance beyond nearly any other carpet. (Blake Lively traveled in a bathrobe from makeup and hair to the dress location. They went out the front door of the hotel so people would get pictures of it.)
These days, the Met Gala truly is Catholic, and it wants you to know when it’s there.
With that in mind, we tackle the Met Gala red carpet. This year, I’m skipping a lot of people who didn’t even try to meet the brief; life is too short and my useless research into medieval vestments too long. The press necessities meant that the easiest way to make an impact with simple dresses – arrive in a giant group like a Heavenly Host in a fresco – was vanishingly rare, and everybody had to go it on their own merits. As such, this was a largely pass/fail brief, with some middle-ground forgiveness for those who did as they were told but didn’t exalt themselves. Let’s get into the highlights and lowlights of the most golden brief in the world.
(Giovanni di Paolo, “The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise,” 1445)
Lana Del Rey, who is ounce-for-ounce the most Catholic apparition on that entire carpet, which is saying something given that Pope Rihanna IV and Zendaya of Arc both absolutely nailed the night. But Lana Del Rey has been prepared for this day; she has the six wings (even the right blues), St. Lucy’s eyes, and the seven piercing swords of Our Lady of Sorrows. Not pictured, but present: Roman nails embroidered onto her shoes. This is the most Catholic-mysticism look possible without actually manifesting stigmata or standing in a flaming wheel, and I could not love it more.
Greta Gerwig. Whatever scale she and Lana Del Rey are on, they are at opposite ends, but that works. This is a beautifully-made ensemble that would be completely baffling on other red carpets; here, it suggests an Abbess without skewing too far out of the reach of Fashion and toward costume. Beautiful, unusual proportions, striking details, and one of the few garments to channel the theme without Being the Theme.
Someone who was absolutely fine Being the Theme: Lily Collins, in full Our Lady of Sorrows Gothic, down to the cross in her hands and the weeping blood. There is nothing about this look that isn’t sublime. She tends to hew to the brief, but until now it’s been in a very regular-ingenue way; this is the first time she’s elevated the brief into Full Met Gala, and it looks fantastic.
About halfway through the evening, I lamented, “who, WHO will have what it takes to dress as a flaming wheel of eyes, the ophanim, bearers of the holy chariot, the vision that burns the mind”. Lana Del Rey showed up two minutes later; two minutes after that, Frances McDormand showed up, even more determined to be the sort of angel that creeps you out enough that its first words always have to be a promise that you have nothing to fear. (I’m genuinely stunned anyone got Frances McDormand onto a red carpet, because she avoids the shit out of them during awards season. Was it only to dress like an inhuman angel that she even took this deal? What a night.)
Vestments were symbols of power, and they carried messages to the faithful – there are vestments for different ranks, for different orders, for times of year, for specific ceremonies, you name it. Lena Waithe’s tux is perfectly tailored and looked incredibly sharp, and her queer-pride cope reclaims the Catholic silhouette to send a very different message than the Catholic party line. Iconography creates a language that legitimizes an image; can’t think of a better use of it than this.
Solange, who is as usual so far off the brief she can’t even see it from here. (She generally uses this carpet as a chance to go deeply sculptural, which is great; this is the carpet for it even if the shape is only barely on brief.) But I love the sainted du-rag, and she crowdsourced the choice of her dress on Twitter, which in itself is surely an allusion to Vatican II and the ongoing pressure for the official tenets of Catholicism to bend to the will of the people, so why not. Apparently a white cape dress was pulling ahead, and she ditched the popular choice for what she knew would look most impressive, which is also Catholic as hell, honestly. And she wears the hell out of it, so why not?
Kate Bosworth. It’s not a Catholic party without a bride! Did you want a hint of a wedding on this carpet to make use of this powerful image the way the Bible does? Did you want the bride clothed in fine linen like the righteous deeds of the saints? A bride cannot forget her garments, not as the ungrateful people have forgotten their Lord. Are you covered with the robe of righteousness as a bride is adorned with jewels? Great, cool, her too.
Renaissance Cardinal Chadwick Boseman. I rarely even bother with the men on red carpets, for obvious reasons, but Chadwick Boseman has committed so fully to the brief that when I saw him I made a thumbs up at my own computer screen like he could see me. (The hint of disdain is what makes this ensemble truly Catholic.)
Tabitha Simmons, a Fashion person, who understands the incredibly fine line between a Look and a costume in situations like these, and that in order to dress to theme one has to surrender one’s pride to the spirit of the evening and don the fully sequined dalmatic and slap on your Spanish-Baroque Lady of Sorrows halo headpiece and just smile through it.
Cara Delevigne, also a Fashion person, who came dressed as a literal confessional, which made me laugh out loud and gets full marks for having a sense of humor about something she knew she would have to sell like she’d never sold a garment before. (It is genuinely criminal that she walked this carpet alone, because if ever a dress cried out for a group costume, it’s this one.)
Lynda Carter, not the kind of person to ever try to turn a red carpet into a Dress Like a Confessional opportunity, whose lovely dress was vaguely vestmental and whose tiara read “Never Forget” in Hebrew. Works for me.
Tracee Ellis Ross, who noted her dress was inspired by Lenten vestments, the sort of liturgical deep cut I was hoping we’d have a little more of on this red carpet. (I don’t know why I thought that, given every single Met Gala I have ever recapped, but hope springs eternal.)
Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who is a professional wearer of clothes in a very particular way where nothing she wears ever seems edgy, but all of it seems to suit her somehow. She nailed the Annunciation-era Mary/Heavenly Hose/Saint Catherine angle (that halo is a Venn diagram) an order of magnitude better than anyone else who tried it.
Cardi B, who went so far over the top with this look that it crests tacky in the first third and just keeps going shamelessly until the overall effect is genuinely impressive, and if that’s not Catholic, what the hell is. (Her pregnancy is the giant gem on that sundae.)
Jasmine Sanders. Of the gold dresses, it was the most sculptural, and her hair was braided through with roses, which was suitably Botticelli (though not the most Botticelli thing on this carpet, as it turned out). Is the most Catholic part of this picture the attendants milling around in the background having intense conversations and trying to arrange things just so? Yes. Is that a feature or a bug? Your call! (Feature.)
[ETA] There are always more looks than can be encompassed in a single red carpet report, and there are always some photos of great looks that don’t make the rounds in time and surface the next day. Usually I try to do a one-and-done for these, because you can’t cover everything. But I am making an exception, because this is such a fantastic look that it would be a shame to leave it out. Imaan Hammam, in a Goth Pope Cope, showing that a regular red-carpet dress can be on brief if you’re just willing to commit to the silhouette, and honestly making this a contender for Top Ten looks of the night.
But there’s no way to get at all worldly in your sartorial approach to Catholicism without immediately running into loaded historical situations, which several people definitely did. In particular, if you’d like to suggest knighthood, you’d either better go right for a specific saint (George or Michael both safe bets, George with bonus dragon content), or you need to be recognizably Joan of Arc, because it turns out that generic Crusader mail is just awkward.
“I KILLED FORTY SARACENS THIS WEEK!”
Priyanka Chopra, who exists to command attention on red carpets, easily wins the Templar division sartorially; the fit on this blood-of-the-faithful dress and the hood embellishment are impeccable. (Nobody really wins the actual Templar division. That business was a mess.)
Not that Olivia Munn wasn’t gunning for it; she for sure was. (Did she end up looking like a Templar participation trophy? She did, but half the Catholic relics are participation trophies, so if anything, that makes her more on-brief than ever.)
Janelle Monae, the Summer Cardinal, wearing a golden galero and her usual colors, which also happen to be the colors of the Knights Hospitaliers from the Crusades, because none of us are ever truly free of Catholicism, even when we’re just longing for a nice sharp colorblock. (I was torn on this for a while, because there’s also more than a hint of nun’s habit in the coif and the trailing black and white; since nuns are the makers of so many Catholic vestments, it’s an equally likely option to Hospitalier vibes. Bottom line: There was no way in the year of Dirty Computer that she wasn’t going to take the opportunity to wear that jeweled coif on a Catholic-themed red carpet.)
Lili Reinhart’s armor-ish corset probably also fits here, but I’m more interested in the invisible battle around this dress. She (pictured with Cole Sprouse, who for purposes of this carpet is a well-scrubbed accessory and whose main job was to dress like someone whose photos have already appeared in Vogue) was dressed by H&M, a favored table at the Gala according to The First Monday in May, and they showed up – in a group! – early enough to make sure there was plenty of time to take their pictures, putting her in the lineup with seasoned models like Alek Wek (a gesture of legitimization). And in a sea of gold, this is pointedly silver and so clearly a dress meant to stand out, not an ingenue special, so there’s a deeper intent here. But she’s also not used to that level of train, given that it’s cut off by the camera because some assistant who I hope did not get yelled at wasn’t able to curl it behind her like a dragon’s tail before the photographers got going, and there weren’t enough H&M PAs to wrangle everybody who showed up in H&M. She handled it later – there are plenty of shots of the train once they hit the stairs – but this picture is the most interesting to me because it captures a celebrity (couple) on the cusp of a lot of things that could go a lot of ways, still juuust unstudied enough that this picture’s out there. Next year she’ll have two assistants, one just for the dress, and we’ll never see this again.
Nicki Minaj, who is actually wearing something that is, for her, bog-standard Lady Satan wear (on this red carpet in particular), but whose decision to accessorize that Crusader mail with The Ecstasy of St. Theresa expression singlehandedly keeps her from Hell this time.
Is all of this loaded? Oh, it is. Is it more interesting than some of the other dresses on this red carpet? Oh, it is.
Sarah Jessica Parker. What if someone answered the Catholicism brief to the letter, wearing an actual reliquary on her head because she is that committed, and looking at it just made you weary, as if the Lord had abandoned you?
Amber Heard. This is fine. This is aggressively fine; lovely dress in Cardinal red (with the smart high neck) and a cool version of the night’s favorite halo, with some suitably dramatic makeup. And of all the people who tried this look, she’s the only one who succeeded, so that’s something of a victory. Very nice. Extremely fine.
Keltie Knight’s dress feints at the Sacred Heart, cleverly, while actually it’s one of the dresses in the Paolo Sebastian Disney line; that works better than it should as a thesis statement for the majority of this entire carpet. (It’s my favorite dress from that collection precisely because of the Sacred Heart vibes, though, so it’s not like she’s coming out of left field.)
Tessa Thompson, in the world’s fanciest Tarts and Vicars party getup of all time. Dig the dress.
SZA, whose Ethereal Angel attempt is perfectly good – the suggestion of wings on the skirt works particularly well – until you get to the boots. (If you have to lift your skirt to the crotch with both hands so people can get a look at the boots, either change the shoes or the skirt!)
Amanda Seyfried, aggressively pagan in the middle of a Catholic red carpet, which at first seems off-brief, but plenty of Renaissance Catholics used Roman and Greek imagery as often as they could possibly get away with allegorical excuses. (Caterina Sforza is one of Botticelli’s Three Graces, and she went toe to toe with Cesare Borgia himself for sheer Catholic vehemence covering very secular statecraft, so there’s plenty of precedent. I’m sure that’s what Amanda Seyfried had in mind.)
Jennifer Lopez. Is it subtle? No. Is it the brief? Yes. I could not have any fewer feelings about this look than I have, but since you could not wear that to any other red carpet without raising eyebrows, it’s a Met Gala dress at the appropriate year. All done.
See also: Ariana Grande. Yes, that sure is a Renaissance painting of a religious subject on that ballgown! That is, in fact, within the brief you were asked to execute! You are doing your level best to get invited back next year as you try to level up your entire career from human lip gloss to just-edgy-enough pop star! I fell asleep halfway through looking at this picture.
Diane Kruger, whose dress was a Holy-Mary-Blue shrug emoji, which for Diane Kruger is bad news. (She can generally sell anything; if she looks worn out by a dress, there are problems.) But that train is designed to take up enough space that people would have to say something about it, so, here we all are.
Anna Wintour, who usually fulfills the brief from the year before on the red carpet, which is a power move I have come to respect. This year, though, she’s wearing a dress that handwaves toward three or four separate Catholic signposts (wedding gown, vestments, chain mail, mantilla), with the least amount of effort possible put into each one, despite recognizably trying for the brief in the year it’s actually the brief. I laughed out loud when I saw it.
Katherine Langford. This is also fine! This is mostly an interesting look because of the way Katherine Langford has become a red-carpet staple in such a hurry, which suggests a team of people who have very specific plans for her future career and were not going to risk her stepping over the line of good taste on this carpet. Red and fuschia is a very of-the-moment color pairing, the cape has the requisite amount of Catholic detailing even though the red dress very clearly doesn’t care to do any work on any front whatsoever, and the jewelry helps her look like she’s meeting the brief without committing her to it in the way a tiara or a halo would. This is a very deliberate look.
Gabrielle Union. I wasn’t going to include her in the rundown at all, honestly – this is a very nice red carpet dress but you could put it on literally any other red carpet, which is generally a barometer of a Met Gala failure – but then I saw this relic of St. Catherine and had to capitulate on a technicality, which in itself is very Catholic, so really Gabrielle Union belongs here twice.
Alicia Vikander. The dress below the mozzetta was the color of a TV tuned to a dead channel.
Amal Clooney was a co-chair this year, so she had ample time and resources to fulfill the brief if she wanted to. She just did not fucking want to. (“You can keep that Catholic business,” said the co-host of the Catholic Imagination exhibit, at some crucial juncture.) I respect that. I cannot respect this as the outfit she chose, because it is hideous, but I respect that.
Madonna. I mean, listen, she’s contributed her fair share of Catholic imagery to the mainstream-pop-culture discourse, and had nothing left to prove here despite undoubtedly feeling as if the entire event was pointing at her and waiting. She still tried for something suitably Gothic, on a red carpet where very few people went that way, so that was a smart call. If it’s underwhelming, then it’s underwhelming. Can’t win ’em all.
Winnie Harlow, Celestial Bride. I actually like this a lot, for how simple it is; the stiffness has a sort of altarpiece quality that works well in the Catholic impression.
Yara Shahidi. Normally she’s spot-on on these carpets, so this 1920s robe de style is here for a reason beyond just being unsure of the brief. She did not want to get into that Catholic business; she did not get into that Catholic business. Objective achieved. What she is wearing is very cute, and juuust off-kilter enough that it would look weird on other carpets, so it does what it needs to do here.
Bella Hadid. We’re so close to an amazing Gothic anti-bride, ready to battle with Kate Bosworth for the soul of, I dunno, some useless man, probably. Lady Lucifer was such prime ground for this carpet that went largely untouched, and I almost like so much of this! What if it’s just that the fingerless mitts were the thing she should have taken off before she left the house to turn this into a Look and not just a costume? (Does Lucifer care about overdoing accessories? I thought about this for a long time; honestly my answer is Yes, which is why this look is where it is, but I see the argument for Full Glitz, Fuck You, so.)
Gigi Hadid, with an abstract angel-wing look that avoids being cloying, which is more than some people on this carpet can say.
Emilia Clarke JUST missed the tried-too-hard trophy on this one. It’s on brief, for sure, which is why this is in Purgatory, but there’s something so flat and joyless about the whole look despite all the planning that obviously went into it. This is the dress-wearing-you problem on a Met Gala scale.
But it’s not the biggest problem on the Met Gala red carpet this year. Oh, no.
Katy Perry; for lo, she that hath always tried too hard on this hallowed carpet, where it was full a miracle to manage to try too hard, hath tried once more to succeed in the brief, and hath fallen; she will be cast down once more, into the depths of the pit.
Taylor Hill, the Party City Cardinal.
Eliza Gonzalez, demonstrating the ubiquity of Catholic imagery by pointing out that even Star Wars costumes can read Catholic-adjacent if you squint.
Anne Hathaway and Bee Shaffer, in interchangeable red gowns that are insultingly-barely on-brief. (Anne Hathaway’s team tried to solve that with the same halo headgear eight other women wore, which did her no favors there, either. I cannot believe two entire teams of people decided to run with this look.)
Mindy Kaling. Look, it’s great that she’s here, because the movie in which she participates in robbing this event comes out in a month, and so of course she’s here, and honestly if anyone had a dramatic-irony bone in their body someone would have snatched this crown right off her table when she left for a second to schmooze. But no one did, because nobody wants this crown, because it is the saddest gift-shop Mary Enthroned and Crowned in Heaven I have ever seen in my life. In my LIFE.
Ashley Graham. This is a very nice red carpet dress for the Golden Globes, but this is the Met Gala and “it’s metallic” doesn’t cut the brief on a sheath dress with minor cape. Dress her to theme or don’t waste her time.
Laura Love, in the Catholic-couture equivalent of a screen-printed sheet cake. Look, nobody can make you go. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.
Hailee Steinfeld is always clinging to the brief by the skin of her teeth, despite clearly having stylists and designer connections, and I am never quite sure why it’s such a close call every time. This year does not illuminate anything.
And, last of all. Remember in Drop Dead Gorgeous when everyone’s announcing what makes them proud to be an American and Tess says it’s her uncle Phil’s World’s Largest Ball of Twine and then says, in quiet agony, “I kinda misunderstood the assignment,” as the ball of twine falls off her hat and rolls twice, listlessly, and the entire auditorium falls into an almost pitying but profoundly embarrassed silence for one or two heartbeats? Anyway, here’s Kate Upton.