Met Gala 2021: Politics of All Stripes & Shades, Except Afghanistan
America's actions outside its boundaries have ended up destroying the lexicon of not just fashion but of equality.
It is that time of the year, yet again. Belated, besmirched with controversies that do not matter beyond a Twitter outrage cycle, the bodacious Met Gala 2021 is here. Bollywood is missing, India is not. Full marks to Sudha Reddy for choosing an Indian label to make her Met Gala debut — an event that marks one's arrival on the world stage of celebrity.
And a big zero to the almost criminal tone-deafness of this year's gala. The theme is "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" while America's actions outside its geopolitical boundaries have ended up destroying the lexicon of not just fashion but of equality.
Yes, let's never forget to talk about Afghanistan. Especially in an essay on fashion, since Kabul was once hailed as the Paris of Central Asia.
Why Afghanistan Needed a Mention at Met Gala
Barely a month after Kabul's fall to the Taliban, followed by the inglorious and ill-planned withdrawal of American troops, Afghanistan is already dimming in public memory in the West. The yearly platform of Met Gala allows people of sure reckoning and influence to back their causes. Nobody thought of Afghanistan: the heart of the Silk Route.
A country and a people that once enriched Western boudoirs and boutiques with an unprecedented richness of textile, embroidery, and jewellery lie forgotten today. Worse, this richness is in danger of being wiped out by the anti-artiste, anti-women regime of the Taliban.
Women bear the burden of preserving culture and its many, often contradictory, interpretations. The Taliban culture is violently dismantling the culture of Afghanistan that lives and breathes across the world in its sartorial exports. Not only is the Taliban's imposition of the Saudi-style burqa smothering the burst of colours that is the Afghan attire, but their diktats against women at work also endanger the country's craft industry.
Yet, neither a whimper nor a sigh at this year's Met Gala.
A Gala of 'Causes'
While Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Brother Vellies gown screamed 'Tax the Rich', Representative Carolyn B Maloney literally wore the cause of 'Equal Rights For Women'. Cara Delevingne's Dior suit 'Peg the Patriarchy' sent the message out loud and clear. Megan Rapinoe's 'In Gay We Trust' clutch replaced God in one fell swoop.
On the other hand, Dan Levy celebrated queer love in his Loewe outfit a little more subtly with a gay kiss motif. Billie Eilish's nude-to-peach gown was the visualisation of her no-fur personal statement. Nikkie de Jager's sash saying "Pay It No Mind" was a nod to drag queen Masha P Johnson, whose activism personally made a difference to her.
And Quannah Chasinghorse paid homage to her native American ancestry by decking up in Navajo jewellery.
Yet, not a breath spared for Afghanistan. Not consciously at least.
Fashion World Cannot Escape Afghanistan's Influence
Many outfits in Met Gala 21 were directly and indirectly inspired from Afghanistan's bounty of sartorial art and craft. Think of Lorde's headgear or the colourful one that adorned Nikkie de Jager's coiffured head. Take a look at Rosalia's Rick Owen's fringed ensemble that could be a modern rendition of a northern Afghan jacket. Does the mosaic pattern of Vittoria Ceretti's Michael Kors outfit appear similar to Kuchi traditional embroidery? And what about Irina Shayk's gown adorned with floral embroidery?
The uber fashionable 'Afghan Coat' that had patrons in American and European high society and artist community once upon a time also seemed to have made an appearance. Think of Amandla Stenberg in Thom Browne or even Ilana Glazer.
Did guests walking down the red carpet of America's biggest fashion event simply forget about the debt the western fashion industry owes to the East, particularly the Silk Route? Or was it omerta that forbade them from mentioning the other 'A' word?
Impending Doom of Afghan Crafts & Culture Industry
Yes, activism in fashion can be tedious when not done tactfully. It can backfire, as it did for AOC, the New York representative. But the question of Afghanistan is not just about activism, it is also about responsibility. Owing to the haphazardly planned withdrawal of the American troops, the Taliban is in the process of reversing the gains made in the past two decades. Even America's own efforts are going down the drain, along with those of the United Nations and other agencies.
In 2016, the International Trade Commission — a joint entity of the UN and the World Trade Organisation — launched an initiative to cultivate saffron and silk under the aegis of an umbrella programme called the Ethical Fashion Initiative. This programme ensured that the principles and practices laid down by International Labour Organization would be followed. More than half of the workforce under this programme is made up of women; the Taliban cannot stand working women.
The same year, Afghanistan: An Artistic Revival, an exhibition of handmade heritage rugs of Afghanistan, was organised at the Milan triennale.
Milan later got yet another taste of Afghanistan when, in 2019, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) showcased the Afghan crafts community by helping organise an exhibition of luxury crafts created by women from different parts of the country.
2019 was also the year when Afghan designers dared to dream big by taking their designs to fashion weeks. And there were fashion shows in Kabul, too.
All of this is on hold sine die.
The Internet, meanwhile, can be trusted to turn everything into a meme or a joke. Kim Kardashian's Balenciaga bodysuit is a burqa, and so is Rihanna's outfit. If that wasn't enough, Erykah Badu in Thom Browne with a dachshund-shaped clutch is a Taliban soldier to many.
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