The Met Gala 2022: Here’s What Your Fave Literary Characters Wore

The glitz and glamour of gilded age New York was on full display

On Monday night, fashion’s favorite night of the year (part 2) returned with stars and designers coming out to celebrate the Met Gala – The Sequel, as I like to think of it. Officially, the dress code of this year’s famed bash, hosted by Anna Wintour, was “Gilded Glamour,” white tie for the men and floor-length ball gowns and gloves for the women. Unofficially: anything goes (well, almost).

Picking up where September’s installment, titled “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” left off, this is the first time the event returned to the first Monday in May since the pandemic (when I last covered the red carpet for Electric Lit). Part two suitably upped the drama. 

As someone who worked as a fashion editor for the better part of a decade, I’ve always viewed the Met Gala as an ideal event, marrying stories, sartorial psychology and statement-dressing (otherwise known as three of my favorite things). As stars made their way down the red carpet, I couldn’t help but wonder what literature’s most memorable muses would had worn.

Invitees, numbering 600, were instructed to “Dust off Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth… and embody the grandeur — and perhaps the dichotomy — of Gilded Age New York.”

So that’s where we’ll start.

Old-school glam

Originally coined by Mark Twain, the “Gilded Age” refers to the period from 1870 to 1890, when the country was coming off the high of the Industrial Revolution, and the low of the Civil War; American innovation was booming– a fine time for myth-making. Nowhere was this more apparent than in upper crust society, which found a credible author in Wharton herself, who documented the excesses, entanglements and pitfalls of her class, most notably in The Age of Innocence.

So who was giving off Countess Ellen Olenska vives on the red carpet? That honor belongs to several attendees – no surprise, here– who embodied the unconventional, impassioned fashion sense for whom Wharton wrote: “She was dressed as if for a ball. Everything about her shimmered and glimmered softly, as if her dress had been woven out of candle-beams; and she carried her head high, like a pretty woman challenging a roomful of rivals.”

Tapping into the Countess’ irrepressible grandeur was Blake Lively, one of the night’s hosts, in an embellished Atelier Versace gown, which featured a scene-stealing reversible train inspired by the patina of the Statue of Liberty. Adorned in head-to-toe sequins, Jessica Chastain’s oxblood-colored Gucci gown and matching turban could have come straight out of Ellen Olenska’s wardrobe.

Gigi Hadid in a hooded, corset jumpsuit and puffer-coat by Versace certainly scored points for originality and devil-may-care theatrics. See also: “ “Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, was attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur.” 

Then there was Billie Eilish in custom Gucci, who nailed the mood Wharton seemed to have in mind when she wrote: ““What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?” But the starlet who best captured the opulence and drama of Countess Olenska? Kaia Gerber in a silver tassel Alexander McQueen gown. 

Wharton’s earlier tome, House of Mirth, opens with its heroine, Lily Bart, on the decline. At 29, Lily’s is fast-approaching spinster territory (kind of amazing-depressing-hilarious). However, when the novel opens, potential suitor Lawrence Selden is “refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart” and then: “he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation.”

Enter: Sarah Jessica Parker, in a strapless ballgown by Christopher John Rogers with a fitted bodice, cascading skirt, and opera gloves –  inspired by the work of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave who went on to become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. (Dressing the First Lady made Keckley the first Black female fashion designer in the White House.) 

Parker’s fastidious attention to theme is a well-known thing in Met Gala lore, as is her knack for extravagant headpieces. Head art, decorative crown, whatever – this year’s black tulle and fuchsia-flowered confection by Brit milliner Philip Treacy was straight out of the pages of House of Mirth. Throughout the novel, Lily relies on hats as an accessory, later turning to millinery work as she spiraled out of society’s good graces. 

“A woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself,” Lily quips. “The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop–and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”

Surveying her wardrobe, reflecting on her life near the novel’s end is a scene that could have come straight out of an episode of Sex And The City:

“The remaining dresses, though they had lost their freshness, still kept the long unerring lines, the sweep and amplitude of the great artist’s stroke, and as she spread them out on the bed the scenes in which they had been worn rose vividly before her. An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past. She was startled to find how the atmosphere of her old life enveloped her […] every hint of the past sent a lingering tremor along her nerves.”

Good-time girls

There were plenty of dancing-til-dawn statement looks that would have suited the female friends in Happy Hour, by Marlowe Granados. New to New York, the narrator Isa says: “There is only one rule when we get dressed: if it makes you feel good and there’s a pinch of fear that while in public someone may throw a comment your way or think it’s too much, wear it.” The celebs bringing Isa-levels of glam included Kim Kardashian (in the shimmering slip Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to JFK), Megan Thee Stallion (in gold feathered Moschino)  and Lizzo, who told reporters it took 22 hours to make her embroidered Thom Browne dress, adding that she felt like “a piece of art.”

As for Isa? New York nightlife is only as fun as the outfit you wear to greet it. “You never know if someone else may be emboldened to do the same! If you’re going to put something on your body, why not make it look good? People think clothing is frivolous, but it can really instill courage, and that’s a good thing.” 

Giving a glimpse of what’s underneath and revealing just enough truth to add intrigue is the skill of a great artist. Kerry’s Washington’s stunning sheer corset gown by Tory Burch illuminated the fine line between show-and-tell that Raven Leilani’s artist narrator in Luster tiptoed. Met Gala-worthy mention: “But the beauty of disco is the too much.” Quite.

“I was dressing for someone in those days and I liked to believe it was me,” says Joan, the narrator of Lisa Taddeo’s carnal novel Animal. In the first few chapters, Joan describes herself as depraved and things are only exacerbated from there. She stews on being judged, and envies those who judge her. “I knew the precise color I wanted my coffee and how to have an orgasm in under thirty seconds. I needed everybody in the world – including waiters – less than they needed me.” Peeling off a red Dior blazer to reveal her gold-painted torso – pasties and all – Cara Delevingne was all Joan. There’s a part midway through the novel where Joan’s going to meet a man she’s having an affair with, wearing a leather top that seemed like an aggressive outfit choice until Irina Shayk stepped out in a head-to-toe black leather look by Burberry, which was pure heat. 

Singers Olivia Rodrigo, in a violet Versace stunner, and Phoebe Bridgers, in Jonathan Simkhai, glimmered in the New York night, reminding us of Luz Dunn in Gold, Fame, Citrus, running through a Hollywood starlet’s empty home, pulling out wildly impractical gowns to go traipsing through the water-less abyss. “In the dream Luz had worn every dress all at once, her breasts bestudded with rhinestones and drenched in silver dust, her ass embroidered with coppery alleyways of sequins, pleated plumes of satin fanning from her hips, pale confectioners’ tulle floating like spun sugar at her feet.”

Understated elegance

But it wasn’t all over-the-top, gold-plated everything. Eva Chen, in a chic pale champagne suit jacket that spilled open to reveal a pleated skirt by Peter Do, looked smart and composed, in the vein of the unnamed narrator in Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies. “But a narrative becomes persuasive not through complexity but conviction.”

Taking a subtly refined approach, like Miranda Kerr in Oscar de la Renta or Mindy Kaling in a simply breathtaking lilac gown by Prabal Gurung, seemed befitting of a Salley Rooney character, perhaps Eileen in Beautiful World Where Are You? Who writes: “I could always think of something nice, and sometimes I would even do things for the purpose of putting them in the book like taking a bath or going for a walk.” She describes the pleasures of journaling in a letter to her best friend Alice. “At the time I felt like I was just absorbing life, and at the end of the day I never had to strain to think of anything good I had seen or heard….There was something delicate about living like that. – like I was an instrument and the world touched me and reverberated inside me.”

Fast-forwarding a few decades, Emma Stone, in a short silk, feather-hemmed dress by Louis Vuitton, was giving sleek Great Gatsby style. Effortless in design, yet still party-perfect, the look called to mind a description of Daisy Buchanan’s tennis-star friend, Jordan Baker. “I noticed that she wore her evening dress, all her dresses, like sports clothes–there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings.”

Another Gatsby reference? It’s to be expected when we’re talking gilded glamour. Lena Waithe arrived in an ornate blue Versace suit that would have done his Great-ness proud. 

Men in the mirror

Jared Leto and Gucci designer Alessandro Michel upped their game in matching cream suits with black lapels, crystal hair clips, scarlet bowties and bronze velvet bags – an ensemble that seemed to have walked right off the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray, gesturing to the interplay between art and artist. Who was the muse here, anyway? Or in Oscar Wilde parlance: Dorian or Lord Henry? “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”

Another fine interpretation of the Met Gala’s theme? Joshua Jackson, in Gucci, proved he understood the remit. This year’s dress code called for white tie, which according to a G.Q. style guide, required a black tailcoat and dress pants with a white shirt, vest and matching bow tie. Instead of white gloves (also prescribed for men), Jackson opted for a pinky ring, as you do, in the style of Tinker Grey from Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility

“His face was flush.The cold New Year’s air emanated from the fabric of his tuxedo. He was grasping a bottle of champagne by the neck and grinning like a truant holding a fish by the tail.” Set in 1930s New York, Towles’ novel is all style, tracking the highs and lows of the Katey Kontent and sly, two-faced Tinker uptown and down. “[His coat] struck me as a bit of a pose—a born and raised New Englander dressed like the hero in a John Ford film. But the smell of the snow-wet wool made it seem more authentic. Suddenly, I could picture Tinker on the back of a horse somewhere: at the edge of the treeline under a towering sky . . . at his college roommate’s ranch, perhaps . . . where they hunted deer with antique rifles and with dogs that were better bred than me.”

Jackson’s better half Jodie Turner-Smith was giving full flapper in a glittering Gucci number. 

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, published at the turn of the 20th century, Thorstein Veblen writes: “Elegant dress serves its purpose of elegance not only in that it is expensive, but also because it is the insignia of leisure. It not only shows that the wearer is able to consume a relatively large value, that it argues at the same time that s/he consumes without producing…Our attachment to the skirt is based on this premise: it is expensive and it hampers the wearer at every turn.” But does any of it matter if you can still dance? Till next year, Met Gala!

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