Everything You Need to Know About the 2021 Met Gala’s Accompanying Exhibit

A survival guide to this year’s Costume Institute exhibit, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at The Met.

Fashion’s biggest night out, more often referred to as The Met Gala, has already come and gone in a whirlwind of sparkling dresses, tailored suits, and a few politically charged masterpieces. There is no denying it—the wide array of red, or rather beige, carpet looks was mismatched and all across the board and begged the question, what is this theme?! Not clearly discernible from Kim Kardashian’s face-covering black bodysuit ensemble nor Kim Petras’ horse-headed gown, the theme of this year’s most fashionable ball is actually of two parts: Part one, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” and part two, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” 


Perhaps the wide display of styles worn to the event really does encapsulate the theme, for America is, as we like to say, a melting pot. If you’re still not entirely sure of what this broad title entails, don’t fret. There is an entire accompanying exhibit dedicated to “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art opening on Sept. 18, 2021 and remaining on display throughout part two, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” which opens on May 5, 2022. Both shows, in the Anna Wintour Costume Center and period rooms in the American Wing of the museum, will run through Sept. 5, 2022. 


If you’re unable to make it to the exhibit in person or you’re just curious as to how this theme will be curated, we’ve created a Met Gala exhibit survival guide, if you will, with the ins and outs of everything you need to know. 

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Who: Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in charge of the Costume Institute at The Met, chose this theme in part to honor the Institute’s 75th anniversary this year. “The American fashion community has been supporting us for 75 years, really since the beginning of the Costume Institute,” Bolton tells Vogue. “So, I wanted to acknowledge its support, and also to celebrate and reflect upon American fashion.”


The last Costume Institute exhibit to focus on American fashion was in 1998, with the theme “American Ingenuity.” As times have very much changed—re: political movements, shifts in social justice, and, um, the pandemic—Bolton felt it apt to revisit what fashion looks like and means in America. 

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“I’ve been really impressed by American designers’ responses to the social and political climate, particularly around issues of body inclusivity and gender fluidity,” shares Bolton with Vogue. “I’m just finding their work very, very self-reflective. I really do believe that American fashion is undergoing a Renaissance. I think young designers in particular are at the vanguard of discussions about diversity and inclusion, as well as sustainability and transparency.”


You can expect to see a variety of designers representing the America of today and yesteryears. Spanning contemporary game-changers like Bode by Emily Adams Bode or Pyer Moss by Kerby Jean Raymond, to classic household names from Ralph Lauren to Calvin Klein, the exhibit is a well-rounded tour de force of America’s brightest minds in fashion. 


The co-chairs for the gala are equally representative of the impressive creative talents from this country. Billie Eilish, Amanda Gorman, Naomi Osaka, and Timothée Chalamet are joined by honorary chairs Tom Ford, Adam Mosseri, and Anna Wintour.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

WhatWhen entering the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the museum, you can expect a complete transformation. Opening the show is Adeline Harris Sears’ 1856 quilt, a visual metaphor for America’s patchwork of identities. Signed by notable Americans of that timeincluding PresidentsSears’ quilt is a staple in the American Wing of The Met. Continuing this motif of America as a patchwork nation, the exhibit’s organization follows the notion of pieces of a quilt patched together. 


Divided into 12 categories, the exhibit features various keywords correlated to sentiments of American fashion—nostalgia, belonging, delight, joy, wonder, affinity, confidence, strength, desire, assurance, comfort, consciousness. Bolton shares with Vogue that these spaces aim to emphasize qualities rather than functionalities.  

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Each of these sentimental categories will highlight accompanying garments, subtitled by related emotional qualities. The “Belonging” section, for example, includes four American flag sweaters. Each sweater features a sub-sentiment, from Ralph Lauren’s representing idealism and Tremaine Emory’s affirmation, to Tommy Hilger’s representing solidarity and Willy Chavarria’s isolation. In the “Exuberance” segment, a Claude Kameni mermaid dress depicts the subtitle vitality, while a Hillary Taymour for Collina Strada panniered dress made from deadstock fabric represents the word gratitude in the “Consciousness” section.   


With about 100 women’s and men’s fashionable creations from an array of designersand spanning decades of history—all patched together in scrimmed cases to create a metaphorical quilt of American sentimentalities, this exhibit is a must-see for fashion fiends and history buffs alike.  

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why: Bolton describes the stereotypical depictions of American fashion as “sportswear and ready-to-wear, emphasizing principles of simplicity, practicality, functionality, and egalitarianism.” This exhibit aims to counter this viewpoint and, according to Bolton, display “a revised vocabulary of American fashion based on its expressive qualities.” 


A true patchwork of identities, stories, and individuals, America represents a multitude of possibilities, or as we know it, the American dream. Part one of this “In America” exhibit focuses on the variety in American fashion while not “diminishing the emotional side of American fashion,” explains Bolton. “So part of the idea of the exhibition is to give American fashion its due, to give back its storytelling abilities.”


Beginning on Sept. 18, 2021, stop by The Met to experience part one of “In America” and stay tuned for an exciting part two. Prepared to “further investigate the evolving language of American fashion through a series of collaborations with American film directors,” shares Bolton, part two will no doubt be as spectacular and thought-provoking.

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