The art of sex in fashion at the Met

Eleanor Birdsall-Smith reviews the diverse turn out at this year’s Met gala

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The biggest, most highly esteemed, and some would say over-hyped, fashion event of the year took place last weekend in New York. This year’s Met Gala was themed around the designer Rei Kawakubo and her brand ‘Comme des Garçons’. The Japanese brand with the French name (‘like some boys’) is most commonly known for its red heart shaped logo with stylised eyes, the gaze of which stares out from sought after Converse and various t-shirts seen primarily on privileged teens (even the Dover Street outlet is pretty pricey). However, the brand holds significantly greater relevance, and has been repeatedly associated with outlandish artistic and cultural projects on a world-wide scale. As a result it seems apt that this year’s gala theme gave rise to pieces resembling performance art on the red carpet. Not every celebrity adhered to this:  Zendaya in her parrot print Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda ball gown for instance could be viewed as a work of art purely in terms of beauty and poise, but it certainly wouldn’t be called avant-garde.

Katy Perry and Rihanna however, could have been transferred straight from the red carpet into a gallery. Perry arrived in a custom Maison Margiela gown by John Galliano, and the result was haunting. While simultaneously hitting all the style trends of the night (the powerful presence of red, and the hint of Spanish influence throughout), the embroidered chiffon dress paired with a corset and embellished veil created an almost supernatural vision. Vampire, witch, even satanic spirit—she could have been any of the above. Yet, the look equally channelled the abstract emotional power of the mourning mother figure in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. This sense of conceptual art continued with her behaviour: after a comment on the reflective mirrors on the headdress she replied “yes, darling, I’m witnessing you and you’re witnessing me,” thus offering possible commentary on the event, celebrity culture or even society as a whole.

Rihanna equally did not disappoint, wearing one of the few pieces at the event actually from a Comme des Garçons collection, with thigh high Dsquared2 lace up sandals. The look has been compared to ‘that lump of dust and hair that gets jammed inside a vacuum cleaner’ yet it is an especially powerful and eye catching spectacle. There’s no denying that apart from her legs and head it disguises all of Rihanna’s body, and it certainly could not be worn to any other occasion, but that, of course, is the point. It’s a performance, it’s a spectacle, it entertains the constantly ongoing issue of fashion over function, as well as beauty within art.

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Something else interesting and more unexpected to come out of the Gala was the prevalence of sex in fashion, which has now become difficult to ignore. The ever provocative Nicki Minaj arrived in a red and black H&M gown with whip-like details, trailing an impressive embellished cape, Zoe Kravitz’s black and pink satin Oscar de la Renta gown had serious noir boudoir references, and even the usually fashion-cautious Amy Schumer arrived in head-to-toe structured black leather by Zac Posen. In a less obvious sense there was also reference to nudity and the obscene within Priyanka Chopra’s outfit, which consisted of custom made trench coat-come evening gown, with a trail to match. It harked of flashers and that romantic cliché of the girl turning up to her boyfriend’s door in nothing but a coat.

That is not even to mention the endless ‘nearly naked’ looks (seen perhaps most notably on Bella Hadid in an Alexander Wang jumpsuit and Kendall Jenner in a La Perla outfit), which seemed to be the closest the trend has reached to coming full circle back to Rose McGowen’s iconic look from the 1998 MTV VMAs—arguably the original and unbeatable naked dress statement. Perhaps all this was in reference to the Comme des Garçons ‘sex’ collection from 2001, but if anything the aesthetic was far more Westwood than Kawakubo, and more likely it is just representative of the growing interest among both followers and designers of fashion, for all things erotic. Whether it is seen in the prevailing sheer top trend, (present in every club photo), the nipple tassels and leather in Yves Saint Laurent’s AW17 collection, or even Katy Perry shedding her ghostly red lace and stepping out to the Met ball afterparty in glitter underwear, fit with garter belt, suspenders and thigh highs—we’re in the midst of a sex revolution within fashion.

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Many have called to question whether, in this feminist age, such strong reference to the sex industry is appropriate, especially in tandem with brands like Dior and even to some extent Ivy Park, who have made groundbreaking strides to incorporate feminism into their brand. However (in the western world of fashion at least) feminism is no longer just about the vote, or breaking out of the housewife stereotype. We are arguably in the fourth wave of the movement, and have reached a stage where women should no longer have to wear dungarees with hairy armpits to prove that they are more than just sex symbols. They can of course wear those things if they like, but ‘if they like’ is the crucial factor.

Women can now reclaim their sexuality, and portray the strength it possesses. New twists are being put on traditional forms of sensual attire: corsets for instance, are being worn over t-shirts as day looks, which Elle has described as a kind of modern day armour. As Selfridge’s womenswear buying manager Jannie Lee says “Sexy now is very strong”. And it is clear that no one could look at Katy Perry postball in her dominatrix-esque attire accompanied by Moretti and Margot of The Dolls and see anything apart from strength—they looked like a league of sexy assassins.

This brings us back to Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons. Though the brand may not churn out nipple tassels itself, designer and past employee Hiroyuki Horihata has said that, for Kawakubo, “Liberty then as now, is her core motivation”. Thus the Met Ball produced exactly what the theme required—art and liberty.