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In austere times, the Met Gala returns to ‘Gilded’ era

Celebrities, politicians and more attended the 2022 Met Gala in New York on May 2. This year's theme was “gilded glamour and white tie.” (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Gas prices are sky-high and the world’s richest man is spending $44 billion to buy Twitter, but even in these most wealth-disparate of times, no one was going to stop Kim Kardashian from gingerly walking up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in Marilyn Monroe’s actual “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress, for which she lost 16 pounds in three weeks to wear, since it’s vintage and can’t be altered.

Last September, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) showed up with a message on her dress, “Tax the Rich,” which some had said was a little, well, rich for a liberal Democrat enjoying fashion’s glitziest and most exclusive night. This year, as the Met Gala returned to its regular date, the first Monday in May, and had a theme to match the opulence: “Gilded Glamour,” a celebration of New York’s Gilded Age, a time that, at least on film, evokes images of rich people being depressed in horse-drawn carriages.

Said world’s richest man, Elon Musk, was actually there, in a white-tie tux “like I’m from ‘Downton Abbey’ or something,” and joking about using the night to find investors. “I’m going to ask people in there, ‘Please! Please! Please help me buy Twitter!’ ” He also claims to have selective amnesia about Ocasio-Cortez’s dress. “Is that what it said? I had trouble actually reading it.” He laughed.

He didn’t have trouble with the message. “I definitely paid the most amount of taxes that any human has ever paid last year. So it’s not like I’m not paying taxes. I’m gonna go to the IRS and say, ‘Can you please give me, like, a little plastic cup?’ ” he said. “Give me a cookie or something.”

Ocasio-Cortez stayed home this year, but New York Mayor Eric Adams took up her mantle with an “End Gun Violence” tux adorned by Laolu, a Nigerian artist. He opened it up to show the lining: “It’s got all my trains! My Q train, my 2 train, my 1 train, my A train.” But while the Gilded Age brought “great inventors and great architecture,” like the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Army Plaza, also drawn on the tux, he said, “It also was a dark era and we should never forget that and we can’t return to that period as we deal with income inequality and race and our immigrant population.”

The gala is connected with an exhibition, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” that in many ways gives voice to the have-nots of the Gilded Age, particularly the unknown, unrecognized Black women who worked as ateliers, or wove the fabric for dresses. Film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Tom Ford and Sofia Coppola designed rooms to reinterpret the age and recent moments of fashion history. Franklin Leonard — a Black film executive who wore an outfit inspired by his two Gilded Age heroes, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman — had pushed for the inclusion of Black directors such as Radha Blank (“The Forty-Year-Old Version”) and Janicza Bravo (“Zola”), who could add a different kind of depth.

On the red carpet, Blank carried a machete and a cigar (the first to break negative energy and the second because it’s baller, she said), and had dyed her hands blue to represent the Black people who were behind the creation of denim. Her dress contained muslin because it’s “a foundation fabric a garment is built upon but is often thrown away, and that’s how I feel about Black women in America, the fabric of the culture but often dismissed and erased.”

Proceeds from the gala will fund the entire yearly operating budget for the Costume Institute.

First lady Jill Biden was the special speaker at the exhibit’s press opening, praising the institute’s educational role and touting the power of fashion, which she used to her advantage when she wore sunflower appliqués on her cuff at the State of the Union address to show solidarity with Ukraine. “I knew the only thing anyone would write about me was what I was wearing,” she said.

The Met Gala red carpet looks you don’t want to miss

Some took the “gilded” theme literally. Cardi B wore a skintight Donatella Versace gown made of more than a kilometer’s worth of seven different types of gold chains. Lizzo showed up in a black Thom Browne cape embroidered with gold thread that she said took 35 hours to make and swanned up the Met’s famous steps (this time decorated with a carpet that looked like a faded American flag) playing a golden flute she said cost $35,000.

Others went with period dress. “We’re capitalists!” said David Harbour of “Stranger Things,” who’d gone full robber baron with tails, a top hat and a cane. He also declared, in booming voice, to Variety’s Marc Malkin that he owned several railroads (“We don’t have antitrust laws yet”). Wife Lily Allen laughed and rolled her eyes — it seems like Harbour must be this over-the-top a lot.

Alicia Keys came to represent her home city with a gown by Ralph Lauren that had the entire New York skyline in sparkling stones on the train. Her husband, Swizz Beatz, wore a Yankees jacket by Lauren. “We really just wanted to represent the Empire State of Mind and the City of God tonight,” she said. Her hair was full of sparkly discs. We asked if they represented bagels, and Keys didn’t answer, but she did shout, “I love bagels!”

And there was Gigi Hadid, wearing a burgundy, floor-length Versace puffer coat that might be useful in a snowstorm, or as a comforter. There was Kris Jenner standing at the top of the steps, filming the arrivals of every Kardashian: Kylie and Kendall in voluminous gowns, Khloé in a slinky gold number, Kim making her mega-entrance with beau Pete Davidson in sunglasses, like a doting security guard, and Kourtney, with Travis Barker, wearing an outfit that looked like a drunk tailor sewed a corset to a bra and turned it into a skirt and then passed out before finishing it. Neon seemed to be the rage, with Gwen Stefani in highlighter yellow and Sebastian Stan and Ashley Park, from “Emily in Paris,” showing up on the carpet at the same time in hot pink. “That’s so funny, we have the same manager,” Park said.

This year felt quieter than most. Even the crowd of hundreds gathered across the street on Fifth Avenue seemed to be screaming less than usual. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, who usually fight it out to be the last one to the carpet, in the most lavish gown, stayed home.

That left room for a new crew, which included first-time attendee Glenn Close. She may not yet have that Oscar, but she can cross this one off the bucket list.

Another first-timer, Chloe Fineman of “Saturday Night Live,” dressed in an amazing gold beaded gown, said she found out she was coming to the dinner at 12:30 p.m. Monday. “Which is very SNL. I was at work at 30 Rock. My friend happened to have this insane dress. ... I put it on at 4:30 and we’re here!” Then she posed for a bunch of photos not with Sarah Jessica Parker but in front of her, like Parker was an intimidating tourist attraction in a fancy hat and a Christopher John Rogers gown.

“Oh my God, this is very surreal. That’s Kris Jenner. What’s going on? What is my life? I used to work in retail. I was a waitress five years ago,” said Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope on “Bridgerton” and kept naming off other terrible jobs she had. “I worked in a soap shop. I worked at an optician. … I was a very unsuccessful actor for a long time!”

By 11:15 p.m., it was all over, as the stars got into their black SUVs, as fans cried and screamed things like, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” They were headed off to a Cardi B-hosted after-party at the Standard Hotel. Just another day in our gilded age.