Political statements on the red carpet: powerful or vacuous?

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Brother Vellies’ Aurora James who designed her ‘Tax the Rich’ gown - Jamie McCarthy and Arturo Holmes / Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Brother Vellies’ Aurora James who designed her ‘Tax the Rich’ gown - Jamie McCarthy and Arturo Holmes / Getty Images

It’s rare for a politician to get an invite to a glamorous red carpet event; even rarer that they can hold their own among the A-listers on the red carpet.

But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is no ordinary politician. The 31-year-old activist and Democrat congresswoman, also known as ‘AOC’, is a unique figure in Washington, in that she has the kind of social media following and fan base more akin to that of a celebrity.

AOC knows how to leverage it too. When she walked the Met Gala red carpet on Monday night in a white evening gown – a custom creation by Brother Vellies designer Aurora James bearing the words ‘Tax the Rich’ in scarlet letters across the back – it made headlines across the globe.

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The message won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with her progressive views, and of course it generated as much negative commentary as it did positive press, which is par for the course in politics.

Many did remark upon the irony that she had chosen to share this message at an event that costs $35,000 a head, though. The steep fee raises funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and is typically paid by ultra-wealthy donors and brands with deep pockets who wish to brush shoulders with A-list celebrities for a night.

Ocasio-Cortez clarified on Twitter that New York elected officials are routinely invited to and attend the Met Gala, given their responsibilities in overseeing and supporting the city’s cultural institutions: “I was one of several in attendance [that] evening,” she wrote. As an invited guest, then, she and her colleagues wouldn’t have had to spend $35,000 to attend.

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Her appearance does beg the question, though, whether the red carpet (or beige carpet, in this instance) is the right place for political statements? She’s not the first to use it as a platform (at Cannes in 2014, Salma Hayek carried a sign that read, ‘Bring back our girls’, referring to the 250 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and at the Oscars in 2017, several celebrities wore blue ACLU ribbons in protest at Donald Trump’s immigration policy)

AOC isn’t even the only guest to have made a political statement with their outfit on Monday night: fellow congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney’s gown bore the words ‘Equal Rights for Women’; Cara Delevingne wore a Dior look that featured the words ‘Peg the Patriarchy’ (which she explained meant “sticking it to the man.”)

Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (left) and supermodel Cara Delevingne (right) also made political statements on the Met Gala red carpet - Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/ Getty Images
Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (left) and supermodel Cara Delevingne (right) also made political statements on the Met Gala red carpet - Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/ Getty Images

Gay rights were also on the agenda for football player Megan Rapinoe, who carried a clutch bearing the words ‘In Gay We Trust’, as well as Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy, who wore a Loewe look that celebrated queer love and visibility. It referenced artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz and the fashion house made a donation to the charity Visual AIDS.

But aren’t political statements best made elsewhere?

Well, no, not really. As communication tools go, the red carpet has become a highly effective one. Of course we might sometimes roll our eyes at holier-than-thou celebrities piously urging us to support one cause or another, but you have to respect them for trying to use their platform to make a positive change in the world.

Actor Dan Levy (left) and football player Megan Rapinoe (right) both championed queer love and visibility - Getty Images North America
Actor Dan Levy (left) and football player Megan Rapinoe (right) both championed queer love and visibility - Getty Images North America

Let’s also not forget that it is AOC’s job to convey political messages, and few politicians realise that fashion is as useful a tool as a social media handle or press liaison officer.

Whether you are a fan of celebrity news and fashion or not, in 2021 the drama and colour of red carpet pictures rarely fail to draw the attention of the average consumer - usually more successfully than political headlines.

Ocasio-Cortez has managed to engineer her message into the fashion and celebrity news cycle, which is some feat - especially given the somewhat chaotic and bizarre nature of Monday night’s looks.

For that, I can only say: Well played, AOC, well played.

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