When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, alongside powerhouse designer Aurora James, walked up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday night, a noticeable, yet succinct political message blared across the back of her soft, cream-colored gown: TAX THE RICH.
This is not exactly a new cause for Ocasio-Cortez. In January 2019, for instance, she suggested that a marginal 70 percent tax rate could be imposed on the wealthiest Americans. But now she was bringing the message through the front door of one of the glitziest events of the year: the Met Gala.
“When Aurora and I were first kind of partnered, we really started having a conversation about what it means to be working-class women of color at the Met, and we said, ‘We can’t just play along, but we need to break the fourth wall and challenge some of the institutions,’ ” AOC said on the red carpet. “While the Met is known for its spectacle, we should have a conversation about it.”
In other words, the dress was intended to push the conversation about taxing the rich into a wealthy space, to confront the wealthy people where they live (or gala).
I don’t think it worked.
From questioning notions of masculinity to positioning Blackness as divine in a society that demonizes it, fashion has always been an avenue for political expression and, often, a meaningful one. When Billy Porter wore a beautifully tailored tuxedo jacket over a ballgown to the 2019 Academy Awards, it worked because it was an exploration of his masculinity and femininity. When Solange donned a black do-rag adorned with a golden halo, it worked because she was invoking several Black American spiritual practices and turning a fashion item Black folks are demonized for wearing into something God-like. The power in these moments is evident in the fact that the wearers aren’t trying to force an institution they exist within to change. They’re navigating and embracing their identity instead.
But Ocasio-Cortez is an elected official. She has tangible tools to work with, so a dress with a phrase on it (designed by a woman reportedly dating the son of billionaire Edgar Bronfman Jr., btw) is a bizarre choice. As culture writer Shamira Ibrahim put it:
If anything, Ocasio-Cortez’s dress featuring what has, at this point, become a “regurgitated Twitter talking point,” felt more naïve, or even passé, than iconoclastic. It’s one thing to demand higher taxes on the wealthy; it’s another to believe that moving among the upper class will convince them to welcome a substantive tax burden. It’s also woefully inconsistent with the world outside of the Met, the one that has given Ocasio-Cortez her power. Last night, Black protesters were arrested outside of the event, for instance, while demanding Mayor Bill de Blasio defund the NYPD.
But, alas, much of the political gestures that occur on a publicly, well-funded stage are empty. Like most other outfits with writing at the gala (yes, there were more), Ocasio-Cortez’s dress is a superficial demonstration meant to capture attention. In that way, it’s a win. But when it comes to manifesting tangible outcomes for constituents, I find it difficult to believe that a slew of wealthy celebs will do more than fawn over the congresswoman’s slogan-dress and, just by being near her, think that’s enough to signal that they are on board. Giving them that opportunity is nothing even remotely the same as actually doing something about income inequality, which is, after all, her job.