Storytelling in Fashion (a 2022 MET Gala Post)

The MET gala (American fashion’s biggest night and a themed fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume institute) has little to do with us here in Antigua and Barbuda. However, there were notes I found of interest in the 2022 Gilded Age theme. Meaning the opulent, bustled, jewel-toned, ruched, ruffled, beaded, embroidered, fringed, ribboned, buttoned, hooked, laced, bird feathered, layered, s-curved, corseted aesthetic popular among society women of the 1870s to early 1900s. Notes of broader cultural importance, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Primarily some of the pieces worn by Black people. Which was interesting because, as as we know with Black people in the Americas (speaking hemispherically), as you go back in to history, if we’re referenced at all, it gets…tricky.

Gabrielle Union in Versace…Versace, Versace, Versace.

“When you think about the Gilded Age and Black and brown people in this country, this country is built off of our backs, our blood, sweat, and tears. So we added these red crystals to represent the blood spilled during the accumulation of gross wealth by a few during the Gilded Age, off of the backs of Black people and people of color in this country,” she said during the Vogue livestream. A second influence, “Diahann Carroll, a symbol of opulence and, if you will, a gilded glamour.”

I like that Union’s look references the exploitative source of the wealth …while still being one of the more striking looks of the night.

Danai Gurira in Head of State…the fashion house.

“I couldn’t find references [in the Gilded Age] of people that look like us,” says (designer Taofeek) Abijako. “We also know the historical context as to why. The most exciting part was being able to reimagine what these people looked like.”

I was fascinated by the intersectionality that designer and muse sought between the Gilded Age (bright blue, a certain silhouette) and contemporary Nigerian art (the designer is Nigerian and Danai was raised in Zimbabwe and both wanted their African identities reflected).

Quannah Chasinghorse in Atelier Prabal Gurung. With jewelery by Antelope Women Designs. and borrowed eagle feathers.

“Quannah’s look encapsulated the Indigenous perspective on Gilded Glamor by showcasing Indigenous artistry, ingenuity, resiliency, beauty, and excellence,” says Jody Potts-Joseph, Chasinghorse’s mother. “It is important to understand that for Native Americans, the Gilded Age represents a period of  United States policies of removal, genocide, and assimilation all creating generations of trauma for Native Americans. Yet, we are still here—and Quannah gracefully reminds the world of our strength, beauty, talent and resilience in every space.”

The tipi-shaped tulle dress, the mix of First Nations inspired accessories is a nice nod to her culture as much as it is a reminder that the mainstream culture at the time (as now) was not everybody’s story.

Cynthia Erivo in Louis Vuitton.

Cynthia Erivo highlighted the history behind her Met Gala 2022 fashion on the red carpet with an E Online representative, where she disclosed that the gown she wore was from the Louis Vuitton archives in an effort to promote sustainability. She also disclosed that her headwrap was inspired by women of Louisiana from the 1800s, who had to cover their hair for necessity. (Source)

This is one of my favourite stories of the 2022 Met Gala. Though the dress, with its drop waist, is more roaring 20s than Gilded Age, the standout headpiece is a history accurate conversation piece. So, let’s talk. We have a a headwrap or headkerchief (Tête en l’air or tèt anlè in the French Creole Caribbean islands) as part of our traditional dress (Wob Dwyiet in French Creole). These were part of the evolving fashion of the colonial Caribbean among freed Blacks and they take different shapes; some more functional, some more decorative, some more ceremonial. Yes, they could be more than just for show; for example, the number of peaks made when tying the headwrap could communicate different things such as a woman’s availability or non-availability to anyone wishing to court her. We may have lost the language but, to this day, headwraps are a feature of African-Caribbean and diaspora head fashion.

A dark part of the history of headwrapping among Black women in the West Indies/Americas, however, is that there were at times laws regulating such headwrapping. The tignon law in America, for instance, was a 1786 law, inspired by white woman envy, forcing Black women to wear a headscarf in order, seemingly to make free Black women less appealing to white men or less free in their bearing by tying them to the enslaved class of Blacks. The law was reportedly imported from the Code Noir of the French colonies, dating back to 1685 in the Caribbean, and later coming to Louisiana, at the time a French colony in America. The Spanish colonizers followed. The law basically decreed that women of colour had to wear a scarf or handkerchief and could no longer wear feathers or jewellery in our hair. As we do, though, they made it fashionable, adding flair to it and soon even Napoleon’s paramour Joséphine of France had adopted the wearing of the headpiece “and it became considered haute couture in the early 19th century before decreasing in popularity in the 1830s” – according to Wikepedia, referencing ‘Fashioning Frenchness: Gens de Couleur Libres and the Cultural Struggle for Power in Antebellum New Orleans’ by Whitney Nell Stewart in volume 51, number 3 Journal of Social History by Oxford University Press (2018) and Light, Bright, and Damned Near White: Biracial and Triracial Culture in America (Praeger, 2009) by Stephanie Rose Bird.

The head scarf is also, though, part of the African tradition that survives in the west – especially post-the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s and it was delightful to see it, with its rich history, disrupt the mostly white red carpet.

Ashton Sanders in Casablanca.

“The Moonlight actor was one of a few who eschewed the white tie-coattail look, opting for a Canadian tuxedo reminiscent of the Buffalo Soldier uniforms, a Blacks-only regiment of the US army formed in 1866. The gold accents enhance the waist, giving the impression of a corset. The gold gloves, brooch and binoculars tie the look together.” (Source)

The Buffalo soldiers weren’t just characters in a Bob Marley song. They were real all-Black regiments, nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers, in the American west beginning in 1866. They fought in the Indian wars and the Spanish-American war, and fought wildfires and poachers in America’s national parks. Like Marley sang, “if you would know your history, you would know where you’re coming from.” This article states that the song ‘highlighted the irony of formerly enslaved people and their descendants “stolen from Africa” taking land from Native Americans for white settlers’ while still facing racism themselves.

Riz Ahmed in 4S Designs.

“This [outfit] is a shout-out to the immigrant workers that kept the Gilded Age golden,” Ahmed told Vogue. “It’s what makes the city run.” (Source)

It’s important to remember that as wealth exploded among the new rich and tensions increased between old and new money during the Gilded Age, the working poor, moving from farms to factories, were exceedingly vulnerable (pre-unions etc) and the immigrant worker (as in every time) especially so.

Questlove in ZEGNA/Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective and Erykah Badu in Marni.

“I’m here representing Greg Lauren and Gee’s Bend quilters, who are these women from Alabama,” Questlove, 51, told Vogue. “For African Americans in this country, the Gilded period is a little bit different for our story, so I wanted to highlight Black women who’ve sacrificed for the country.” (Source) The Gee’s Bend residents in Alabama, specifically the women, have been quilting using scraps of old clothing, feedsacks (probably our crocus bags), and other fabric remnants since the 1800s, according to the Smithsonian. Questlove’s oversized coat was also a tribute to recently departed fashion pioneer Andre Leon Talley. While Questlove’s quilting is hidden in the lining, Badu wore her patchwork (as we called quilting when I was growing up) out loud. Fashion vlogger HauteLeMode said of Badu’s outfit, “if we look at textiles from the Gilded Age…there was a resurgence of quilting during the Gilded Age because of the Centennial. There are quilts that literally look like they’re made up of fabric scraps that are just sort of thrown together in the same way that Erykah Badu is doing.” This idea of repurposing pieces in to patchwork is also part of our traditional culture if not so much in practice anymore.

Sarah Jessica Parker in Christopher John Rogers. Headpiece by Philip Treacy.

“Parker’s outfit was inspired by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. Keckley was an enslaved woman who became the official dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln and the first Black female fashion designer in the White House.” (Source)

You can read more about Elizabeth’s remarkable life here. In referencing her, the designer said, “The idea was to highlight the dichotomy between the extravagant, over-the-top proportions of the time period, and the disparity that was happening in America at the time.” 

Rahda Blank in Denise Trotman/Jennifer McFarlane.

“I rep a woman who could have made Hollander’s dress- an Obeah Woman who by day used her hands to sew, cook, wash White folk clothes & tend to their chirren and by night used her hands to conjure spells for our survival using ancestral African spiritual practices not meant to survive the middle passage. This would be my homage to Marie Laveau but also The Condomble Woman, The Santeria Priestess, The Ifa Woman, The Yoruba Priestess. The Voodoo Vixen and all women practitioners of ancestral arts from Africa.” (Rahda Blank on instagram)

My favourite part of this outfit is the wooden cutlass replica because if that wasn’t a tool for survival and war for Black people on bakkra’s plantation, I dont’ know what was. I also love that she said “obeah” – as “voodoo” seems to be the default in American media but “obeah” is the more common term in the English speaking Caribbean. To touch quickly on her references: Marie Laveau was renowned in New Orleans for the practice of voodoo in the 1800s; Candomblé, particularly popular in Brazil, is a religion built on African spirituality; Santeria, similarly developed in Cuba during the late 19th century, is also an African diasporic religion; Ifá is a Yoruba religion and system of divination; Yoruba is a West African ethnic group and the related language spoken by people of Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Togo, Yorubaland, and their diasporas; voodoo and obeah alike are similarly religious practices rooted in West Africa and brought to the Americas by the millions of enslaved people who crossed over during the Middle Passage. Fittingly, the dressmaker is a Jamaican American which means that from concept to design, there was some Caribbean in the building.

As with all content on, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, The Jungle Outside, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. Subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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