The annual Met Gala is fashion’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. And, just like at the Super Bowl, there are winners and there are losers.
The Met Gala is the one red-carpet event of the year where everyone is encouraged to forget about the pretty, tasteful gowns and bland, well-tailored tuxes that dominate awards show red carpets. At the Met Gala — a benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute at which every attendee has to be personally approved by Vogue editor Anna Wintour — you go big or you go home. No little black dresses; no nude strapless sheaths. Your dress needs to light up, or require its own train carriers. Forget utilitarian questions about whether the clothes are flattering. The Met Gala is about celebrating fashion as an art form, so the attendees’ clothes should double as art.
But not everyone can pull off fashion as art, and not many people try. The few that do are winners.
For the past three years that she’s attended the Met Gala, Rihanna has been a winner. (She didn’t attend in 2016, when she was on tour.) Actually, she’s been the winner.
There was 2015, when she arrived in a flowing yellow fur cape from Chinese couturist Guo Pei. The look instantly became iconic; Vanity Fair declared it the year’s “red carpet-winning dress.”
Last year, Rihanna stole the show in a sculptural petal-covered confection from Comme des Garçons’ 2017 couture line.
(Does anyone have any idea what those things dangling off her hips are? Nope. Does it matter? Nope.)
Rihanna co-chaired the Met Gala this year, but she didn’t let her newfound responsibilities keep her away from her duties as the MVP of the red carpet.
Instead, she rocked the Met in Maison Margiela’s best “the Young Pope, but make it fashion” chic, complete with pope hat (actual name: miter).
Rihanna’s personal style — playful, intellectual, and deeply committed — means that she consistently slays at events like the Met Gala. Here’s why.
She’s not afraid to have fun with clothes
Part of what makes Rihanna so consistently great with clothes is that she plays with them. She’s not worried about what will be flattering and what will be tasteful and what will be too avant-garde: she just puts together textures and colors and ideas and lets them play off one another.
You almost never see her in one of the pretty-but-dull gowns that are so ubiquitous on most red carpets. Instead, she’ll wear pajamas in public and she’ll make it work, work, work, work, work. She’ll wear an almost completely sheer gown covered in Swarovski crystals to receive a major fashion award, and its classic Josephine Baker shape juxtaposed with the transparency will make it everyone’s favorite look of the year.
And at the Met Ball, she works with exaggerated shapes. The long, elegant sweep of her 2015 cape suggested a mystery of what was underneath it, and its exaggerated length walked right up to the point of winking parody. The sculptural absurdity of 2017’s look bears no resemblance to a human body, and Rihanna knew it. This year’s look includes a bedazzled miter. She’s in on the joke. She’s having fun.
She knows how to work with a theme
In 2015, the Met Gala’s theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The central exhibit that year was about the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and the theme manifested itself on the red carpet as a lot of mildly Orientalist outfits. There were Chinese dragons embroidered on Balmain blazers and Versace gowns; there were China doll purses and kimono-inspired gowns (kimonos are Japanese).
Rihanna, however, made the bold choice of actually working with a Chinese designer for the event. It was a deliberate, thoughtful, well-informed decision. “I was researching Chinese couture on the Internet and I found it,” she told Vanity Fair of her gown. “It’s handmade by one Chinese woman and it took her two years to make.”
The Chinese woman who made the gown is Guo Pei, China’s great couture designer, sometimes described as China’s “first ‘homegrown’ master couturier.” Guo works with a specifically Chinese visual vernacular, one that incorporates Western elements with postmodern élan in what curator Andrew Bolton calls “auto-Orientalism.”
So when Rihanna wore Guo Pei to the Met Ball, she wasn’t only wearing the look of the night. She was playing off the evening’s theme in a way that avoided the clichéd appropriation performed by so many other attendees. She embraced the cultural fusion of Chinese and Western fashion as it’s being performed today, by someone who actually understands Chinese fashion.
In 2017, the event honored Rei Kawakubo, the legendary Japanese designer behind Comme des Garçons, who pioneered the idea of sculptural fashion that plays with our ideas about the limits of the body. Attendees were asked to dress on the theme of “avant-garde,” and for some, that seemed to mean “classic Chanel with a ruffle and a sheer panel,” or “Liz Taylor circa 1969.”
But Rihanna wore an actual Comme des Garçons dress, and she didn’t play it safe with one of the easy-to-wear, red-carpet-ready numbers. She was asked to go avant-garde, and she brought it. Her gown is designed to bulge strangely, to conceal its wearer’s famous body, to turn everything into an unexpected riot of color and shapes and textures.
And this year, the theme was Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. As Tara Isabella Burton wrote for Vox, that theme would necessarily involve playing on ideas of the body and ideas of sex. “From Bernini sculptures to Anne Rice novels, sex and sexuality — repression, transgression, sexual desire — are deeply intertwined with the Catholic aesthetic, in both secular and sacred contexts,” Burton wrote.
Rihanna, in turn, worked with the shapes and heavy, ornate textures of Catholic vestments, but she brought in the sex. There’s a reason she kept posing in profile on the Met steps, with one bare leg emerging from her long beaded skirts as she propped it on the step in front of her: it gives you the whole winking idea of the outfit at once. It’s the hierarchy and grandeur of the Catholic church and the repressed sexuality of its history, with a matching clutch and bedazzled miter on top for good measure.
It is, in short, nothing like what you’d expect to see on a traditional red carpet, and that — and the fact that Rihanna has the style and the attitude to wear it so well — is what makes it a Met Gala winner.
Update: This article was originally written for the 2017 Met Gala. It has been updated account for the 2018 Gala.