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The Dress Code

“Elegance is not a social distinction but a sensual distinction,” Charles James, the subject of this year’s Met exhibition, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” once said. “The mind combines with the body to exploit its senses, its functions, its appearance.” No doubt, the guests at this year’s Met gala strived to project James’ definition of elegance. Not all achieved it. Those in the know, like Karen Elson and Liu Wen, turned to Zac Posen, who, having been inspired by the late couturier throughout his career, is about as close to a modern-day James as one could get.

“If you know Zac Posen, you know Charles James!” quipped Naomi Campbell (who was, in fact, Riccardo Tisci‘s date) when asked if she was familiar with this year’s Gala subject. By and large, the mammoth gowns Posen crafted for the event (he estimates he made eleven) upheld James’ aesthetic with integrity. Posen’s date, Dita Von Teese, was ravishing in a figure-hugging take on James’ iconic Clover Leaf dress. “I know a lot about Charles James,” cooed the burlesque star on the red carpet. “He used to dress Gypsy Rose Lee, who was the most famous striptease star of the forties and fifties. Sometimes, people will say, ‘What does a stripper have to do with fashion?’ And I’m like, ‘There’s been a correlation for a long time.” She added that her ensemble was not constricting in the least. “I’m ready to go dancing!”

Sarah Silverman, also in Zac Posen, didn’t quite share Von Teese’s sentiments. “It’s like a fucking second skin!” she screamed sarcastically of her look while kicking, and tripping, up the stairs. “Nothing comfortable is worth wearing to the Met Ball,” Rita Ora said at one point. Right or wrong, it was a shame to see so many cumbersome dresses that looked more like costumes than odes to James’ sculptural genius.

“I feel like I’m in Gone with the Wind with all these gowns!” joked Prabal Gurung, who took a smart approach to dressing Hailee Steinfeld. “It’s big. It looks deceptively simple from the front. And I thought it was the perfect blend of sportswear with couture ideals, which Charles James was all about,” he said, gesturing to the gown. Indeed, the dress was youthful with its easy cut and hidden pockets—a detail for which Steinfeld was particularly grateful. In a bold move, Stella McCartney dressed Rihanna and Cara Delevingne in a belly-baring white look and a bra top and trousers, respectively. The minimal outfits were unexpected—not aesthetically Jamesian in the least, which, in turn, made them entirely Jamesian in concept. Jenna Lyons, meanwhile, pulled inspiration from the men’s white-tie dress code for her pantsuit. To her credit, there was a bit of James in there, too. “I think it embodies the spirit of what he might have done if he were alive today,” she said, noting that the volume of her trousers, and their satin fabric, were a nod to the couturier.

Speaking of white-tie, the boys pretty much ignored that, save Stuart Vevers, Christopher Kane, and Benedict Cumberbatch—leave it to the Brits! “I so often get accused of being a posh actor, I don’t know what people are talking about. Of course I didn’t own tails,” laughed Cumberbatch. He commissioned a suit from Ralph Lauren. Kane’s version was by Brioni, and he didn’t mind the suit one bit. “We’re used to wearing kilts in Scotland, so it’s not much more uncomfortable than that.” True to form, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing donned leather biker pants with his tails—a perfect match for his date Rosie Huntington-Whiteley‘s leather dress. “Elegance is about attitude. It’s not about clothes,” he told us. “It’s something that you can’t buy, and you can’t make,” concurred Tisci, who, in addition to dressing Naomi, designed Beyoncé and Jay-Z‘s Met attire. “It’s something that you have inside you. And sometimes, simplicity is elegance.”

Enter Lupita Nyong’o. Before I even got off the red carpet, I was hearing about the flak she was getting for her breezy netted Prada number. To that, I say pishposh. Along with Erykah Badu, who wore a giant white hat and suit (custom Givenchy, of course), she was one of the most Jamesian starlets in attendance—if not in form, then in attitude. Amidst all the guests stumbling over their frocks and grumbling up the stairs, Nyong’o was effortless, and utterly radiant. And judging by the actress’ smile, her dress looked like a hell of a lot of fun to wear. To be able to come off so at ease at an event like the Met Gala? Now that is elegance.

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