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May 21, 2018 | by  | in Opinion |
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Religion on the Red Carpet: The Met Gala Debate

In typical Met Gala fashion (pun intended), I woke on Wednesday to find that “cultural appropriation” and “Rihanna” were once again atop the suggestions list when I hit up Google for my annual couture fix. These two searches haven’t historically lead me to the same image, but as it turns out our favourite bad girl is this year’s poster child for the Met Gala’s annual controversy.

First, some context. If you aren’t one to follow celebrities, or Vogue America’s social calendar, particularly closely, you may not know a whole lot about the event. Once known as the Costume Institute Gala, this ritzy function is the annual fundraiser for the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Gala is always themed according to the Institute’s current exhibition. Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has chaired the gala quite literally as long as I’ve been alive and personally controls who can and cannot attend. There are only two ways to get onto that guest list: you can either be invited by Anna personally and fork out for the $US30K+ ticket yourself, or alternatively, you can be invited by a corporation that has coughed up a lazy quarter mil for a table, and then be approved by Ms. Wintour. Hear me when I say: this event is as heavily curated as the exhibition itself.

For the guests, the event centres around a banquet and live performances. For us lowly peasants, however, a strictly policed social media ban means that our only engagement with the event is watching the stars walk the red carpet to the entrance.

This year’s exhibition is titled Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Naturally, the attire on show was opulent and adorned with symbolism. Katy Perry needed to be transported in a convertible to allow for her angel wings, which were about one and a third her height; Blake Lively arrived in a party bus to make room for the train of her exquisitely beaded Versace number. It was Riri’s Cardinal headdress, however, that caused the twitter-sphere to explode. Catholics and conservatives the world over quickly ran to ring the “cultural appropriation” bell and were utterly shook when the leftie cavalry did not arrive — the first of oh-so-many layers of irony.

It is unlikely you have got this far through the semester at a university that offers so many humanities papers, without at least stumbling across the term “cultural appropriation”. But if these recent events have taught us anything, it is that a lot of us could probably do with a refresher.

The term “cultural appropriation” hails from the realm of sociology, and refers to the adoption of aspects of a minority culture by those of the dominant culture. At first glance of this definition, I can see how people figured that this was the right word to describe what went down at the Met Gala. When you think “minority”, you think small right? As of 2017, about 22% of people in the US identified as Catholic — and 22% certainly isn’t a majority. But a low head-count isn’t the only qualifying feature of a minority culture. Social majority isn’t just a numbers game, it also refers to the distribution of power. Power in the form of laws and civil rights; power in the form of wealth and economic opportunity; power in the form of political influence and institutionalised advantage.

Dear outraged religious assembly: do not confuse “unpopular” for “minority”. You may feel like you are losing a battle to secularism, and that America and the world is descending into moral chaos; as puritanical etiquette falls away to make way for unbiased love and bodily-autonomy for women, you may feel like the odds are stacked against you. When you pull the minority card, however, shit gets real. You make me forget how delicious post-Sunday-mass baking was, and how calming my highschool chapel was. Instead, you just make me think of missionary colonialism, transphobic sentiment, and the upcoming Irish referendum.

I have to wonder if the exhibition’s curator Andrew Bolton realised how tongue-in-cheek this theme would truly be. Interviews reveal his intention was to show the mutually informed relationship between Catholicism and fashion — but I can’t tell if he’d intended it be served with such a hearty dollop of irony. A lavish ceremonial occasion reserved only for the anointed? Our current Pope may be doing a great job of refocusing the Church on Caritas (charity), but I can’t think of an event more appropriate for a denomination with such a lengthy history of brazen indulgence.

Even if Catholicism did qualify as a marginalised community, the 2018 Met Gala could be better described as cultural engagement. The distinction between engagement and appropriation lies in both proactive consent and shared mutual benefits. The Vatican expressed its endorsement by lending the institute more than 40 artefacts and garments from its private collection; the Archbishop of New York’s Roman Catholic diocese personally lent Rihanna one of his Cardinal Mitres for the occasion. In a hierarchy-structured church like Catholicism, assent doesn’t really get more clear than that.

But look, I get it. Using visual coding that is so deeply significant can be complicated. The red carpet looks could be described as many things. Sacrilegious. Insensitive. A great PR move on the part of a church with dwindling youth numbers. But it sure as hell ain’t cultural appropriation.

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