It is heartening that Madonna’s Instagram post—in which she answered critics of what she wore to the Met Ball on Monday night—has received, at the time of writing, 67,100 likes. It deserves to. She’s right: Her more vicious detractors going on about her age and what is or isn’t appropriate for a woman of that age to wear were sexist and ageist. But the shame is she had to write anything in the first place.
Madonna will, almost inevitably, wear something striking to a high-profile public event. If you object to it, you may as well also object to the inevitability of daffodils in spring.
Even worse, the massed provocations of our social media age have forced Madonna to explain why she wore what she wore to these who threw insults at her.
At the Met Ball, Madonna wore a sheer Givenchy outfit that showed both her behind and her chest. She looked great. The oddest part of the outfit was the jewel around her forehead.
Why there was any shock about this is baffling: The Met Ball is an evening of unexpurgated dress-up—the celebrities and monied wear outrageous, carefully curated costumes; the media and social media respond to these looks. It is both circus and sport.
Also in the critical firing line of blogger Ivy Marshall (relatively polite when compared to the bitchier Twitterati) was Sarah Jessica Parker, who along with Madonna and Diane von Furstenberg (wife of Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company) were criticized by Marshall for not “getting the memo” when it came to the theme of the evening: man versus machine, fashion in the age of technology.
The strange thing is, all three of them did. The criticism was baseless.
Madonna looked as if she had beamed in from a bondage world of future-shock; DVF wore metallic (as did many others), and SJP—who could make an old refuse sack look inventive—wore a Monse suit; a flared and ruffled white jacket and trousers inspired by Broadway hit Hamilton.
Elsewhere, Vogue opined that Lupita Nyong’o’s towering up-do seemed to have been inspired by Audrey Hepburn, even though Nyong’o had told the magazine in a video it was inspired by Nina Simone and “sculptural hairstyles from around the continent.”
She underlined the point, to plaudits from fans, in a later Instagram post. The Met Ball had gotten serious, and celebrities elected not just to be photographed and mocked (mostly in good humor). They were biting back. Everyone was in line for a lecture and learning experience.
There was a time when the act of being Madonna was justification for Madonna enough: if you didn’t like it, or get it, too bad. She had crosses to burn, sexy Jesuses to fondle, and boundaries to blur.
Now she has to write a justification of her fashion choices as a cultural and political act because our Internet age makes not just everyone a critic, but many voices all screeching together become an asshole chorus it appears impossible—for even celebrities of Madonna’s peerless bolshiness—to ignore.
Of course, those kinds of critics should be ignored, and Madonna should continue to bare her ass, legs, breasts and whatever else whenever and however she damn well feels like it.
In her Instagram post, Madonna wrote: “We have fought and continue to fight for civil rights and gay rights around the world. When it comes to women’s rights we are still in the dark ages. My dress at the Met Ball was a political statement as well as a fashion statement. The fact that people actually believe a woman is not allowed to express her sexuality and be adventurous past a certain age is proof that we still live in an age-ist and sexist society.”
She might be right, and these are wise words, but why not just let the outfit do the talking? Does she really care what people say about what she wears? Did she dress that night to make a point about feminist empowerment, or for herself, or to cause a fantastic, Madonna-like stir? Sometimes, showing your ass on fashion’s biggest night of the year is about showing your ass on fashion’s biggest night of the year—and you looked great. Good for you.
“I have never thought in a limited way and I’m not going to start. We cannot effect change unless we are willing to take risks by being fearless and by taking the road less traveled by,” Madonna continued. “That’s how we change history. If you have a problem with the way I dress it is simply a reflection of your prejudice.”
She is right and wrong—risk-taking is good, changing history can be even better, but along with such intentional radicalism will come criticism from those who do not share your views.
Sometimes people don’t like what you might say or wear, and that’s fine too. Unless someone says something directly rude or unpleasant about your gender or age, or something intensely, meanly personal, such a criticism is not necessarily “a reflection of prejudice” against you. You wore it, they didn’t like it. Them’s the breaks.
If you’re Madonna, given you were happy to appear in public with flesh selectively displayed, shouldn’t you live out the “zero fucks” you claim to give, and which you tweeted that very same evening.
If the Internet allows for the amplification of people’s voices whose opinions shouldn’t mean anything to you, then it also amplifies one’s instinct for self-defense. The battle becomes who can shout louder in the echo chamber.
Similarly, Parker felt compelled to defend her fashion choice for the night, when—like Madonna—she has, up to now, taken very visible pleasure in dressing up.
Commenting under Marshall’s critical post, she wrote, “Always welcome thoughts but I’m a stickler for the theme and pay close attention to what it means. Every year with great consideration, research and conviction. The understanding of man and machine, how they intersect, when and why is what we considered.
“Perhaps you weren’t aware of the technology used in the details and embellishments of the design. Or perhaps you simply didn’t like [what] I wore which is completely fine but you can’t accuse me of not paying close attention and adhering to the theme. With respect and warmest regards, sj.”
That is the kindest note anyone the target of criticism could send to their critic: an acknowledgment of a dissenting point of view which has both grace and intelligence—and which Parker, like Madonna, shouldn’t have had to write.
The Met Ball is a night of extreme fashion, and both women are sartorial risk-takers and crusaders. They know you may not like what they wear, but they suddenly seem to mind how you relay that to them.
Fashion criticism can be a bitchy, cutting business—this is the era Fashion Police spawned—and Twitter and Instagram make those criticisms come in large numbers and faster and funnier: see the meme riffing around Kim and Kanye’s outfits for example with Star Wars in mind.
But the inevitable online pile-on shouldn’t stop celebrities wearing what they like to nights like the Met Ball. The critical fallout shouldn’t provide relentless cause for celebrities and their supporters to take to the self-important, politically ponderous barricades either. Because, honestly, it’s OK to sometimes think an outfit looks weird or terrible, and say it is so.
All parties should accept the celebrity game of dress-up for what it is: fun, an expression of desire and freedom, and possibly a desire for lots of coverage from the media.
Madonna, SJP, and Nyong’o certainly got the latter, for what they wore and then for the fallout from what was said about it the night of the Met Ball.
This snarky bitching and subsequent cultural studies lecture cycle could get exhausting if public dressing-up is something celebrities do on a regular basis. Perhaps they should wear what they like, and let those choices annoy and rankle their critics with no further words necessary.