Image: Daphne Frias.

The Met Gala should be an event for everyone

The Met Museum steps serve not only as a physical barrier but also as a societal embodiment of the obstacles that disabled individuals must overcome for equitable inclusion.

The MET Gala, widely recognised today, had humble beginnings. Originating in 1948, the brainchild of fashion editor Eleanor Lambert, the event initially sought to raise funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Restricted to New York's elite socialites, it was not unusual for the guest list to have no more than 50 individuals.

The contemporary MET Gala has assumed an otherworldly aura primarily thanks to Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue and Chairperson of the Gala since 1995. Under her guidance, the social capital of attendees has undeniably soared, expanding the social license granted to an event of this magnitude.

The concept of a social license emerged in the late '90s within the context of the climate sustainability movement, particularly in dealings with mining corporations. Over time, it has extended into the domain of corporate social responsibility.

Beyond the exclusivity tied to status and wealth, an unspoken truth lingers — the consistent absence of certain bodies and identities from the gala. It is only in recent years that BIPOC individuals, notably Indigenous people, have found representation on the carpet. For example, Quannah Chasinghorse attending the Met Gala in 2023. However, one community is excluded from the iconic photo moment on the stairs.

Watching Sinéad Burke walk the carpet in 2019 was powerful. Although we don’t share the same disability, knowing that we are apart of the same community helped me feel seen at such an illustrious event. It’s been 5 years since she broke ground for disabled representation and I hope we too can make history.

As a disabled person who uses a wheelchair, I don’t feel seen or represented by the MET Gala, and it’s a feeling that extends to other areas of my life. A lot of work still needs to be done.

Assumptions about my capabilities were made hastily, without affording me the opportunity to prove myself. Mundane activities like breathing became sources of inspiration, and the rich facets of my identity were eclipsed by the reductive label, "the girl in the wheelchair."

I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of three. While my diagnosis was validating in many ways; it did not change how I thought about myself. My mom made sure to cultivate a very positive relationship with my disability. She made it clear that disability was not a death sentence. That changed quickly once I got to kindergarten. While the kids naturally asked questions, it was the adults who treated me the most differently. 

They quickly made assumptions about what I could and could not do without ever giving me a chance to try. The simple act of breathing became inspirational. The rich facets of my identity were eclipsed by the reductive label, "the girl in the wheelchair."

In one of my earliest post-diagnosis appointments, doctors proposed amputating my legs below the hips and replacing them with metal. My mother vehemently opposed this suggestion. No alternative interventions were presented — no physical therapy, no options. Fortunately, my mother sought a different path, enrolling me in physical therapy. Two years later, I walked proudly across the stage at my Pre-Kindergarten graduation.

Despite my current status as a full-time wheelchair user, it is a choice I made for myself, not one imposed upon me. Those doctors glanced at my body and decided, based on a narrow definition of normalcy and mobility, that I wouldn't be given the chance to thrive. This is ableism.

Ableism, as articulated by Talia A Lewis, is defined as "a system of assigning value to people's bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness." These constructed ideas are deeply intertwined with eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.

This systemic oppression results in people and society determining others' value based on factors such as culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, "health/wellness," and their ability to satisfactorily reproduce, "excel," and "behave."

The MET Gala and its organisers are not immune to this behaviour. The social license they possess has allowed them to perpetuate ableism without facing repercussions.

The theme for the 2024 MET Gala is "Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion," featuring an exhibition of over 250 archival garments too delicate to be worn again. Due to the fragility of some pieces, technology, including AI, will be employed to recreate them.

Head curator Andrew Bolton, discussing the gala and the exhibit, expressed, "Fashion is one of the most emotional artistic forms because of its connection to the body. It is imbued with memory and emotions, and we relate to it very much via our senses. One thing I hope this show will activate is that sensorial appreciation of fashion."

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Bolton. Fashion is the ultimate expression of who we are. Disabled bodies have historically been marginalised, rarely considered desirable or fashionable. However, within the disabled community, fashion is flourishing. The inclusion of disabled models on the runway, such as Jillian Mercado, asserts that this is our industry as well.

Fashion provides a platform for me to own the narrative of my body and be seen on my own terms. Many of us view our mobility devices as natural extensions of our bodies and fashion. We want to be celebrated, not hidden. Curating my outfits allows me to transcend the label of "the girl in the wheelchair"; instead, I can also be "the girl with the great wardrobe." These identities are not mutually exclusive. We can be both fashionable and disabled. Mr. Bolton asserts that fashion is a connection to our bodies, and that connection must embrace all bodies.

This winter, the Costume Institute unveiled a groundbreaking exhibit titled 'Women Dressing Women,' with the goal of showcasing women fashion designers from 1910 to the present. Notably, this exhibit marks the first time a wheelchair has been featured as part of the Institute's display. The exhibit spotlights a mannequin resembling the Black Trans Disabled model, Aaron Philip, adorned in a creation by Collina Strada.

While this inclusion is a significant stride towards greater diversity, I remain cautiously optimistic. The representation of disability in the exhibit must not be a tokenised gesture — superficial progress that masks previous transgressions. Unfortunately, the gala remains an exclusive and inaccessible space.

The iconic Met Gala images often unfold on the museum's steps. Critics argue that implementing modifications for accessibility would compromise the Gala's aesthetic. In response, I reiterate the concept of the social license bestowed upon the Gala. Why should we uphold an institution that fails to celebrate everyone and include all bodies? We cannot grant social licenses to entities that only serve our physical and emotional needs. It is imperative to uphold a standard of change that surpasses the comfort of our egos.

The Met Gala has been transformed into a cultural focal point. Each year, speculation about the guest list dominates headlines. Those in attendance become figures ingrained in our collective consciousness, shaping who we should care about.

The inclusion of disabled bodies on the Met Gala red carpet a is a pivotal step in dismantling ableism and reshaping societal perceptions. It has the potential to boost the social capital of disabled individuals, promoting equality. Moreover, it offers those who have never seen themselves on such a global platform the chance to do so. Having spent 25 years without seeing myself in spaces where I felt I belonged, I am determined to drive this change.

Allow me to emphasise that the museum steps serve not only as a physical barrier but also as a societal embodiment of the obstacles that disabled individuals must overcome for equitable inclusion.

An inclusive and accessible Met Gala ensures that you can access the event through the same entrance as all other guests. Once inside, there must be accommodations addressing mobility, sensory, and dietary needs.

In a 2020 episode of Naomi Campbell’s podcast, Anna Wintour stated, “I think it [the pandemic] is an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and look at our lives and rethink our values.”

Almost four years have passed since she uttered these words, with little action taken by her and the industry. It is imperative to reassess and reconstruct a world and fashion industry that caters to all. It is not too late.

So, Ms Wintour, are you prepared to heed your own advice?