AOC displaying her gown with designer Aurora James INSTAGRAM / @AOC

At Monday’s Met Gala, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s white tuxedo dress didn’t only stand out because of its simple elegance. In bright red letters that curved to echo the gown’s silhouette, the slogan ‘Tax the Rich’ was emblazoned boldly across the Democratic US representative’s back. Designer Aurora James’ literal interpretation of a statement piece provoked a maelstrom of controversy across the political spectrum. Was the choice to convey populist message through a luxury medium a hypocritical act of champagne socialism, or a subversive and effective protest against the 1%?

Conservatives and lefties alike have attacked the gown as performative activism, seeing it as a crass attempt to hog the limelight by virtue signalling that won’t cause any real change. When fast fashion brands inevitably decouple ‘Tax the rich’ from its radical origins for their own profit, this will be an apt appraisal. However, worn by AOC, the phrase is a powerful condensed political manifesto not a ‘lite, forever 21 catchphrase’ as Dazed termed it. The former waitress ran a grassroots campaign as an underdog on the controversial platform of taxing America’s wealthiest by up to 80%. Unlike almost every elected American politician, AOC has never accepted donations from corporations or the Super PACS who defend the special interests of the super-wealthy. And now that the party’s over, while the internet debates her authenticity, she’s back in congress fighting against the SALT tax deduction, which would significantly decrease taxation of the superrich. That doesn’t seem like hypocrisy to me.

“AOC pierced this bubble of excess by reminding us of its distance from middle- and working-class Americans’ struggle to scrape by. She drove home the true tragedy of America’s steep income inequality”

AOC also put her money where her mouth was through her anti-establishment choice of designer. As she said on Instagram, ‘the medium is the message’. At an event dominated by established names, Aurora James made her Gala debut. Her dress was one of the only creations by a black woman on Monday’s red carpet. The sustainability-focused designer started her fashion career working in a flea market. Like AOC, James is committed to diversifying the fashion industry. She’s the founder of the 15% Pledge, a charity dedicated to having 15% of products on sale at major retailers be produced by black businesses. After all, 15% of the US population is black – why isn’t this reflected in the fashion market?

Aurora James, the 'sustainability-focused designer' of AOC's gownINSTAGRAM / @AURORAJAMES

AOC’s dress is performative, but in the sense that protest is always a performance, aiming to attract the limelight to injustices. Given that she was attending a themed costume ball, accusations that the dresses’ theatricality signals that AOC is a phoney are hard to take seriously. It is, however, understandable that the discordance of her egalitarian message with the exclusivity of the hedonistic event has been labelled as tone-deaf and ‘beyond a parody’. However, she was intentionally harnessing the irony of hobnobbing with the elite in order to make her point. In her Instagram story the next day, Cortez noted: ‘We all had a conversation about Taxing the Rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, and punctured the 4th wall of excess and spectacle.’ I see the dress as an intelligent subversion of the absurdity of an event where tickets cost as much as the average American’s annual salary. AOC pierced this bubble of excess by reminding us of its distance from middle- and working-class Americans’ struggle to scrape by. She drove home the true tragedy of America’s steep income inequality: that some people, including many around her that night, have more money than anyone could ever use, and that this could be easily redressed by fairer legislation.


Mountain View

The Met Gala 2021

Some argue that the only morally pure mode of protest would have been a boycott of the event, but they’re missing the nuances of AOC’s stance. She wasn’t protesting the existence of the cultural fundraiser for a major public museum owned by the City of New York. She pointed out on Instagram, ‘the Met belongs to the people’. Fundraisers like the Gala enable her constituents to go to the costume exhibit for as large or small a donation as they like. In attending the Gala with a free ticket, she was doing her job as one of several city officials present. It’s also difficult to imagine that a boycott would have created a media stir anywhere near that of the now-notorious dress.

Whatever you think of the means AOC used, the heated debate she’s provoked online illustrates the beauty of democratic dissent. Crucially, AOC’s dress has sparked important conversations in the mainstream media about taxing the rich and inspired social engagement about the issue on social media. In recent days, Google searches of the term ‘Tax the Rich’ have skyrocketed, demonstrating the power of fashion to raise political awareness. And while she achieved all this, AOC looked pretty damn good.