Opinion | Oscar Isaac, Russell Westbrook outfits at Met Gala made defying gender norms look fun

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If the clothes make the man, all the men in dresses and skirts at the 2022 Met Gala made a statement.

Fashion is a form of play, and at long last it appears everyone has permission to dabble in the whole toy box. At a moment of gender panic, it was a delightful reprieve to see male movie stars, professional athletes and couture collectors mark the most important event on the fashion calendar — Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute — in clothing and accessories long reserved for women.

It was also a reminder of what traditionalists deny themselves. What’s a skirt or dress, anyway? Thom Browne, the American designer known for treating the suit as a canvas with infinite potential for innovation, approached conventionally feminine clothes in a similar way last night. Take actor Oscar Isaac, who walked the red carpet in a trompe l’oeil midi dress that resembled a tailcoat and white tie, while his wife, Elvira Lind, wore an actual version of the same ensemble. This isn’t the first time that Isaac collaborated with Browne on an outfit that fuses menswear and womenswear: Browne dressed him in a gray pleated skirt for the premiere of “Moon Knight,” the Marvel superhero show.

In both looks, Isaac did something different than British singer Harry Styles choosing to wear a frock on the cover of Vogue or actor Billy Porter donning ballgowns for the Oscars. Isaac wears skirts and dresses in a way that calls into question the assumption that such garments are inherently feminine.

Pro basketball player Russell Westbrook did the same thing in a pleated Thom Browne skirt and top hat — and so did Christine Baranski, channeling not so much her society dowager character on “The Gilded Age” as the robber baron railway magnate who lives across the street. The skirts on these outfits weren’t flowing or fanciful but edifices supporting the rest of the ensembles — and showcasing the personalities of the stars who wore them.

Browne wasn’t the only designer playing with these ideas. Other men sported corsets, bustles, barrettes, delicate embroidery and flowing capes that played tribute to the late Vogue magazine editor-at-large André Leon Talley. Paapa Essiedu, the British Shakespearean and television actor, wore a velvet suit with delicate jewelry from Veert. Julia Lang, who founded that company, has suggested that “an undeniable longing for tastefulness and positive self-expression” can unite people across the identity categories that otherwise define them.

Such excellent taste probably isn’t what conservatives who have gone to war with what they call “gender ideology” are thinking. The future that scares them probably looks a bit more like Swedish fashionista Fredrik Robertsson in an Iris Van Herpen dress that made him look less like a man or a woman than a being from a different galaxy altogether.

Most people will never have access to the sort of clothes on display at the Met Gala. But everyone can approach clothes with the same sense of joy and curiosity if they want. Moments such as the Met Gala reveal just how little rigid gender norms have to offer as an alternative to people who are interested in beauty, style and self-expression.

Sure, plenty of men looked impeccable in more traditional tuxedos: Ryan Reynolds, for example, knew better than to distract from wife Blake Lively’s gorgeous tribute to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. But confining men to basic black and white and to conservative cuts of traditional formalwear is to deny them opportunities for joy and curiosity.

“Life just feels so much better if you wear a @maisonvalentino dress made out of sequins and rainbow colored feathers — you should try it,” Robertsson wrote on Instagram in April. And it appears that, increasingly, more men are willing to follow that advice.

After all, when feminine accessories make it to the NFL draft, something’s really in the air.

Garrett Wilson, the Ohio State wide receiver selected by the New York Jets with the 10th pick last month, made a statement in a triple strand of pearls and a slim, double-breasted, color-blocked Prada suit. With a few tweaks and substitutions — say, swapping his chunky boots for a pair of heels — the ensemble would have looked right at home on Nancy Pelosi.

Just as the men in Thom Browne skirts and dresses did at the Met Gala, Wilson’s choice of outfit made a careful observer reconsider our tired assumptions. Who wouldn’t want to marry precision and playfulness on one of the biggest days of their career?

It’s easy, if lazy, to write off events such as the Met Gala and the NFL draft as distractions from What Truly Matters. But fancifulness, too, has its purpose even in a time this grim: It’s a reminder of what can be, if only we dare to reach out and take it off the rack.

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