On the evening of February 19, most New Yorkers were happily staying indoors, avoiding anything having to do with going outside. The unfortunate ones who had no other choice because of work or simply having to walk from place to place were bundled up, wearing every piece of clothing they owned in a feeble attempt to stay warm. With the wind slicing through what felt like my very soul, the already unbearable 15 degrees was more like 5. If that wasn’t enough, the snow from the first storm of 2015 was still frozen in hideous icebergs on the ground to remind me of just how cold it was in case I somehow forgot. As a Californian, this was a nightmare that could not get any worse.
However, for those attending the “A Knight at the Met” event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was as if the freezing whether was nonexistent.
The free event was created and hosted by the museum’s College Group at the Met in celebration of its well-known Arms & Armor gallery. Upon entering, I was greeted by some Billboard 100 top tracks blasting through several large speakers (courtesy of DJ Louie XIV), colorful lights dancing off the classic high archways, and a mass of twentysomethings chattering and roaming the halls.
In Thorstein Veblen’s article “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” he states that in fashion the “wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence” (p 24). Although full suits of armor are no longer typically worn, the armor on display in the galleries were a spot on representation of Veblen’s sentiment, proving that displays of power have always been apparent in fashion. Lower class knights donned very simple armor and wielded practical weapons, while the higher class knights had helmets, shields, and swords decadently engraved with the most beautiful of designs. Of course, these pieces were all hand crafted and forged back in the day, which only emphasized the accessibility and rarity only available depending on the status of the bearer.
In the piece “Fashion” by Georg Simmel, he says “the fashions of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of the lower” (pg 543), meaning that the upper class of any society will make a conscious effort to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. The amount of detail in the decorated amor was a way for knights to separate, identify, and represent their respective backgrounds. For example, family crests, customized blades, and banners were indicative of a knight’s social standing. Higher class knights may even have had more than one suit of armor, depending on the occasion, such as ceremonial armor or practice armor. In addition, the material used to make or design the suit signified your place in the hierarchy as well. Precious, high quality metals could only be afforded by the rich. These details served as “evidence” of wealth and power for knights.
In stark contrast, and what I found fascinating and in some ways insightful, were the attendees. In his discussion on varying methods of consumption, Veblen states that for some people there is “a wish to conform to established usage, to avoid unfavorable notice and comment, to live up to the accepted canons of decency in the kind, amount, and grade of goods consumed” (pg 71). Looking at the outfits of my fellow peers, I was strongly reminded of this. In the event’s description, we were encouraged to “dress sharp,” so the girls came in dresses and heels, while the guys sported button ups and blazers for the most part.
I think it’s safe to say that the outfits that night were an indication of the general socio-economic background of the present population. My habit of online window shopping became quite useful, as it provided me with a mental catalogue for several stores where people my age typically shop. I easily identified various accessories and dresses from Forever21, H&M, Zara, and Urban Outfitters and their respective seasons. These were the predominate brands among the crowd. Here and there I found a sprinkle of designer wear, such as an Hermès bracelet or a Chanel clutch. While everyone looked well put together, they soon became a homogenous blur of generic style, and I found myself straining my eyes for anyone wearing a unique piece or pushing an interesting look. No one appeared to have been making any particular effort to stand out. However, there was a touch of individuality to this girl’s ensemble that caught my eye and she kindly allowed me to take a photo:
Even though the range of attire was very limited, some attendees arrived in what seemed like whatever they wore to class that morning, and I wondered if it was as an act of rebellion or just the fact that they simply were not aware of the dress code, which could potentially constitute as a lack of culture capital. Nonetheless, if “A Knight at the Met” proved anything, it’s that fashion has always been used as a means of identifying one’s socio-economic background, as well as a display of status and power, whether it’s with a French suit of armor or a Burberry suit jacket.
Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” The American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. Print.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1899. 23-70. Print.