The Met Gala – What Is It, and Why Does It Matter?
Published by: Dr Anna Lebovic | Aug 8th, 2019
A few months ago, you may have stumbled across photographs of a number of celebrities wearing truly outrageous outfits. You probably saw images of superstars like singer Katy Perry wearing not one, but two fully functioning chandeliers around her head and her waist. On the same night, English model Cara Delevingne was snapped in an outfit so festive and flamboyant – and a headdress so tall and complex – that Carmen Miranda would have wept with jealousy. However, many would argue that American rapper Cardi B stole the show with a sculptural ox-blood gown whose train was so voluminous it required no fewer than five men to help her up the stairs (!!!).
All three women were, of course, spotted in this getup on the same night, and at the same event: the Met Gala, which is always held in New York on the first Monday in May (on the 6th of May in 2019). But what is the Met Gala, exactly? Why do people wear such crazy clothes to it? And why does it command more and more attention with each passing year?
From Small Midnight Supper to the “Oscars of the East Coast”
The Met Gala – which is formally known as the Costume Institute Gala – has evolved significantly over time. However, it has never strayed from its pragmatic and rather mercenary initial purpose – to fundraise. In 1946, an exciting new department was added to the esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Art, located uptown in New York. The newly created Costume Institute was established to preserve, catalogue, and exhibit garments and accessories of historical significance, but there was a catch – the Institute needed to fund itself. To address this pressing need, which had grown critical just a few years later, in 1948 the enterprising fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert (who also founded New York Fashion Week) orchestrated the first ever Met Gala with several goals in mind; to publicise the opening of the Institute’s first fashion exhibition, to draw attention to the Institute, and to raise much needed funding to ensure its survival.
The first Gala was a dinner, and tickets to the event cost a princely (although not astronomical) $50. Attendees at this first Gala, and those in the immediate years that followed, were drawn from two worlds that were very much localised to New York; monied society types, and those who worked within the fashion industry. Until the 1970s, the annual benefit was held at a variety of prestigious venues across the city, including the Rainbow Room and the Warldorf-Astoria, and the home-grown, intimate flavour of the event was intensified when the dinner became a clubby, midnight supper.
In the 1970s, however, the Gala began to gain wider traction beyond the cozy fashion and society circles of New York. The flamboyant Diana Vreeland’s installation as special consultant to the Costume Institute in 1973 (a role she held until her death in 1989), was critical in facilitating this shift. After she was unceremoniously fired as editor-in-chief of American Vogue in 1971, powerful and well-connected friends (including Jacqueline Kennedy) quietly campaigned to create a new position for her at the fashion department at the Met. After she assumed her cushy new role, which included planning responsibility for the Gala, the event became far more ambitious in scope and glamorous in its appeal. Vreeland added many of the famous friends she had cultivated during her Vogue years to the guest list, and subsequently American celebrities including Diana Ross, Andy Warhol and Cher were photographed dancing and drinking at the Met (Vreeland having insisted that the Gala should henceforth be held within the museum itself, rather than offsite).
Vreeland also injected a heavy dose of fun into what had previously been a fairly sober and sedate affair. Under her directive, from the 1970s onwards, each year the Met Gala has adopted the theme of the fashion exhibition that is simultaneously launched within the Costume Institute. This leitmotif was (and still is) pursued through the unique, bespoke décor of the event, as well as the food that is served at the dinner. But most importantly, Vreeland also encouraged guests to uphold the theme through their attire, a revolutionary tradition that has been faithfully upheld since 1971.
Vreeland undoubtedly made the Met Gala a far more glitzy and enjoyable affair, but the event reached stratospheric new heights during the 1990s, when American Vogue became its primary sponsor. In 1995, Anna Wintour, the steely editor-in-chief of American Vogue from 1988 to the present day, became chairwoman of the Gala, and in this position she deliberately sought to internationalise the guest list. Like her predecessor, Wintour was also fascinated with celebrity, but unlike Vreeland, Wintour moved beyond the confines of the United States, and pursued a far more eclectic guest list of famous VIPs from various walks of life from around the world. Alongside actors, singers and fashion designers, Wintour included celebrities from the realms of elite sport (including Serena Williams), as well as politics and business (well before he reached the White House, for example, back in 2004 Donald Trump proposed to his then-girlfriend Melania Knauss at the Met Gala).
Wintour may have remade the Gala into “the” event for the international jet set, but she also made it a far more exclusive affair. Under Wintour, the ticket prices to the Gala have steadily risen (most recently by $10,000 in 2014, to a new high of US$30,000 per individual ticket). However, even deep pockets are not enough to secure access to the event. The annual guest list is limited to 650-700 people, and Wintour and her Vogue staffers have the final say (and veto) over who will make the cut. Even for those who are wealthy and well connected enough to make it in, new rules have been imposed to preserve the event’s mystique. From 2015, a ban was instituted on all social media posts from inside the event (although each year a steady stream of clandestine content leaks out nonetheless).
Slowly but surely, over the past 20 years, Wintour has achieved no small feat – she has taken a thoroughly local, insular event for New Yorkers and made it global, whilst still preserving its exclusivity and central purpose (in 2018, the Gala reportedly raised $13.5 million for the Costume Institute). As a result, journalists now commonly refer to the Met Gala as the “Oscars of the East Coast” (although many would argue that the Met Gala has surpassed the Oscars in the glamour and celebrity stakes). And for her part, Wintour has been handsomely rewarded for her efforts; in 2014, the Costume Institute was renamed the Anna Wintour Costume Centre.
The “Super Bowl of Fashion”
However, the Met Ball diverges from the Oscars in several important ways, all of which are a critical part of its unique and burgeoning appeal. Whilst the Oscars and Grammys (and other awards ceremonies like them) feature famous celebrities walking the red carpet in immaculate outfits, these events specialise in showcasing a particular type of superstar (the Oscars are mostly attended by actors, whilst the Grammys are dominated by musicians). By contrast, one of the Met Gala’s major drawcards is the unusually eclectic alchemy of its guests; there is no other red carpet where Calvin Klein might be seen alongside Celine Dion, Rodger Federer, and Elon Musk. The Met Gala’s appeal, therefore, is at least in part its ability to manufacture the full spectrum of international celebrity – in all of its different guises and forms – at a particular time and place in the real world.
Of course, even with its stellar guest list, the Met Ball would not command the headlines it does without the clothes. Like the Oscars, the formality of the Met Gala (where celebrities similarly make a grand entrance, and are photographed by the international press on the red carpet) encourages a culture of competitive dressing amongst attendees.
As with the Oscars, this rivalry produces spectacular, one-of-a kind specialty garments from some of the best fashion houses in the world. Famous long-standing clients often work collaboratively with fashion houses to produce bespoke outfits for these events (Katy Perry worked closely with Italian fashion house Moschino, for example, to create her chandelier dress for the 2019 Met Gala).
Unlike the Oscars, however, those attending the Met Gala must select/commission garments and accessories that conform to a particular theme. In place of the more conservative formal attire adopted during award season, therefore, this requirement encourages, enables and emboldens celebrities to take fashion risks (such as in 2019, when many attendees went above and beyond the year’s brief to dress “camp”). The result – more interesting and, at times, controversial, forms of self-presentation – produces an irresistible release from the safe, slick and high stylized look that is oppressively omnipresent everywhere else.
The spectacular ascendency of the Met Gala is, therefore, ultimately a testament to the increasing power and pull of fashion (and its intersection with celebrity) in the 21st century. Just as the hype and media coverage of the event has grown with each passing year, attendance at the annual fashion exhibition that the Gala formally launches has also boomed. In 2018 the fashion exhibition “Heavenly Bodies” broke all attendance records, and became the most visited exhibition in the Met’s history. In light of this, it would be more appropriate to think less of the Met Gala as the “Oscars of the East Coast”, but more fittingly as what others have come to argue it really is – “The Super Bowl of Fashion”. I know that I, for one, will eagerly be anticipating the spectacle it unleashes when it rolls around yet again next year.
Dr Anna Lebovic
Anna has a strong personal interest in literature, the arts and food (the good things in life!), and a particular expertise in the United States and the history of fashion. Anna was awarded a BA and PhD in History from the University of Sydney, and her doctorate was the first academic history of America’s pre-eminent fashion magazine, Vogue. Her research has been supported by a number of prestigious institutions, including the Institute Francais de la Mode in Paris, and she has presented at numerous conferences internationally, including meetings of the Association of Dress Historians in London and the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans. She is currently at work on her first book on Vogue, which draws on previously unseen material from the Conde Nast archive in New York. Her research has also been published (or is forthcoming) in leading academic journals, including The Journal of Women’s History and Gender & History.