What Exactly Is the Met Gala?
What Exactly Is the Met Gala?
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date May 7, 2018
It’s that time of year again—the first Monday in May. The Met Gala has once again peeked its head out from the shroud of NYC’s high fashion high society, taking over timelines with image galleries of fashion’s and celebrity’s most celebrated and up-and-coming. But beyond its association with Vogue (or rather, Condé Nast) mastermind Anna Wintour and a 2016 documentary—aptly titled The First Monday in May—just what is the Met Gala?
From the mind of Eleanor Lambert—a fashion public relations genius who has been credited with founding New York Fashion Week, the CFDA and assisting with the launch of the Museum of Modern Art—the Met Gala began in 1948. It was initially conceived as a fundraising dinner for the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute while celebrating that year’s newly installed exhibition. With entrance costing only $50 a ticket, it rose in popularity and was quickly dubbed “The Party of the Year.”
The Gala would take on new life under the stewardship of ex-Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (she served as a special consultant to The Costume Institute from 1972 to 1989 after departing Vogue in 1971), who used the event to allow the worlds of fashion, art and popular culture to intersect. Vreeland’s Met Gala’s included support from the era’s shapers of American ‘high culture,’ including former First Lady and noted fashion muse Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Vreeland’s view of the Met Gala would pave the way for the phenomenon that it has become under Wintour’s direction. Since 1995 (barring the 1996 and 1998 events) Wintour has served as co-chair and, frankly, curator of the Met Gala and its attendees. She took over leadership duties in 1999. According to The Met, this year marks Wintour’s 20th time at the top of the event.
While Wintour’s predecessors understood the potent mix of fashion and celebrity, it’s only in recent years that the Met Gala has truly lived up to its nickname as “The Oscars of the East Coast.” This title comes down to a blend of expense and exclusivity. According to The New York Times, tickets for this year’s event—Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination—are a whopping $30,000 apiece, with tables going for $275,000. Given that the Costume Institute is the only one of the Met’s curatorial departments required to pay for itself, the high entrance fee does go towards a good cause. Of course, not every attendee will be paying their way in however; many celebrities arrive as guests of a particular brand, and Wintour herself personally invites a small cabal of rising designers that might not make it to the event otherwise. Of course, as seen on the event’s red carpet, if someone is attending as the guest of a particular brand or designer, it is an unspoken rule that they will be wearing its designs to the Gala. Given that each year has a theme, there's also an understanding that every guest will dress to that theme. While some years are easier than others (2015's China: Through the Looking Glass led to some...interesting...ensembles) you can expect a handful of attendees to (for better or worse) hit the theme, a handful to ignore it and the rest to fall somewhere in between.
Perhaps the Met Gala’s most important function—aside from raising money for the exhibit—is establishing (and, depending on the person, reaffirming) the celebrity world’s fashion plates. Again this comes down to curation; one simply doesn’t go to the Met Gala. Even if a celebrity is invited to attend by an approved brand or guest, Wintour has final say over single invite, so if Wintour doesn’t approve, it doesn’t matter who you are. Largely the criteria centers on a blend of personal beauty and cultural buzz. It makes sense that both Rihanna and Beyoncé have both served as unofficial grand finales to Gala’s illustrious and heavily photographed red carpet. Speaking of musicians like Beyoncé and Rihanna, the Met Gala in more recent years has shown an understanding of the pop cultural power of hip-hop. In the last few years alone the Gala has hosted contemporary artists of color including (but certainly not limited to): A$AP Rocky, Future, Frank Ocean, Donald Glover and Migos (who, for the record, was the first hip-hop act to perform at the fundraiser).
While the outfits can certainly be hit-or-miss, the inclusion of guests like these show that the Met Gala—and the often-impenetrable ‘fashion world’—is slowly becoming more inclusive, more relevant and more aware. It’s not surprising to see an artist turn up to the Met Gala and suddenly find them contending for, and included in future ‘best dressed’ roundup galleries later in the year. If nothing else, it’s worth noting how often the phrase “Met Gala” makes its way into rap lyrics lately.
In a way, the Met Gala is a bit like high fashion’s version of reality television. With plenty of international fashion royalty mixing with the stars, there’s bound to be some light-hearted laughs at the all-too-often stuffy-to-outsiders industry. Some fashion, some frivolity and some star-power (all for the sake of supporting art)—what’s the harm in that?