With the annual Met Gala event taking place in just a few days where notable attendees, fashion devotees and every other pop-culture admirers step out in custom looks, we wonder – just how did the extravagant event start?
In the 1920s during the Jazz Age in New York, theatre director Irene Lewisohn and stage designer Aline Bernstein created a collection of costumes for theatre designers as a source of inspiration. Their collection grew to over 8,000 pieces by 1946 which were sourced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art forming the Costume Institute.
Two years later, Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist in New York created the annual fundraiser. Lambert had already launched New York Fashion Week, founded the CFDA and invented the concept of the “Best Dressed List” so there was no surprise that she came up with the idea of a fundraising gala inviting New York’s elite to what would become the biggest event on Manhattan social calendars for years to come.
The invitation was titled “The Party of the Year” and took place as an intimate midnight soirée where guests purchased tickets for $50. The first event was held at the Waldorf Astoria in December of 1948. Over the years, Lambert’s philanthropic fundraiser took place at different locations including Central Park and The Rainbow Room in the Rockefeller Centre.
Image: Met Gala, Circa 1960
Fast forward to today, and the Met Gala red carpet has become one of the most famous dress-up parties in the world hosting A-list names from fashion, culture, sports, politics and has been labelled the Oscars of the fashion world.
However, the guest list that we know of now was not nearly as extensive as the original one that included Manhattan’s deep pocketed social scene. Lambert successfully achieved the goal of generating interest and keeping the Costume Institute financially afloat.
Throughout its history there have been four chairs of the Met Gala and since Lambert’s reign, three other influential women have been at the helm. Diana Vreeland changed the event to be what we know it to be today, extending the list from Manhattan’s social scene to inviting celebrities and hosting the event at the museum itself. Pat Buckley chaired the event in the ’90s until it was then taken over by Wintour in 1995.
There are many number of factors that have led to the change and growth of the Met Gala including: globalisation, the internet, a fascination for celebrity culture and accessible travel enabling attendees to fly in from all over the world.
But, even in the past 10 years, the event has seen a huge shift. Alexa Chung in a video conversation with Philip Lim drew light on this by looking back at her first-ever Met Gala that she attended with the designer which was a closed-off event without the huge social media presence. Lim dressed Chung in a Bianca Jagger-inspired tapered tuxedo which, even in 2010 pushed boundaries “Alexa, did you know that it had to go through so many approval processes?” he says, explaining there were rounds of approvals “to put a woman in a suit trouser on the red carpet”.
Chung responds, “It’s so weird and now people turn up in yellow gowns that look like pizzas, or angel wings that get stuck in the stairs, Gaga’s rolling around in her knickers on the stairs… It has really changed.”
We may not know how many outfit changes Gaga had planned for this year, or what food item Rhianna’s outfit may have looked like, but what we do know is that with its long history the Gala will be back and not just for our entertainment but to support the future of the Costume Institute and the history of fashion.