The History of the Met Gala



Published June 1, 2022

Emily Ratajkowski Met Gala 2019
Emily Ratajkowski at the 2019 Met Gala. Photo Credit: SharpShooter / Deposit Photos

The Met Gala has become something of a holiday for fashion fanatics. Celebrities gather at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in one-of-a-kind pieces to raise money for the museum’s Costume Institute. Much has changed since its beginning in the 1940s, as attendance has become more exclusive, and elaborate preparation now goes into making the garments for the event. 

Met Gala’s Inception 

While people today think of celebrity looks in recent years when they hear “Met Gala,” very few know why it’s so heavily associated with the fashion industry. 

Although the Met Gala officially started in 1948, what ignited the beginning of it all was when theater producer Irene Lewisohn and stage designer Alice Bernstein decided to create a collection of costumes that designers could consult for inspiration. 

Over nearly twenty years, the collection had grown to over 8,000 outfits, so big that it gained recognition. Lewisohn and Bernstein’s collection integrated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would be known as the Costume Institute, a place people could look at and admire these many outfits. 

To raise money for the recently opened Costume Institute, fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, who also created New York Fashion Week and the concept of the “Best Dressed List,” began the Met Gala event. Referring to the event as “the party of the year,” tickets were sold at $50 to New York’s elite, and over the years, it has developed into one of the city’s most noteworthy parties.  

However, it wouldn’t be until decades later that the Met Gala gained the traction and popularity it is currently known for. 

Jennifer Lopez Met Gala 2017
Jennifer Lopez at the 2017 Met Gala. Photo Credit: everett225 / Deposit Photos

The Met Gala’s Celebrity Shift

When Diana Vreeland was fired from American Vogue at the turn of the 1970s, she got a new job working for the Costume Institute. Among her many duties was to take over the organizing of the Met Gala. This change of management made the event what it is today. 

With her influence and big-name draw, from celebrities to designers and politicians, she gave the Met Gala the element of exclusivity and allure that the press started to cover, noting it as a place to find the latest fashion. Compared to its beginning, the Met Gala attendees arrived well-dressed but more pedestrianly. Vreeland’s larger-than-life perspective brought in its haute couture, even costume-like, elements. 

The Met Gala was not the only venue whose dress code evolved over the years. Modern nightclubs, for example, can be traced back to the 1800s in honkytonks, where people in cowtowns enjoyed moonshine and dancing to upbeat tack piano music. Rolling into the 1920s, nightclubs became associated with fun and creative outfits, which eventually reached their pinnacle in the avant-garde club scene of the 80s, which saw the likes of Grace Jones, David Bowie, and Keith Haring achieving sartorial acclaim.

Similarly, casino dress codes have transformed since their beginning in 17th century Venice, where people wore Venetian masks and embellished garments to flaunt their wealth. Later, when many Europeans migrated to the Americas, they built casinos in recently settled territories, including the West. From cowboy attire to glitzy Hollywood glamour a la James Bond, the dress code has dramatically shifted quickly. Unlike the Met Gala, which has become the pinnacle of fashion, casinos have moved to more casual attire, although it depends on the venue. 

It’s interesting to compare how a venue’s dress codes evolve. It’s also worth noting that people who attend casinos don’t expect to be the center of attention in the same way as clubbers or socialites, where clothing plays a vital role in creative circles. 

Anna Wintour Met Gala 2016
Anna Wintour at the 2016 Met Gala.

Anna Wintour’s Influence

While Vreeland gave the celebrity element and shifted the dress code for the Met Gala, Anna Wintour took the event and ran with it. Known for revamping Vogue in the 90s, her role as the Met Gala event organizer came with many changes today. 

One of her choices was to move the event to springtime so that people could choose more daring outfits without having to worry about the bitter New York winter. Another, which is probably more memorable and elevated the event’s reputation, was hiring more culturally relevant entertainers. By inviting big names like Kanye West and Rhianna, it became a concert performance and a fashion show.

All the exclusivity and celebrity don’t go without their price. The only way to attend is to receive an invitation from Anna Wintour herself. And whereas the Met Gala once cost $50 in the 40s, the equivalent of about $600 today, a single Met Gala ticket now costs $35,000, which proves that the Costume Institute has secured its funds. 

That’s to say; the Met Gala has transformed into a global event, where all eyes are on New York as celebrities don incredible outfits. At the same time, it’s been quite successful in creating a legacy for both costume and fashion.

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