What Is the Met Gala, and Who Gets to Go?

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: N.Y Times
May 3, 2018 at 10:41
Deconstructing the party of the year, including how much it costs, who hosts and what you have to wear.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Damon Winter/The New York Times

Officially, it’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit, a black-tie extravaganza held the first Monday in May to raise money for the Costume Institute (a.k.a. the fashion department).

Unofficially, the night’s festivities have been called many things, including “the party of the year,” “the Oscars of the East Coast” (mostly because of the star quotient and the elaborate red carpet, where guests pose on the grand entrance stairs to the museum) and, somewhat pointedly, “an A.T.M. for the Met,” the last by the publicist Paul Wilmot.

The party signals the opening of the Costume Institute’s annual blockbuster show, and it is known for its celebrity and fashion hosts. This year the exhibition is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” and the hosts are Anna Wintour (the magical manipulative Wizard of Oz for this particular event), Rihanna (who has a starring role in the coming Met Gala heist movie, “Ocean’s 8”), Donatella Versace (because her brother Gianni had a thing about Catholic iconography) and Amal Clooney (because … well, who doesn’t want to stand in a receiving line with Amal Clooney?).

Stephen A. Schwarzman, a founder of Blackstone, and his wife, Christine, are honorary chairs. They are the first people to name-sponsor a fashion exhibition since 1997. That’s a big deal. It’s also big money.

Anna Wintour at the 2017 Met Gala.
Anna Wintour at the 2017 Met Gala.Credit...Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Tickets this year are $30,000 apiece, and tables are about $275,000. The party and exhibition are sponsored. All of the money from ticket sales goes to the Costume Institute, which it needs because it is the only one of the Met’s curatorial departments that has to fund itself, fashion having been an iffy proposition as an art form when the Costume Institute was established.

Last year, just over $12 million was raised. Of course, not everyone pays for a ticket. A brand will often invite celebrities to sit at its table, and Ms. Wintour also often invites up-and-coming designers who may not be able to afford a ticket and scatters them around the event. This makes them really excited and makes them feel like they owe her. If they didn’t already.

P. Diddy and Cassie pose on the stairs in 2017.
P. Diddy and Cassie pose on the stairs in 2017.Credit...Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Why Would Anyone Pay That Much for a Party?

Ms. Wintour, the editor of American Vogue and the artistic director of Condé Nast, first became chairwoman in 1995. She took over annual leadership in 1999. Since then, she has been instrumental in transforming a local philanthropic event into the ultimate global celebrity/power cocktail: Take a jigger of famous names from fashion, add film, politics and business, and mix.It has become the gold standard of parties; that by which other benefits are measured. It’s such a heady combo that President Trump proposed to his wife, Melania, during the gala in 2004. (In case you are wondering: No, they are not expected this year.). It is among the hardest party tickets of the year to get — and thus, intensely coveted.

If the Vatican doesn’t see a problem with it — and it has given a seal of approval, lending approximately 50 pieces from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy — then should you? The reasoning seems to be: Anything that celebrates Catholicism and opens it up to a broader audience is a good thing, and these exhibitions are that.

Both major Costume Institute shows in 2015 and 2016 drew the magic over-700,000 number of visitors, which makes them among the most-visited Met shows. Still, the show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, was careful to separate the church’s clothes from the designer clothes. The sacred pieces will be exhibited by themselves in the Anna Wintour Costume Center and the profane will reside in a separate space.

Last year, about 550. But that was a more intimate event for a more intimate show, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” which was devoted to the cultlike Japanese designer who once said her goal with one collection was “not to make clothes.”

By contrast, “Heavenly Bodies” will be the biggest exhibition the Costume Institute has produced — about 58,600 square feet, stretching over three galleries: the Anna Wintour Costume Center and the medieval rooms in the Met on Fifth Avenue, and the Cloisters in far northern Manhattan — and odds are the gala will be equally ambitious.

From left; Doutzen Kroes, Candice Swanepoel, Joan Smalls, Adriana Lima and Behati Prinsloo inside the gala reception.
From left; Doutzen Kroes, Candice Swanepoel, Joan Smalls, Adriana Lima and Behati Prinsloo inside the gala reception.Credit...Landon Nordeman for The New York Times

So If I Can Afford a Ticket, Can I Go?

Dream on. Unlike other cultural fund-raisers, like the New York City Ballet gala or the Frick Collection Young Fellows Ball, the Met gala is invitation only, and there is a waiting list. Qualifications for inclusion have to do with buzz and achievement (and beauty), a.k.a. the gospel according to Anna, more than money. Ms. Wintour has final say over every invitation and attendee, which means that even if a company buys a table, it cannot choose everyone who sits at its table: It must clear the guest with her and Vogue and pray for approval.

It’s reality TV at its most glamorous. See Tom and Gisele being much more perfect than any normal couple could hope to be! Check out Chelsea Clinton kissing Diane von Furstenberg! Watch Tom Ford try not to step on Sarah Jessica Parker’s train! Judge whether you approve of the outfits! (For the best view, tune in to our red carpet slide show, produced in real time as soon as the hosts make their entrance around 6 p.m.)

Pharrell Williams, left, and Helen Lasichanh, wearing Comme des Garçons, make their way up the staircase at the Met Gala in 2017.
Pharrell Williams, left, and Helen Lasichanh, wearing Comme des Garçons, make their way up the staircase at the Met Gala in 2017.Credit...Theo Wargo/Getty Images for US Weekly

Speaking of Outfits, Do Attendees Have to Dress in Theme?

It isn’t stated that attendees have to dress like the exhibition, but it is encouraged. This can sometimes backfire. In 2015, the exhibition was “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and it created some politically incorrect moments when celebrities and the designers who dressed them got their Asian references muddled. (Lady Gaga, for example, wore a Balenciaga kimono-like look, which seemed to actually lean toward the Japanese; ditto Georgia May Jagger in Gucci.)

In 2016, the show was “Manus ex Machina,” which meant almost the entire Jenner-Kardashian clan was in sparkling Balmain motherboards. And last year, for the Kawakubo exhibition, Helen Lasichanh, wife of Pharrell Williams, gamely entered into the spirit of the evening in a red Comme des Garçons jumpsuit that flattened and haloed the body, but had no armholes. The whole eating thing was a little complicated.

This year’s dress code is “Sunday Best,” which is a witty way to acknowledge the church while remaining open-ended enough to allow guests to just choose really great party dresses. Ms. Wintour tends to always go with Chanel, though Rihanna loves a theme: In 2015, she modeled a golden cape by the Chinese designer Guo Pei to “China Through the Looking Glass” that inspired a thousand sunny-side up memes, and last year opted for chintz boa constrictor ruffles in straight-from-the-runway Comme.

So we could see a lot of very severe priestlike robing, or bejeweled crosses — or angelic iconography. Hopefully not too much of it. If Madonna attends (and really, how could a brand resist that invite), Heaven only knows what she will choose.

From left, Naomi Watts, Stella McCartney and Kate Hudson at the Met Gala in 2017.
From left, Naomi Watts, Stella McCartney and Kate Hudson at the Met Gala in 2017.Credit...Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

If celebrities are invited to the gala by a brand, it is an unspoken rule that they have to wear clothes from that brand. This encourages said brands to get the best stars, because they can act as something of an advertisement for a house. It is also why, whenever designers are photographed on the red carpet, their dates are almost always famous people. In 2017, for example, Stella McCartney brought Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts.

If I were reading the tea leaves, and given that Ms. Versace pretty much broke the internet last year when she recreated a supermodel tableau in her spring show with Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Claudia Schiffer and Helena Christensen, I might put money on some of the above making an appearance in their gold goddess Versace chain mail. (Well, it has to do with worship.) 

In the past, Beyoncé was famous for making the final entrance, but she skipped last year’s gala because she was pregnant with twins. Whether she makes a return this year will be the question of the evening.

Jourdan Dunn, left, and Cassie Ventura inside the reception at the Met Gala in 2017.
Jourdan Dunn, left, and Cassie Ventura inside the reception at the Met Gala in 2017.Credit...Landon Nordeman for The New York Times

It’s a secret! For the last three years, posting on social media has been banned after the red carpet. What I can tell you is this: There is a receiving line inside with the hosts, and guests have to file by and air kiss them. Then guests tour the exhibition (or at least, the part in the Met) on their way to the cocktail party, so they are theoretically forced to experience some culture.

After cocktails, they are called in to dinner, and there is always some form of entertainment. (Last year, it was Katy Perry.) This is good, because as the red carpet part of the evening has become a giant marketing event — Vogue even does a special stand-alone issue — the fact that the main part of the event is private allows guests to relax and have fun.

Or so they tell me.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times's fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. More about Vanessa Friedman

A version of this article appears in print on May 6, 2018, Section ST, Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: Money Makes the World Go Round. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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