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How the Met Gala went from a small fundraising event to the most exclusive party in fashion

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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It used to cost just $50 to attend the Met Gala. Now, it’s the most starry night on the fashion calendar. 

The journalists manning the press gallery at the 2015 Met Gala were just about to pack up their notebooks and smartphones when one last limousine pulled up outside number 1000, 5th Avenue.

The door opened and out stepped Rihanna, resplendent in an egg yolk-yellow cape by Chinese designer Guo Pei, trimmed in fur and etched with hand-embroidery. As she sauntered up the steps, the sheer bulk of the train became evident: three wranglers were required just to make sure she could walk. The wrap, if we can even call it that, took the designer two years to complete.

Rihanna’s show-stopping entrance will go down in Met Gala history as one of the most memorable moments from the event. 

But ‘twas not always thus. In fact, ‘twas rarely thus for a long time, in the world of the Met Gala. When it was first launched in 1948 by a fashion publicist, tickets costs $50 (about $520, give or take inflation) and the event was an intimate soiree designed to raise money for the newly launched Costume Institute at the newly launched Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

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But when the event was taken over by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, in 1999, the night was transformed into what we know it to be today: an ultra-exclusive, ultra-glamorous party for the biggest names in fashion, entertainment, art and philanthropy. A night where Rihanna will wear a cape that took two years to make. Or Katy Perry – wearing a set of soaring angel’s wings, will arrive in an open-top vehicle because no car could accommodate her costume.

This is the history of the Met Gala. 

Midnight suppers and $50 tickets: the early days of the Met Gala

Linda Rossellini at the Met Gala

In 1948, when the Met Gala was first launched, the idea was to raise some much-needed funds for the recently launched Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The brainwave was had by Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist and founder of CFDA (and the annual Vanity Fair best-dressed list), who invited a select and intimate array of Manhattan high society to a midnight supper at the Waldorf Astoria in December. 

Back then, the Met Gala was a small, simple affair that blended into the annual philanthropic calendar with a guest list drawn from the ranks of Manhattan high society and nary an A-list actress or Instagram-famous supermodel in sight. 

The Diana Vreeland effect: how the Met Gala changed in the Seventies

Diana Vreeland at the Met Gala

Everything changed in 1972 when Diana Vreeland, the glamorous former editor of American Vogue came on board as a consultant to the Costume Institute. It was her idea to transform the dinner into a glittery party, and it was at her behest that the thick white invitations began to be mailed out to celebrities including Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Diana Ross and Cher.

Vreeland was brought on board by the Costume Institute for this exact purpose, after all, but her appointment was said to have been met with some disdain by denizens of the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself. 

According to rumours, Vreeland’s supporters personally lobbied the Met to appoint Vreeland by raising the money to pay for her first two years of salary. (These friends included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Babe Paley, a socialite married to the founder of CBS.) 

Bianca Jagger at the Met Gala

Under Vreeland’s direction, the party began to resemble the event that we know and love today. Vreeland transformed the party from a small fundraising event into one of the most important nights on the New York social calendar.

One of her tricks was to host the event in the basement, where the Met would stage each year’s exhibition. (During Vreeland’s tenure, some of the themes included Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, Yves Saint Laurent and Royal India). Guests would arrive decked out in the most glamorous of clothes before descending into darkness, as perfume was pumped into the gallery around them. It was pure sartorial theatre. Dinner would later be served before dancing and – naturally – more drinks staged around the Met’s famous Temple of Dendur, the jewel in the crown of its Egyptian wing.

Back then, tickets were still made available to those who weren’t cresting the top of high society for just $100, about $527 with inflation. That meant that a wide variety of fashion industry personnel and students could attend. Steven Solman, a student at Parsons in the Seventies, recalls scouring thrift shops on 9th avenue for a tuxedo in the advance of the gala. 

Bob Mackie and Cher at the Met Gala

Students were only allowed to join the party once the dinner had wrapped up, but they were welcome to the drinks and dancing portion of the evening, which was the fun bit, really. Solman, writing for Town & Country, recalls seeing Nan Kempner, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Jackie Onassis and Vreeland herself gathered together on the dance floor. 

“Pat, who was the perennial chairwoman of the gala, would always come to the after party,” Solman writes. “She loved hanging out with us, chatting, asking about our studies, drinking and smoking a lot at a high-top table away from the dance floor. It was a magical, heady experience, as if the pages of Women’s Wear Daily were coming to life right before our eyes.” 

Anna Wintour’s party: the Met Gala’s transformation into the most exclusive night of the year

Andre Leon Talley and Anna Wintour at the Met Gala

When Vreeland died in 1989, the event continued on without a stewardess. The early Nineties brought a renewed sense of glamour to the occasion, with guests including Princess Diana making a surprise appearance in 1996 in a dress designed by John Galliano for Dior.

Three years later, in 1999, Anna Wintour came on board as the new chairperson and set about making her influence keenly felt. By this stage, she was an old hand, having hosted the 1996 and 1997 Met Galas. 

But as the chairperson of the night, Wintour made two key changes: she moved the party from December to May and opened up the guest list to Vogue’s vast network of contacts, both within the fashion industry and outside of it in entertainment, the arts, politics and the media.

Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley at the Met Gala

This is when the Met Gala really started to resemble the exclusive party it is today. Wintour’s leadership saw a guest list including star athletes (Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback married to Gisele Bundchen, for example) mingling with Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker. Oscar-winning actors would share table with the Sisters Kardashian or Hadid. 

Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Reese Witherspoon, Blake Lively, Cara Delevingne, Kate Hudson, Selena Gomez, Amal Clooney, Serena Williams, Amber Heard, Bradley Cooper and Irina Shayk… If they’re big in show business, they’ll be on the Met Gala guest list.

The invitees are chosen through a number of different avenues. Some of them are personally invited by Wintour to join the annual committee, and are extended an invitation accordingly. (This is how Lupita Nyong’o and Chadwick Boseman were invited in 2019.) Others are invited directly by fashion brands that they have a relationship with. Others more are hand-picked by Vogue staffers and matched with fashion houses accordingly. You can still purchase a ticket if you have a spare $35,000 lying around.

Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady at the Met Gala

These days, the guest list is capped at around 500, after one even with 800 guests was deemed not exclusive enough. Sylvana Ward Durrett, who is Vogue’s director of special projects, has overseen the organisation of the party for the last decade, and is responsible for co-ordinating the intricate seating plan.

Most people happily accept the seat they have been given, but in 2006 John Lyndon – aka Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols – was unhappy with where he was placed.

“[He was] the last at a long table and arguably one of the least desirable in the highly orchestrated seating plan,” critic Cathy Horyn wrote in the New York Times. “He was visibly upset… [he] stormed out twice, cursing museum workers,” before eventually taking his assigned seat. 

Cameron Diaz at the Met Gala

Not that the general public ever gets to see much of the party itself.

Ever since 2015, Wintour has imposed a social media ban inside the event, ostensibly for the privacy, safety and enjoyment of the guests inside the gala. Not everyone follows the rules, though. Glimpses inside the Met Gal have been provided by snap-happy celebs like Kylie Jenner, who took a selfie of stars including Brie Larson, Puff Daddy, Kim Kardashian and Lily Aldridge inside the bathrooms.

On Monday, when the 2019 Met Gala is taking place, keep an eye out for sneaky Instagrams inside the event. It’s a window into New York’s most exclusive party like none other. 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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