The first Monday in May marks one of the most anticipated fashion events of the year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit, otherwise known as the Met Gala. Instituted in 1948 as a fundraiser to support the newly formed Costume Institute (which was created in 1946 following the donation of the holdings of The Museum of Costume Arts), the unit did not officially become a curatorial department of the Met until 1959. In the intervening years, the nascent unit needed all the help they could get funding their work.
Which is why, in 1948, invitations went out to the movers and shakers of the American fashion industry for a fundraising event intended to fund the coffers of the Costume Institute. More than 700 designers and industry insiders flocked to take part, as the collection was actively used by industry as a source of design inspiration. The sold-out event raised more than $315,000—in contemporary currency—and took place at the Rainbow Room where guests paid $500 for a dinner and entertainment provided by none other than the guests themselves, who performed skit, song and dance numbers and engaged in as the New York Times wrote, “a spirit of gaiety with a bit of lampooning by trade people in New York’s fashion industry.”
Attendees in the earliest years of the party were overwhelmingly fashion industry insiders who got the inside joke of skits like the Fashion Cynics Award, a playful jest which poked fun at the COTY Fashion Critics Award. There were Guess the Dress contests and high jinks, such as when at the 1949 Party of the Year, designers Claire McCardell, Carolyn Schnurer and Josie Walker all performed an “I Want a Zoot Suit” lip synch number. Also of great interest was the pageant portion of the event, in which models donned historic fashions from the collection and paraded amongst the guests. The pageants were a fixture of the annual party for years before conservation standards changed to prohibit the physical wearing of garments in the collection.
As the popularity of the event grew, it attracted celebrities and socialites who poured funds into the Costume Institute, paying ever-increasing ticket prices. By 1960, nearly $7 million dollars had been raised which was then directed to funding a major renovation for “more spacious and dramatic exhibition galleries, timely displays for designers based on topical fashion issues; vastly expanded ‘live’ study storage and textile study rooms; greater number of workrooms for individual designer contemplation and creation; modern lecture workshop for students; expansion of the Institute’s education program and library and its publication facilities.” The fruits of which, no doubt, former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland enjoyed when she joined the Costume Institute as a special consultant in 1972, effectively shifting the model of the event to what it remains today: an invite-only ultra exclusive dinner party presented in conjunction with a themed fashion exhibition.
Following Vreeland’s death in 1989 the Met Gala waned in popularity for a few years, the New York Times writing in 1994, “For years there have been attempts to freshen up the Costume Institute party, the most successful being the addition of an after dinner party that attracts 2,000 fashion struck young people… even so, increasingly there is talk that the party has lost its fizz. Some say it had already gone flat.” That is to say until Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour began her affiliation with the event in 1995. The event once again blossomed in popularity among the celebrity and social sets and ticket prices reflected the increased demand. In 1994, the price of a ticket to the dinner was about $1,500 today, whereas attending 2003’s Goddess themed event would have set one back nearly $5,000. Wintour notoriously approves each an every attendee, and in 2018, guests paid $30,000 for the privilege of attending fashion’s most exclusive event of the year.
Over the last two decades under the direction of Wintour, the Met Gala has raised more than $125 million for the Costume Institute which renamed their galleries the Anna Wintour Costume Center in 2014.