Rihanna in a bejewelled Pope-inspired ensemble, complete with a mitre and cloak. Cher in the original naked dress decorated in strategically placed sequins and feathers. Madonna in bondage-inspired Givenchy with her derrière proudly on show. Katy Perry and Claire Danes in outfits that literally lit up the red carpet with LED lights designed as part of their dresses. A halo-clad Solange Knowles decked in futuristic Iris van Herpen. Beyoncé in head-to-toe embellished latex.
What makes the Met Gala different to all other red-carpet events? There is nowhere else that you would see the above. The first Monday in May, the date that the event is traditionally held, is hailed as fashion’s Super Bowl and with good reason. It’s the subject of a documentary, starring its mastermind Anna Wintour; it formed the setting of 2018’s all-female Ocean’s 8 film whereby a cast including Sandra Bullock, Rihanna and Cate Blanchett robbed a gala guest played by Anne Hathaway; it will (unless a royal baby arrives) be the focus of every lifestyle consumer publication or website on Tuesday.
“It’s the only red carpet where directional fashion has a place, as opposed to other red carpets, which are about finding something flattering,” says Harper’s Bazaar and Elle group fashion director Avril Mair.
It isn’t enough to just look nice at the Met Gala. This isn’t about looking sexy or really pretty as is the case with so many other celebrity events, but rather embracing the annual theme which always celebrates the subject of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition, be it 2006’s Anglo Mania, in which Alexander McQueen and Sarah Jessica Parker both wore matching tartan ensembles, or 2018’s Heavenly Bodies, which explored the influence of Catholicism on couture and ready-to-wear. This year’s attendees will adhere to Camp: Notes on Fashion – an aesthetic style that will lend itself well to the event’s characteristic exaggeration and ostentatiousness. The Met Gala is the strongest expression of fashion to be found off the catwalks.
“The Met Gala is solely about the fashion,” says celebrity stylist Rebecca Corbin-Murray, who is dressing Gemma Chan for this year’s event. “It’s the culmination of a designer’s imagination, the craftsmanship of their respective fashion house and the challenge of interpreting the theme, while still retaining the designer’s aesthetic and integrity. It’s a showcase for fashion in its most pure art form.”
Designers and fashion houses are invited to unleash their most creative ideas on an international platform. Imagine being invited to a fancy-dress party, then being able to ask your favourite luxury fashion brand to help make the outfit of your dreams.
“The Met Gala is a big as it gets,” says Erdem Moralioglu, who has previously designed gowns for Alexa Chung, Kristin Scott Thomas, Claire Foy and Felicity Jones to wear to the event. “The red carpet is vast. What I love about it is the fact that it’s about fashion and always is a celebration of the craft.”
Without the pressure to fit into the stereotypical mould of what a female celebrity should wear on the red-carpet, the world’s most famous actresses, models and musicians are encouraged to be their most experimental and playful when choosing what to wear.
“Fashion has so much to give and there are so many amazing designers whose creations are not often seen on the red carpet because they represent more outrageous fashion,” said model Behati Prinsloo, who is a regular at the gala. “For one night, you can really see and celebrate the creative minds behind these pieces and brands. There is a real fearlessness and certain designers really take it to the next level which is really fun. Some of these designs are literally costumes and I think that, in this day and age, you don’t see that anymore.”
It’s a huge contrast to what we see during awards season (with exception perhaps of the Grammys), when celebrities largely play it safe out of a desire to be taken seriously and not to be torn apart by the ever-mercenary tabloid press. There’s also the factor of celebrities and their brand partnerships – whether or not an actress has been paid by a brand to wear its clothes as part of a campaign deal.
“Red-carpet dressing is big business nowadays and nobody wants to get it wrong,” says Mair. “That doesn’t mean it’s boring, necessarily (see Gemma Chan at the Oscars), but it does mean that there are very few celebrities willing to take a chance in the manner of, say, Bjork and her swan dress. Red-carpet dressing generally has to speak to a global audience who aren’t ‘fashion’ people – the Met Gala is the direct opposite of that.”
Chinese heiress Wendy Yu, the founder of investment company Yu Holdings and a member of the Met Gala committee, says the party occupies a unique spot in the world of glamorous celebrity events.
“It’s the only place where the biggest talents in the arts – across fashion, film, music and business come together and really have fun with what they are wearing,” Yu told us. “Every designer wants to craft a look that will be worn on the red carpet.”
For most of us, the appeal is in the creative, bold outfits not usually worn by rich and beautiful, but Yu adds that its affiliation with a cerebral exhibition and its revered curator, Andrew Bolton, is also a big draw for guests, providing an air of credibility and intellectualism that most red-carpet events don’t have.
“The Met Gala is a celebration of the Costume Institute,” she says. “Whilst those around the world may not know about all of the wonderful garments the Costume Institute preserves all year round, they do take note of the annual Gala making the exhibition a must-see for those in New York over the forthcoming months. Under Andrew’s exceptional direction the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition becomes a cultural event.”
Erdem agrees: “Andrew Bolton the curator is such visionary and to be there and part of his world is so extraordinary.”