Every first Monday in May, fashion designers, celebrities and fashion insiders gather to celebrate the fashion event of the year, the Met Gala. Formally called The Costume Institute Gala or The Costume Institute Benefit, it’s also known as the Met Ball. The event is the Met’s annual fundraising gala to benefit their Costume Institute, which boasts a collection of thirty-three thousand objects, representing seven centuries of fashionable dress and accessories for men, women, and children from the fifteenth century to the present. The Met Gala is considered to be the fashion industry’s premier red carpet event, equivalent to the Oscars.
This year however, due to Covid-19, the Met Gala was cancelled and the exhibition was postponed until October, since museums in NYC were closed on March 13th and only opened as of August 29th. Such a shame, especially since 2020 is the year that the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates its 150th anniversary. Though we won’t get to oggle, oggle and gawk as celebs climb the Met steps dressed in outrageous outfits, we will get to view this year’s exhibition entitled, About Time: Fashion and Duration when it opens its doors to the public on October 29, 2020 – February 7, 2021.
Before we give you a sneak peek at the exhibition, we thought it would be fun to look at the history of the Met Gala, the people involved in its evolution and how the Met has turned a museum benefit into BIG BUSINESS.
WHAT IS THE MET GALA
One of the first questions everyone wants to know is, “who chooses the theme for The Costume Institute’s big exhibition and how far in advance is it planned?
Answer: Head curator Andrew Bolton and his 32 person team research potential themes years in advance though an effort is made to reflect the cultural sensibilities of the times. Once Bolton and his team are happy with a particular theme, they present it to the museum’s director and president for approval and of course to Anna Wintour. Wintour has chaired and co-hosted the event since 1995. The hands-on curation of the show starts as soon as the Met’s spring show opens, giving the team 12 months to make the magic happen all over again.
THE HISTORY OF THE MET GALA
It all started in 1948 when fashion publicist extraordinaire, Eleanor Lambert (referred to as the first lady of fashion), established the Met Gala as a way to raise money and awareness for the newly-founded Costume Institute. The gala however, was not always the grand event that it is today. For the first few decades, the gala was simply one of many annual benefits held for New York charitable institutions and the attendees of the early galas were almost entirely members of New York high society and the city’s fashion industry. In fact, the very first gala was a midnight dinner with tickets priced at only fifty dollars! In addition, from 1948 to 1971, the event was not held at the Met, as it is today, but at various venues including the Waldorf-Astoria, Central Park, and the Rainbow Room.
In 1973, Diana Vreeland, former Vogue Editor-in-Chief, joined the Met as Special Consultant to The Costume Institute. Vreeland turned the Gala into a glamorous affair, although one that was still aimed at the societal set. Under the fashion icon’s tenure, the event became more celebrity-oriented with attendees like Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Diana Ross, Elton John, Liza Minnelli and Cher intermixing with the city’s elite. Thanks to Vreeland’s dramatic flair, themes for the event were introduced, beginning with the very first of her legendary exhibitions, The World of Balenciaga. The Costume Institute’s collections swelled with donors’ gifts during Vreeland’s brilliant tenure and her most precious legacy is undoubtedly, the public’s sustained interest in costume and the large audiences that are now attracted to the field.
In 1995, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was named chairwoman of the Gala event (excluding 1996 and 1998). Wintour and her staff, oversee both the benefit committee and the guest list of approximately 700 attendees. According to The New York Times, tickets to the event in 2019 were a whopping $35,000 apiece and tables ranged from $200,000 to $300,000, quite a jump from 1948’s dinner ticket of $50 a piece!
Pre-Covid, the Gala evening consisted of a red-carpet photo opportunity, a cocktail hour and a formal dinner. During the cocktail hour, guests would tour the exhibition before being seated for dinner and entertainment. The theme of the event not only set the tone for the exhibition, but also provided an opportunity for the guests to dress in a way that upheld the exhibition’s theme.
ABOUT TIME: FASHION AND DURATION
This year’s exhibit, About Time: Fashion and Duration, was inspired by Virginia Woolf (one of the most important modernist 20th century authors and pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device) and 20th-century French philosopher Henri Bergson (known for his idea of time as la durée, or duration, something which can be measured through images but never perceived as a whole). The exhibit looks back at the timeline of women’s fashion from the last 150 years (dating from 1870 to today), which coincides with the Met’s 150th anniversary. Woolf serves as the “ghost narrator” of the exhibit.
“Fashion is indelibly connected to time, it not only reflects and represents the spirit of the times, but it also changes and develops with the times,” Andrew Bolton, head curator of The Costume Institute, told The New York Times.
Had the Met Gala taken place in May, the co-chairs of the event would have been Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton (the brand was to serve as a sponsor for the event). It would have marked the first ever Met Gala attendance for Streep.
In February of 2020, Nicolas Ghesquière and Andrew Bolton revealed details of the time-themed exhibition at a news conference before the global pandemic shut down the world. Keeping the 150th anniversary of The Met in mind, they shared that the exhibition would be designed as a clock, constructed by two sets of 60 fashion pieces that signify sartorial moments since 1870 (the year the museum was founded). The first set of garments, a collection in all-black, would tell time linearly. The second set, which would include black-and-white pieces, would tell time in an “alternative timeline” or “interruptions,” per WWD.
“We didn’t want to present them as a straightforward masterworks exhibition, a kind of simplistic overview of styles or an expected A-Z of fashion designers,” said Bolton. “I think fashion history has moved on from this rather reductive approach, and so too, I think, has our fashion audience.”
The exhibition factors in topical issues as well, namely that of “digital capitalism.” Bolton explained, “While companies have benefited from this sped-up, around-the-clock temporality of digital capitalism, designers have often been creatively constrained by its 24/7 continuous functioning, so we thought it might be an opportune moment to explore the temporal character of fashion from a historical perspective.”
The Costume Institute also created a video, lasting nearly 12 minutes. The virtual tour follows the intended format for the exhibition, by showing historical and contemporary designs, side-by-side to reveal similarities. Images of the dresses – which were taken from The Costume Institute’s collection – are shown with the year they were created and details of the designer or era, to gradually explore fashion from 1870 (the year the Met was founded) to the present day. Case in point, a look from Morin Blossier from 1902, next to a 2018 look from Nicolas Ghesquiere for Louis Vuitton.
Throughout the black-and-white movie illustrations of pared-back clock faces, alludes to the exhibit’s time-traveling theme. The moving images are also interspersed with quotations from novels by English writer Virginia Woolf, such as Mrs Dalloway and Orlando. Woolf, who died in 1941, serves as the exhibition’s “ghost narrator.”
According to the Met’s press release about the show, the timeline will unfold in two adjacent galleries fabricated as enormous clock faces (the set was designed by Es Devlin) and organized around the principle of 60 minutes of fashion. Each ‘minute’ will feature a pair of garments, with the primary work representing the linear nature of fashion and the secondary work its cyclical character. To illustrate French philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of duration—of the past co-existing with the present—the works in each pair will be connected through shape, motif, material, pattern, technique, or decoration. For example, a black silk faille princess-line dress from the late 1870s is paired with an Alexander McQueen “Bumster” skirt from 1995. A black silk satin dress with enormous leg o’mutton sleeves from the mid-1890s will be juxtaposed with a Comme des Garçons deconstructed ensemble from 2004.
As we all know, the world has changed dramatically from February to today. So, Bolton spent the last few months tweaking and making changes to the exhibit. In an exclusive interview with Vogue’s Hamish Bowles, Bolton spoke about his process of reflection and re-curation. “I wanted to stage an exhibition that was a meditation on fashion and temporality—drawing out the tensions between change and endurance, transience and permanence, ephemerality and persistence. Originally the idea was to create two timelines: a linear chronology of fashion from 1870 to 2020, celebrating the Met’s 150th anniversary and focusing on the fleeting and fugitive rhythm of fashion. The second timeline—the “interventions”—would represent a series of nonsequential counterchronologies, like knots or folds in time, exploring the interconnectedness of history, the past, and the present.”
The linear timeline focused on all black silhouettes, while the cyclical timeline focused on white. But Bolton felt limited by the curation, so the curator decided to change the exhibit and only present black silhouettes to make the presentation stronger and making the comparisons between the pairings easy to identify.
Another issue Bolton was able to address was his desire to include more designers who weren’t so well known throughout fashion history. So he paired a Frederick Loeser & Co. riding habit circa 1897 with a Victor Joris suit from 1968 that Baby Jane Holzer had donated to The Costume Institute. Victor Joris served as an assistant to both Dior and Balmain before launching his own collection.
But the bigger change to the curation was really a direct response to Black Lives Matter. When Bolton first worked on the curation, he wasn’t focused on issues of race and ethnicity or gender and sexuality. In the interview Bolton stated:
“It was purely aesthetic: I was looking at changes in silhouettes from 1870 through to the present and creating the strongest juxtapositions with the “interventions.” But with the social-justice movements of this spring and summer, I looked at the curation and knew I wanted to include more Black, indigenous, people-of-color designers. BLM has made me reflect on fashion curation more generally and the need to create new, more inclusive definitions. I think that we need to readdress the misperception that fashion is exclusively Western, and we need to construct more diverse fashion histories and narratives. This is something that I’m thinking about for future shows; every decision that I make going forward has to be informed by race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality. The awareness can’t go away; this is a lifelong commitment.”
(Left) An early iteration of the little black dress from the Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, ca. 1927. (Right) Off-White by Virgil Abloh dress, 2018. (Photo Credit: Ethan James Green)In the original exhibit, Bolton paired Chanel’s iconic little black dress, circa 1927, with a rather literal copy by Norman Norell from 1965. “But I’d always had Virgil Abloh’s “Little Black Dress” in the back of my mind: equally as strong but more ironic.” So now Abloh’s dress will be on display rather than the original Norell. Bolton also scoured vintage retailers to find all black silhouettes from designers of color, such as Stephen Burrows, Lamine Kouyate of XULY.Bët, Patrick Kelly, Olivier Rousteing for Balmain and Shayne Oliver from Hood by Air.
According to Bolton, “In light of recent events, it’s important to readdress what traditionally have been fashion’s defining characteristics—luxury, power, class, ephemerality, obsolescence. I hope the show helps us reflect on these encoded ideologies and encourages us to raise important questions for the industry.”
Since all of the garments in the exhibition are black, Bolton decided to end the show with a statement piece – an all white dress from Viktor & Rolf’s spring 2020 haute couture collection. The gown is made from upcycled swatches in a patchwork design—an opposite metaphor for the future of fashion with its emphasis on community and sustainability. According to Bolton,”the dress will be shown floating in an “infinity box” surrounded by a tornado of swatches (inspired by the artist E. V. Day’s “Exploding Couture” series from 1999–2002), like a weather-worn phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Catch an extended preview of the Met’s About Time: Fashion and Duration on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NV2gFW-eH4&feature=youtu.be