Met Gala: Seven of the best looks over the decades

Met Gala: Seven of the best looks over the decades

By Ellie Violet Bramley,Features correspondent

Getty Images Billy Porter at Met GalaGetty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

From Cher’s naked dress to Rihanna’s “omelette gown”, the gala has seen many iconic looks. As the fashion event of the year approaches, Ellie Violet Bramley looks back at some of its magic moments.

“The first Monday in May” has come to be known as the night the fashion industry lets its hair well and truly down. There are stunts, frocks the size of caravans and selfies that go on to be seen by millions of people all over the planet. 

But it started more humbly. Eleanor Lambert, the publicist and “godmother of fashion”, launched the Met Gala 76 years ago in 1948 as a fundraiser for the new Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, John Tiffany, her former mentee and biographer, tells the BBC. More broadly, he adds, it was a way to “raise the visibility of American fashion”. The $50 tickets were sold to members of New York high society.

Even then, though, it was a chance to have some fun. “During the war, New Yorkers had to black out their windows and keep the lights off, so for the original Met Gala in 1948, Lambert created a ‘Midnight Dinner’ to let loose.” 

It has been through many twists and turns since. “From 1948 until the 1970s, the goal was to look impeccable, embracing one’s own style while celebrating American fashion on the storied steps of the Met,” says Tiffany. It was under the tenure of US fashion editor Diana Vreeland in the 1970s that the event became more elaborate, with the introduction of themes spicing things up and the guestlist extending to cultural types such as Andy Warhol, as well as society figures like Jackie Kennedy. But it was in 1995 that the single biggest shift in its history arrived in the shape of a bob: this was the year that Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour took over. 

Wintour’s Met Gala is an all-couture-blazing sartorial spectacle, it is a barometer for our times, albeit a richly gilded one

While many things about the Met Gala today have been seriously ratcheted up, then as now it is about raising money. “The Met Gala is likely to be Anna Wintour’s biggest career achievement,” Amy Odell, fashion journalist and best-selling author of Anna: The Biography, tells the BBC. “It has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Costume Institute at the museum, owing to Anna succeeding in raising the ticket price from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars since she started planning it.” This year’s tickets are reported to be selling for an eye-watering $50,000. 

The night is as much about what is seen as what isn’t, because while the front steps are home to a galaxy’s worth of flashing cameras, the festivities inside are shrouded in secrecy. “Part of the elitism of the event is its mystique,” says Odell. “What separates those who get invited from everyone else? What really happens inside the party? These questions keep the public interested in the event, thus any scrap of information we get about it becomes a news item, fuelling further intrigue.”

Wintour’s Met Gala is an all-couture-blazing sartorial spectacle. It is a barometer for our times, albeit a richly gilded one, and a chance to see what a lot of cash, creativity and confidence can do. For some, it will always be shamelessly extravagant, for others, this is where its brilliance lies. Here, we take a look at some of the most iconic Met Gala moments through the years:

Getty Images (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

Cher in the Bob Mackie “naked dress”

1974: Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design

“Cher and Bob Mackie broke all the rules that night and showed how glamorous Hollywood was at that very moment,” says Tiffany. “It might not have worked on anyone else, but Cher had the confidence and Bob Mackie understood exactly how far he could go.” This might have been nearly 50 years ago, but the naked dress trend is as of this moment as it was that one.

Getty Images (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

1981: The 18th-Century Woman

Like a millefuille made of feathers, The Supremes singer’s outfit is one of the most attention-grabbing of the more understated earlier years of the gala. “Diana Ross changed the conversation from 18th-Century woman to Miss Ross that night!” says Tiffany. She even re-wore the dress many years later to the 2012 American Music Awards.

Alamy (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

(Credit: Alamy)

Rihanna’s Guo Pei “omelette dress”

2015: China: Through the Looking Glass

For Chinese couturier Guo Pei, who had been designing couture for more than 30 years by the time Rihanna wore this yolk-yellow dress, having her work dubbed the “omelette dress”, and heavily memed, was an unexpected way to become internet-famous around the globe. The cape had taken more than 50,000 hours to hand embroider and weighed 25kg.

Even if it was perhaps a complicated moment for Guo, it was one that Wintour, according to Odell, really loved: “[she] actually loves the over-the-top looks”. 

Getty Images (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

The theme was Catholicism, and producer, writer and actor Lena Waithe wore a cape showing the city of Philadelphias revised pride flag, with added black and brown stripes to call attention to concerns affecting LGBTQ+ people of colour. “I’m reppin’ my community, and I want everybody to know that you can be whoever you are, and be completely proud, and be doin’ it,” she told Vogue on the night. 

Underneath she wore a Carolina Herrera tuxedo. It was, Tiffany notes, “a sophisticated but very chic look combined with her powerful message. It made a huge impact.” 

Also noteworthy from this night was Rihanna who effectively dressed up as the pope. While, according to Tiffany, “no one confused her with the Holy See,” she may have “inspired a few Cardinals to submit her name at the next Papal Conclave wishing for their first female Pope.”

Getty Images (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

Billy Porter’s grand entrance

2019: Camp: Notes on Fashion

“The theme was camp, Billy clearly understood the assignment,” says Tiffany, of the Pose star’s arrival on the red carpet as a winged Egyptian pharoah. Carried by shirtless, gold-adorned attendants, he was set down only to sprout golden wings. As Porter told Variety: “Camp means irreverence. Camp means as hugely over-the-top and grand and what some may feel is ridiculous and silly, and embracing all of those creative impulses inside us that very often are squelched.”

This was also the year that Lady Gaga chewed through four outfits by Brandon Maxwell on the red carpet, bringing Wintour out from the entrance inside the museum, where she greets guests, to watch it – the first time, according to Odell, that she watched a red-carpet entrance. It was also the year Jared Leto carried a model of his own head to the gala, although there are no reports Wintour made it out for this.

Getty Images (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “tax the rich” gown

2021: In America: A Lexicon of Fashion

Hypocritical or some much-needed radicalism, when the New York congresswoman wore a white gown by black female designer Aurora James emblazoned with the phrase “tax the rich” in red, it certainly got people talking. As Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Instagram at the time: “The medium is the message… The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich.” 

But while the white wool slogan dress has gone on to be the most searched-for Met Gala look on Google, the dress worn by Kim Kardashian deserves special mention, too. A collaboration between Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia and Kardashian’s ex-husband, Kanye West, it was a bold look that saw the woman with one of the most recognised faces – and bodies – in the world,  covered from head to toe. As the design duo well knew, the Met is the place for going all out.

Getty Images (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

(Credit: Getty Images)

Blake Lively’s metamorphosing dress

The theme asked attendees to look to New York’s Gilded era, which roughly spanned the 1870s to the dawn of the 20th Century, and saw a boom in wealth as a result of industrialisation. Not one to ignore a brief, Gossip Girl actor Blake Lively wore a Versace dress that was an ode to New York City in that age, changing colour from turquoise to copper midway up the red carpet in a transformation that was intended to represent the oxidisation of the Statue of Liberty. The dress was influenced more by architecture than by fashion, with nods to other behemoths of the city’s skyline, such as the Empire State Building, as well as the star-filled ceiling of Grand Central station. It was a fitting look for New York City’s most glamorous event.

A version of this article was published in 2023.

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