On The Avenue

45 Years Inside the Party of the Year

by R. Couri Hay Photographed by PMc/patrickmcmullan.com
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, this century’s paragon of style and culture, put the Costume Institute Party of the Year on the social map when she first appeared there in the 1970s to support her friend, the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Jackie O. was among the cognoscenti who conspired with Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Ashton Hawkins and other members of the smart set to get the Metropolitan Museum of Art to hire Vreeland, the freshly ousted editor of Vogue, to head the Costume Institute in 1972. 

Vreeland’s first show, “The World of Balenciaga,” in 1973, was a blockbuster and the guest list was a who’s who of fashion and the Social Register. That was also the first year I attended and I’ve never stopped going or covering it in the four-plus decades since. The Met’s ball was founded in 1948 by PR woman Eleanor Lambert and she dubbed it “The Party of the Year.”  

The guest list has changed from High Society, represented by the benefit’s chairs Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner, to the Hollywood and pop culture icons of today. So has the price of admission. My first ticket was $250, and there were complaints on Park Avenue when the price doubled to $500. That was the year Mrs. Kempner sat me next to Gianni Versace, who didn’t speak English, but our friendship lasted until his death. Back in the day there was an after party for young people at $25 a ticket. I miss the inclusivity of that part of the evening. 

Notwithstanding all the grumbling these days about tasteless dresses on the Met’s steps nowadays, Cher was the first to go near-nude at the Met Ball in a sheer sequined number by Bob Mackie—back in 1974. I interviewed her as she came off the escalator and when the lights from my TV camera exposed every inch of her, I stammered, “Are you nude under that dress?”

“Does it matter?” she purred. I might have blushed. 

Vreeland ruled the roost for nearly two decades, creating ground breaking solo shows on Yves St. Laurent, and themed exhibits such as the Ballet Russe, Hollywood, Le Belle Epoque, China and India. 

 Another Diana, this one Princess of Wales, made a huge impact in 1996 when she came on the arm of Liz Tilberis, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who ran the party that one year. Di was dazzling and charismatic in a way that only Jackie O. had equaled in her appearances at the party. That was the last year that I took my fiancé, the designer Zandra Rhodes, to the party.         

After hosting in 1995, Anna Wintour took the reins of the party back in 1997 and never let go as it morphed into a new extravaganza featuring of megawatt stars, edgy designers, athletes, supermodels and, lately, Instagram sensations, and carried an ever increasing price tag that reached $30,000 a seat this year at tables that start at $275,000. To date Wintour has filled the Costume Institute’s coffers with over $200 million, including the more than $13 million raised by this year’s opening of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

How edgy is it? Madonna set tongues wagging in 2016 when she channeled Cher in an outfit by Givenchy with her bosom and derriere in plain view, asserting that her look was “a political statement for women’s rights as well as a fashion statement.” Dear divine Madonna covered up this year in a veil and crown via Jean Paul Gauthier, declaring, “I feel close to God tonight,” and adding, “When I first started, I was covered in rosaries so nothing’s changed for me really. Catholic themes have always been a part of my work, and have always inspired me in everything I do: my music, my creativity, the way I dress.”

 This year’s event also laid claim to the title of “the fanciest party of the year.” Stephen Schwarzman’s wife Christine was draped in an opera length double thick necklace of pearls and diamonds that ended in a giant cross, diamond chandelier earrings and a ring that would choke a rhino. She out-blinged all the rappers in what one jeweler estimated was up to $4 million in gems. And Schwarzman’s $5 million donation allowed all the ticket sales to go right into the Costume Institute’s pretty piggy bank.  

The red carpet, which was actually beige with red accents this year, was just the first of several exhilarating experiences for the invited guests. The stars’ arrivals are all scheduled and there is clearly an unspoken challenge for the glitterati to outdo both their own past frocks and their peers. 

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan graced the event. Curators made their way into the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel sacristy, which lent forty of its ecclesiastical masterworks to the show. These included rare vestments, robes, rings, tiaras’ and a papal crown covered in diamonds most of which have never been seen outside of Rome. These treasures represent more than 15 papacies from the 18th to the early 21st century.  

The always amusing and approachable Cardinal described the party to me two nights later at the Inner City Scholarship Fund’s 42nd Gala as sort of a “Masquerade Ball.” He smiled benevolently and added “It was a wonderful night” and said that despite online sniping, “I didn’t find anything sacrilegious about it.” 

Donatella Versace, who served as the event’s co-chair along with Rihanna, Amal Clooney, and Wintour, told me, “To see my clothes alongside those of my brother Gianni at the Met is a dream come true for me.” Forty-two designers had clothes in this gorgeous and encyclopedic show. From Dior and Chanel to Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander Mc Queen, all the big names are here. The thematic exhibition also creates a dialogue between fashion and medieval art in The Met’s collection and examines fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.

So who had the most outrageous outfit ? Hands down Katy Perry, who came in six feet of finely feathered angel’s wingsa gold lamé, sheath and boots by Versace. She laughed and confessed she panicked when the classic convertible she used to get her to the party broke down, “I thought I was going to have to walk,” she joked. Luckily, the vintage vehicle cranked back up so Perry got to the fashion church in time to say, “I feel very angelic, celestial and ethereal tonight.” When she sat on the museum’s stairs, her wings spread, caught in a storm of flashes, it seemed straight out of a Fellini movie. 

Runner up Rihanna dressed as the first female Pope in a white caplet and mini skirt by Maison Margiela. It was so heavily beaded she confided, “I had to work out for weeks to wear it,” adding, “This whole dress was beaded by hand, it took months to make, it would be a sin not to wear it!”

And so it went. Zendaya as Joan of Arc in Versace, Ariana Grande in a beautiful ball gown by Vera Wang. “I’m wearing the back wall of the Sistine Chapel,” she gushed. It was one of the better, wearable gowns. The most beautiful woman was Gisele Bundchen in an ego-friendly, golden goddess gown by Versace blessedly sans any religious symbols.                               

And lest you think society was absent, Princess Beatrice of York, Prince Pierre d’Arenberg and Princess Sylvia d’Arenberg, Annette de la Renta, Georgina Bloomberg, Gillian and Sylvester Miniter, Dasha Zhukova, Stavros Niachos and Ariana Rockefeller represented the new old guard. Rockefeller said her dress by Elizabeth Kennedy was inspired by a tapestry that hangs in The Cloisters, where the exhibition continues, and noted that her great grandfather John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded and founded the Cloisters in 1924. Rockefeller accessorized her pale pink gown with diamond earrings handed down from her great-grandmother and a bejeweled bracelet that belonged to her grandmother. It’s the only way really.   

Blake Lively took the highly coveted last spot arriving around nine o’clock in the position traditionally reserved for Beyoncé. Lively wore an enormous red and gold statement dress by Versace with an endless train, but I still missed Beyoncé. 

Once inside the museum they were greeted by what appeared to be 100,000 roses, including a red rose wall, which held up an enormous floral crown of white and gold roses. The co-chairs stood in a formal receiving line at the bottom of the museum’s grand staircase that was lit by hundreds of single candlesticks, something you would normally see on the altar of a cathedral. After the blissful show that stretched throughout the museum in a sort of haute couture /art pilgrimage we ended up in the American wing.

There, The Sistine Chapel Choir, yes flown in from the Vatican, thanks to those heavenly Schwarzmans, sang four numbers that put us in the mood for dinner. The next stop was the dining space with a theme that seemed to be based on the Last Supper or a Wall Street billionaire’s version of it. Long wooden tables laden with grapes and fruit spilling out of tureens and candles sticks extending for what looked like a city block were set for over 550 revelers. Want more? There was an elaborate desert buffet and then Madonna.  

What was missing this year? The party in the bathroom! On the way in Kylie Jenner said she was looking forward to “another epic bathroom selfie like last year’s,” but guards outside the loos and rules sent out before you ever got there forbade smoking of any kind and this year, Kylie had to settle for the selfies she surreptitiously took during dinner.          

After Madonna hit her last note, the racy set raced home to change outfits and head downtown to Rhianna’s after party where everyone smoked and smoked. Of course. 



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