G’bye, Society: Another Condé Nast Costume Drama

by Ben Diamond Photographed by Patrick McMulllan/PMC
Friday, April 28, 2017

Next Monday is the 47th annual Met Gala. Conceived to raise money for the museum’s Costume Institute and kick off its new show, the party is much more than a mere fundraiser. In recent years, the star-studded ball has become world-famous for the celebrities who walk its red carpet. This year’s version, hosted by honorary chairs Katy Perry and Pharrell Williams and paying tribute to Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, looks to be no different. As always, the night will be a celebration of fashion, glamour and art. Oh, and also, luxury commerce.

More than any of that, though, the night is a celebration of Anna Wintour, who has chaired the Gala for the past two decades. Through her dogged fundraising and networking, the Vogue editor has turned what was once an exclusive society party into one of the most important promotional events in the world. So in advance of the whole thing, before the red carpet is unfurled, before the looks are dissected into oblivion, before the whole Met gets hollowed out into a gift shop selling back issues of Vogue and Oscar De La Renta gowns (kidding), it’s important to remember that the Gala wasn’t always like this.

In its earliest days, long before American haute couture was anything more than a gleam in Halston’s eye, the evening was a trade event for garmentos. “It was basically Seventh Avenue, a lot of Jewish people,” an institute staffer said in Michael Gross’s Rogues’ Gallery. “A rabbi’s wife who knew everyone did the seating.”

Things started to change with the 1971 installation of recently-fired Vogue editor Diana Vreeland as the Costume Institute’s de facto creative director.  Vreeland inaugurated the tradition of an annual exhibition, and breathed new life into both the gala and the Institute as a whole. As former Met director Thomas Hoving put it in a 1993 Vanity Fair article. “We drew a completely different, young, trendy in-crowd who have since stuck around to become patrons. And we gained a lot of gifts. The Institute became the hot place for donations.”

Central to this transformation was Pat Buckley, who came on board as the gala’s chairwoman in 1978. The regal, intimidatingly tall and sharp-tongued Buckley soon shaped the party into the social event of the season. Recalling her first Met gala, Muffie Potter-Aston said, “It had a formal receiving line leading to the Temple of Dendur. If somebody skipped through the line, they were held with great disdain in social circles.”

Looking at it today, the sense of propriety that Buckley instilled in the event probably limited its full moneymaking potential. In “Manners for the Eighties” a 1987 article in New York, Gigi Mahon asked Buckley whether she would ever allow arrivistes to buy their way onto the Gala’s planning committee. “No, she said, if I didn’t know who they were. You simply don’t get on a board that way.”

In this, the Buckley party is something of a contradiction—a society ball fondly remembered for its lack of pretension. Though it wasn’t easy to land on Pat’s guest list, and she expected a rigid gentility at all times, her party was also looser, less enthralled with itself, and more concerned with being, well, a party. “Pat Buckley would nail decorations to the walls herself,” said one observer. “Nobody understood how much sway this party could have, and nobody knew how much it could raise and how influential it could be ever year.”

But it couldn’t last forever. After Vreeland’s death in 1989, the Institute lost its way, and observers began to wonder whether the party of the year was no more. In 1995, Buckley stepped down as chairwoman, and Vogue‘s Wintour took over. Aside from one year when the Met gave the reins to the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, it has been hers ever since.

Things changed, quickly. “Once Anna took over, no invitations were sent out,” says Anne Eisenhower. “I think a lot of people who had attended in the past were not even invited to attend.” Instead, the party became what it is today—a mix of actors, musicians, athletes and fashion designers, with a few trustees thrown in for old times’ sake. “In the old days you’d walk up the steps until you were inside, and the first person you’d see was Bill Cunningham,” said Aston. “Now when you pull up, it’s a totally different feel. The second you step out of your car, it becomes a fantasy event. Everywhere you look you see a famous musician or actor. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

What was once merely the biggest event of the New York social season has become “the East Coast Oscars,” an international orgy of fashion, celebrity and glamour. Increasingly, the Institute has followed suit. Years ago, the 1983 Yves Saint Laurent exhibition attracted criticism for spotlighting a living designer; now, such advertisements exhibitions have become the norm. And the stories of Wintour’s iron-fisted control over every aspect of the event are equally famous. Last year, the New York Post reported that she had banned parsley because it might get stuck in guests’ teeth. And multiple sources allude to the unseemly arrangements the prickly editrix has with designers. Wintour tells them to invite certain guests; those guests are obligated to wear gowns by those designers; people see the gowns in Wintour’s magazine and buy them–or at least, a scarf with the same label.

But all the micromanaging serves a deeper purpose. For Wintour, the gala is less of a party than a pageant, an elaborate runway show of her vision of fashion for that year. “She wants pretty people,” said one source. “She wants people who can be cheerleaders for both American and international fashion. She knows who they are, and how they should look, and she knows where she should seat them.”

And the truth is, it works. The event is the height of glamour, and the red carpet looks are great. “The parties have changed a great deal, but the world’s changed a great deal,” says Deeda Blair. “Yes, the atmosphere, the mood, the cast of characters, the dramatis personae has changed, but it’s changed in every aspect of life. Women aren’t going around wearing white gloves anymore.”

Aston echoed Blair’s sentiments. “It’s a different party altogether,” she says. “If you’re looking to quietly raise money and see your friends, it’s not your party. If you’re looking to have a theatrical time, and to see amazing performances, then it is.”

But something important has been lost. “Now, it’s corporations and celebrities—mostly black celebrities,” says the socialite-cum social gadfly Taki Theodoracopulos. “Back then, it was more white, with more wannabes, however unpleasant that might sound. Felix Rohatyn, Henry Kravis, John Gutfreund—Pat had people like that buy tables, people very anxious to make it into WASP society.”

In a way, Taki has a point. For all its exclusionary aspects, “Society” did ultimately have an effect on all those (often Jewish) bankers. Being invited into Met, and into a community of people who cared about the museum and the Costume Institute, instilled them with a certain sense of noblesse oblige. “I kind of wonder what society means today,” says the bandleader Peter Duchin. “One thing that I definitely notice is a decline in manners, though I do think celebrities going to this party is great, because they raise a heck of a lot of money for the Met.” Duchin is right, too; it is a good thing that the celebrities raise so much money for the Institute, even if exhibitions like “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasywould have Diana Vreeland rolling over in her grave. But today, the gala doesn’t foster the engagement with the museum it once did. Even if Henry Kravis was just social climbing his way into WASP society, he developed a deep appreciation for art on his way up. The same can’t be said about the Hadids, Aaron Rodgers or any of the other glamorous seat-fillers Wintour invites.

One source was even more forceful in his disdain for the party. “The acoustics in the Temple of Dendur suck,” he said. “Temples aren’t meant for bands.” It’s a fair point. There’s something un-becoming about rich people throwing a party in a museum, regardless of the circles in which they run. But that ship sailed a long time ago. The Met Gala isn’t a society event anymore. It’s changed, probably forever. As Christopher Buckley said in his gracious refusal to talk about his mother’s party, “That was another time, another country, another . . . everything.  The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.”

The most you can hope is that when the music in the Temple of Dendur grows too muddled to hear, the guests actually think about why they’re there.


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