Fashion
The Met Ball Was So Much Better in the Old Days
Rubbing couture-clad shoulders with Jackie Onassis, Nan Kempner, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Pat Buckley.
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miss the old Met ball. These days, the gala is a highly commercialized, celebrity-driven media circus that celebrates sensationalist preening by individuals who couldn’t be less interested in the museum, the exhibit, or the mission of the Costume Institute. They want to get their pictures taken and, in many cases, make a beeline for the back door to a waiting Escalade. Looking at the photos of those who choose to stay for the actual dinner, it all looks rather sloppy: a movie star frat house.


Katy Perry and Designer Jeremy Scott attend the "China: Through the Looking Glass" Costume Institute Benefit Gala at the Met in 2015.

It wasn’t always that way. I know, because I was there.

The Costume Institute at the Met has been in existence in one shape or another since 1959. But it took the arrival of the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, as a special consultant in 1973, to bring it into the spotlight. Word has it that after Vreeland was unceremoniously fired from her pinnacle position as the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine at the age of 69, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis quietly campaigned for (and funded) a position for her at the Met.

The concept struck a responsive chord with Theodore Rousseau, chief curator, along with the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving. It was there, in the bowels of the museum, that Vreeland was given free reign to raise awareness—and money—for the Costume Institute. Beginning with a grand retrospective of the work of the couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, the opening of the Costume Institute’s annual exhibit became a jewel in New York City’s social crown.


Yves Saint laurent escorts Diana Vreeland into the Met Gala.

Often, the catalogs of the exhibit were expanded into must-have coffee table books for the smart set—most notably Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance! (Yes, the exclamation points were part of the full title of the exhibit, true to Vreeland’s own manner of speaking.)

Not unlike today, guests would arrive at the museum for cocktails in the Great Hall, bedecked in their finest designer gowns and jewels. Then they would proceed down an escalator into the dankness of the Met’s basement to see the exhibit. There, it was pure Vreeland: faceless mannequins, often with pantyhose pulled over their heads to further obscure their features, arranged in dramatically lit tableau. There was evocative music and sometimes even fragrance was pumped into the air. Regardless of the fashions being presented, it always felt like a delicious opium den.

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Regardless of the fashions being presented, it always felt like a delicious opium den.

Then the guests would proceed to the museum’s restaurant: a cafeteria, actually, that had been designed by Dorothy Draper and lovingly referred to as “The Dorotheum,” what with its large reflecting pool and birdcage chandeliers. After dinner, there would be dancing and further partying in the Temple of Dendur. And that’s where I would come in.


The scene at the Temple of Dendur during Diana Vreeland’s 10th annual Costume Institute Costume Exhibit Ball.

I was a student in the fashion design program at Parsons. For whatever reason, tickets to the after party were made available to us. In anticipation, we would comb the thrift shops on Ninth Avenue for tuxedos and gowns. I remember one of my classmates found an extraordinary one-shouldered Pauline Trigere black silk crepe marocain number, while I found a midnight blue flannel suit with black faille lapels. It was as heavy as a horse blanket but I loved it.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sir Hugh Fraser attend the 1979 Costume Institute Gala, whose theme was 'Fashions of the Hapsburg Era.'

Our student tickets allowed us to arrive at the museum while dinner was underway, and we would all gather for drinks in the Great Hall, just like the swells earlier. But then, the crowd would begin to migrate into a gauntlet on either side of the long read carpet leading into the restaurant.

At the appointed hour, the big doors would swing open and the dinner guests would begin to make their exits. There, right before our eyes, were Jackie Onassis, Nan Kempner, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, my very favorite gal, Pat Buckley (who chaired the event until 1995), and, of course, Diana Vreeland until her health began to fail.


Pat Buckley and Oscar De La Renta at Diana Vreeland’s 15th Annual Costume Institute Gala

Most of the dinner guests went immediately to their waiting limousines and Town Cars. But Pat, who was the perennial chairwoman of the gala, would always come to the after party. She loved hanging out with us, chatting, asking about our studies, drinking and smoking a lot at a high-top table away from the dance floor. It was a magical, heady experience as if the pages of Women’s Wear Daily were coming to life right before our young eyes.

In later years, I was actually invited to the dinner. For a brief time, I had a big, fancy Seventh Avenue job and the company I was working for was a sponsor of the evening. I was asked to design a gown for the CEO’s wife—a black silk crepe column with a lipstick-red satin bustle, if I recall.

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Bianca Jagger and Halston at the Met Ball

I remember the floor of the dining space feeling wobbly: It was a temporary platform built over the reflecting pool. And then, after dessert was served, the doors swung open and we proceeded down that red carpet, then too lined with young people who were there for the after party. Bill Cunningham took my picture. It never ran, and I haven’t been back to the Met Gala ever since.

I guess my invitation keeps getting lost in the mail.


Paloma Picasso and her husband, Rafael Lopez-Sanchez, at the Met Gala in 1981

THE VREELAND YEARS AT THE COSTUME INSTITUTE

1973: The World of Balenciaga

1974: Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design

1975: American Women of Style

1976: The Glory of Russian Costume

1977: Vanity Fair: A Treasure Trove

1978: Diaghilev: Costumes and Designs of the Ballet Russe

1979: Fashions of the Hapsburg Era: Austria-Hungary

1980: The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of China

1981: The Eighteenth Century Woman

1982: Le Belle Epoque

1983: Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design

1984: Man and the Horse

1985: Costumes of Royal India

1986: Dance

1987: In Style: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Costume Institute

1988: From Queen to Empress: Victorian Dress

1989: The Age of Napoleon

1990: Theatre de le Mode

1991: Gala but no exhibit

1992: Fashion and History: A Dialogue

1993: Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style (Tribute to Mrs. Vreeland)

1994: Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress

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