What does the Met Gala's Gilded Glamour dress code mean?

It's not only about pretty dresses and smart tuxedos, as the theme is a nod to New York itself

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The biggest night in fashion returns to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Monday, and the theme for this year's Met Gala is Gilded Glamour.

As with past themes, the dress code mirrors the exhibition at the museum's The Costume Institute, for which the Met Gala acts as a fundraiser. Previous themes have included Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (2018); China: Through the Looking Glass (2015) and Camp: Notes on Fashion (2019). And while each theme has triggered a plethora of beautiful looks, there is more to all of it than only pretty clothes.

Scroll through the gallery above to see some of the best Met Gala looks of all time.

Historic Met Gala themes

Since being founded in 1973, the Costume Institute Benefit, as it was officially called, is a yearly gala dinner and ball to both raise funds for the museum — tickets cost more than $30,000 a head and tables are upwards of $200,000 — and a generator of publicity for the accompanying exhibition.

The first Met Gala was held to celebrate a retrospective of the work of Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, while in 1983 the museum staged a major retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent. In 1987, it honoured the career of the fashion editor and doyenne Diana Vreeland. In 1990, it stepped in to bolster the then-struggling couture industry with a show called Theatre de la Mode — Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture, a theme it returned to again in 1995.

When Italian designer Gianni Versace was murdered in 1997, the museum responded with a show dedicated to his work. Put together in five months, it was a major achievement, as such shows are normally years in the planning.

Rihanna in a creation by Chinese designer Guo Pei at the 2015 Met Gala

After two stints hosting the gala, US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was named as its chairwoman in 1999, bringing with her close industry relationships. Major names such as Gucci, L'Oreal, LVMH, Chanel and Burberry were brought on board as sponsors, alongside the likes of Yahoo, Apple and Instagram.

However, it was perhaps the 2011 show, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, that really pushed the Met Gala into the public realm. Phenomenally successful, the retrospective of the British designer, who took his own life a year earlier, catapulted the gala and the museum into the mainstream, with more than 660,000 visitors, making it the most successful show since The Costume Institute joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1946, drawing numbers only matched by the exhibitions featuring the Mona Lisa and the treasures of Tutankhamun.

With the presence of the ever-savvy Wintour, now global chief content officer for Conde Nast, the two exhibitions that have taken place since the pandemic, dictating the theme of the gala, have been redirected back to the achievements of the American fashion industry, with 2021’s In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, and 2022’s In America: An Anthology of Fashion.

2022's Met Gala theme

The 2022 dress code feeds perfectly into this. Glided Glamour evokes visions of New York’s golden age between 1870 and 1890, when it was flush with new-found fortunes. Dubbed the Gilded Age by Mark Twain in 1873, it witnessed the rise of families such as the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Cooper Hewitts, while the New York Post building became the first ever to be lit with Thomas Edison’s newly invented light bulb.

A portrait of New York socialite Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, by Giovanni Boldini. Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The city had the verve — and the money — to embrace Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention, the telephone, helping bring women into the workplace for the first time to act as telephone operators, while skyscrapers raced upwards, trying to best the city's first, the Wilder Building. Built by banker and property tycoon Samuel Wilder in 1888, it stretched a giddy 11 stories into the sky.

New York socialite Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who was so influential she was called 'The Mrs Astor.' Photo: Met Museum

New mechanised textile factories meant material was cheaper and more available, and New York socialites lost no time in draping themselves in silks, satins and velvets, topped with ruffles, feathers and fringing, all worn with bustles of ridiculous proportions to show off wealth and style. There was a surge in demand for gemstones, as others copied the formidable Caroline Astor, known simply as “The Mrs Astor”, who liked to deck herself in diamonds and emeralds, including a diamond-studded stomacher rumoured to have once belonged to the French queen Marie Antoinette. Not surprisingly, jewellery houses such as Tiffany’s benefitted hugely during this period.

In response to this explosion of fashion across the city, New York's Gilded Age gave rise to publications to help ladies navigate this new world, with the magazine Harper’s Bazaar being launched in 1867, followed by Vogue in 1893.

Fast-forward to 2022 and, like cities everywhere, New York faces many challenges as it tries to pick itself up after the pandemic, hoping to lure back tourists and re-energise its status on the world stage. The Met Gala's nod to the Big Apple’s golden era is, therefore, no coincidence, helping the city to reclaim its rightful position as the home of fashion on the first Monday in May, one dazzling sequin at a time.

This article was originally published on April 13, 2022.

Updated: May 02, 2022, 4:06 AM
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