In 1883, Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt attended her sister-in-law’s famed masquerade party in a dazzling gold-and-silver gown, custom from Paris, dubbed Electric Light, complete with hidden batteries that illuminated a torch she held above her head.
Today’s A-listers hope to generate their own electricity at Monday night’s Met Gala, the dress code for which is “gilded glamour.” Yet instead of cutting-edge frocks like Mrs. Vanderbilt’s, some insiders fear that attendees will embrace the tackiest aspects of late-19th-century Manhattan society. Will dresses resemble the costumes on the popular HBO series “The Gilded Age,” in which Carrie Coon’s social-climbing Bertha swans around her Fifth Avenue mansion in couture?
While flamboyance has helped make Anna Wintour’s annual Met Gala the most anticipated red carpet of the year — “It’s a bigger deal than the Oscars,” said Christina Pacelli, who has dressed celebs such as Laverne Cox for the big evening — some observers say the get-ups have gotten too garish.
“It’s turned into a costume party,” designer and frequent gala chair Tom Ford told journalist Amy Odell in her book “Anna: The Biography,” out Tuesday.
“[It] used to just be very chic people wearing very beautiful clothes going to an exhibition about the 18th century,” Ford continued. “You didn’t have to look like the 18th century, you didn’t have to dress like a hamburger, you didn’t have to arrive in a van where you were standing up because you couldn’t sit down because you wore a chandelier.”
Ford may have a slightly idealized view of the galas of yore — at least one person showed up to 1981’s ball, themed for the exhibit “The Eighteenth-Century Woman,” dressed in knee breeches! But the clothes and themes have gotten kookier in the days since Princess Diana attended in a sleek Dior slip dress.
Recent years have seen Rihanna don a pope hat for 2018’s “Heavenly Bodies,” Jared Leto carrying a replica of his own head for 2019’s “Camp” and Lil Nas X model a sexy C-3PO costume for last year’s “American Independence,” which he shed to reveal a sparkly Versace catsuit underneath.
And lest you think Ford was exaggerating, Katy Perry did wear a chandelier and a hamburger costume — on the same night.
‘It’s very Halloween’
“Some of the things that Kim Kardashian has worn — I mean, it’s very Halloween,” said John Tiffany, a fashion historian and brand consultant who once assisted Eleanor Lambert, the legendary fashion publicist who dreamed up the Met’s first Costume Institute benefit, then called the Party of the Year, in 1948. Back then, Tiffany said, the party was a fund-raiser dinner, but in the 1970s, when freshly fired Vogue editor Diana Vreeland started manning the Costume Institute, the gala became linked with whatever fashion exhibit was opening at the museum, “which were always completely over the top.”
“It’s always been a creative party,” said Dennita Sewell, a fashion professor at Arizona State University who worked at the Costume Institute in the 1990s — when lower-rung staffers could actually attend the party. “People always dressed up, but it wasn’t so extreme … No one would have done something that wasn’t graceful and elegant.”
“The themes were noted,” she added, “but it wasn’t like the whole party was competing with the exhibition.”
Sometimes it can feel that way.
“It’s gone from an industry event celebrating the history of fashion to one celebrating celebrity,” stylist Tracy Taylor told The Post. “Designers were really the focus of the galas in the 20th century and early 21st century: Alexander McQueen, Halston — Halston would have never designed something that you couldn’t sit in! But lately, the focus is on themes, and I do feel like it’s encouraging more extreme interpretations and outfits.”
The invite list has changed to include more celebrities — particularly, in recent years, musicians, who are used to wearing costumes onstage and often treat fashion as performance.
“When you’re a musician like Rihanna, it’s not such a huge stretch to look outlandish,” Taylor said. “They’re expected to be a bit more flamboyant or really be creative and show who they are through how they dress.” And that translates to the red carpet.
“Gilded glamour” is a dress code that allows for lots of different interpretations — from a corset gown with a huge bustle and swaths of sumptuous taffeta to a slinky gold lamé slip to a sequin frock — and plenty of ways to up the ante.
The Gilded Age was one of “enormous growth and wealth due to industrialization and real estate, and the dresses reflected that opulence,” Taylor said. “It was about these new celebrities and peacocking, and that’s what the Met Gala is about.”
Yet it could read as tone deaf. The era, which spanned from 1870 to 1900, was also characterized by extreme poverty — with exploited immigrant families living in crowded, unsanitary tenements on the Lower East Side while Fifth Avenue’s titans dined on oysters and lobster in their Parisian couture (modeled, perversely, on 17th-century French court fashion).
“The world is in a state of flux,” said Bronwyn Cosgrave, host of the podcast “Fashion Conversations,” citing the war in Ukraine and the uptick in violence in the US. “In New York City, where the Met Gala takes place, there’s huge problems with homelessness, problems with mental health … I’m not sure gilded glamour is what we need.”
Others argue that it’s exactly what’s needed right now.
“When times are tough, people turn to fantasy,” Phyllis Magidson, a fashion curator who worked with the Museum of the City of New York, told The Post.
“Everybody’s battered, and what better way to escape than through period fashion?”
Some attendees, too, are embracing the gala’s gloriously gaudy theme.
“I think that dressing on theme is part of the fun of it, personally,” Katy Perry’s stylist, Tatiana Waterford, told The Post. “Katy always dresses on theme. But she’s always had a distinctive sense of style that lends itself to an over-the-top Met Gala look.”
That said, even Perry plans to tone things down this year. “She won’t look kooky, but it’s Katy, so there will be no shortage of drama,” Waterford said. “I wish I could reveal more but you’ll just have to wait and see!”
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