Tonight marks the mainstream fashion industry’s biggest event. Since 1946, the Met Gala (also called the Met Ball, but technically known as the Costume Institute Gala), has celebrated the opening of the latest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Originally founded in 1937, the Costume Institute merged with the Met in 1946, but when legendary fashion fixture (and former Vogue editor-in-chief) Diana Vreeland got involved in 1972, the exhibits began to take on a deeper meaning and helped establish the modern canon of high fashion.
The Costume Institute is home to numerous clothing and accessories dating as far back as the fifteenth century, spanning five continents, and numbering over 35,000. Under Vreeland, the exhibit highlighted the work of Cristobal Balenciaga, Russian costumes, and iconic Hollywood designers. This year, with the theme revolving around Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo of COMME des GARÇONS, marks the second time in the exhibit’s history that it has celebrated a living designer. The first 1983’s “Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design.”
But beyond the myriad of costly dresses, tailored tuxedos, $30,000 tickets, and celebrity panache, why is this night more important than any other star-studded red carpet event? Well for one, what’s been described as the “Super Bowl of fashion” by outspoken fashion fixture André Leon Talley is the highest-profile gathering that celebrates the clothes themselves, and not the works of the people wearing them. The designers celebrities wear on the red carpet at events like the GRAMMYs or Academy Awards are still ancillary to who ends up taking home the trophies.
In fact, merely querying female celebrities about who they’re wearing on a particular night gave birth to the “#AskHerMore” hashtag, which puts fashion in a frivolous context when compared to an actor or artist’s scope of work, and opinion on pressing social issues.
“There is unfortunately a world that still exists that dismisses fashion as being a little bit frivolous and [assumes that] the people who work in it are not so smart,” says Anna Wintour, current editor-in-chief of Vogue and a chair of the Met Gala since 1995, in a recent interview with Business of Fashion.
Last year, the Met Gala was the subject of a documentary, The First Monday In May, with the title nodding towards the date the event is held. Directed by Andrew Rossi, the same filmmaker behind the riveting Page One: Inside The New York Times, it shines an equally compelling light on the process behind fashion’s biggest night. Featuring Anna Wintour, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, and former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley, the film covers the preparation for the 2015 Met Gala, carrying the theme of “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the film’s most delightful protagonists is Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, who spends most of the film in a variety of killer Thom Browne ensembles.
And sure, with a theme like that, cultural appropriation was bound to occur. But for the most part (save for some looks like Sarah Jessica Parker’s stereotypical “Dragon Lady” outfit), it was mitigated. One of the brightest stars that night was Rihanna, who rolled trhough in a show-stopping gown from Chinese designer Guo Pei. The dress looked magnificent, but it was the ideal convergence of the theme elevated by the platform of star power. The day after, Guo Pei’s name became all the more recognizable.
At its best, what the Met Gala really shows is how fashion can convey social commentary without uttering a word. While the ongoing debate between fashion as art and fashion as commerce rages on, examining the oeuvre of a designer like Rei Kawakubo reveals the multitude of statements woven into her genre-bending, highly-influential collections.
As Marc Bain describes Kawakubo’s appeal in Quartz: “Kawakubo’s influence has mostly exerted itself outside the mainstream. From the time of Comme des Garçons’ founding in 1969, Kawakubo, now 74, has flummoxed, surprised, and challenged—especially challenged—fashion with her designs, routinely frustrating the assumptions about clothes that people carry around with them. It has made her deeply beloved among a global coterie of iconoclasts, and cryptic to those outside it.”
Indeed, COMME des GARÇONS is what most people would categorize as a “designer’s designer label” more than one the average fashion consumer would rabidly salivate over. Collaborations with the likes of Nike and Supreme notwithstanding, CDG has always achieved a cross-cultural, cross-generational level of relevance mainly through its emphasis on individuals imbuing meaning into its products.
Fashion, unlike commercial clothing, is an industry predicated on selling things based on how they make you feel, instead of simply how they make you look. Kawakubo’s understanding of clothes as a tool for self-expression has garnered her fans ranging from high-profile fashion editors to Internet-savvy fanboys.
So for all intents and purposes, this year’s Met Gala is especially resonant because fashion’s flock is coming together to celebrate its most prominent black sheep. And who can’t appreciate a great underdog story?
For a look back at some of the most eyebrow-raising getups to ever grace the Met Gala red carpet, check out our round-up of the most ridiculous outfits in Met Gala history.