The Met Gala 2014: Putting the “Costume” into “Costume Institute”

Alexander Fury
MET PRADA Lupita Nyongo  2014 187x300 The Met Gala 2014: Putting the Costume into Costume Institute

Lupita Nyong'o in Prada at the 2014 Met Gala

Last night was the Met Gala, celebrating the opening of the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion. It’s lauded as the east coast equivalent to the Oscars: but compare the Met’s media reach to the Oscars, which pulled in 48 million television viewers from the USA alone, and it pales.

Then again, the Oscars is, ostensibly, about more than just frocks. It’s about prizes, about ambitions thwarted and dreams fulfilled. The Met Gala is about fund-raising. Never forget that. It’s a giant charity lunch, gussied up in fancy clothing. Last year, Gwyneth Paltrow said it “sucked”. Our attention, and the media hullabaloo, is all about the (cat)walk to the event, not the event itself.

I didn’t watch the live stream of the Met red carpet, but in a strange way that made it feel even more live and engaging. There was no easy way to see the outfits, just constant browser refreshing and checking of various battery-draining social media iPhone apparatus. You had to be hungry to see more.

And there was plenty to see. I may have griped and groaned via Twitter, but in retrospect the Met red carpet is much more exciting than the Oscars. I suppose it’s because it’s a fashion event, so people make an extra effort. They take risks.

Compare Lupita Nyong’o’s dreamy – but, truth be told rather safe – chiffon Oscars gown with the daring flapper frock she sported at the Met, which seemed an engaging hodge-podge of Prada collections past (the chandelier crystal shift came from spring 2010; the general Jazz Age vibe from spring 2011, the accessories were current 2013 stock). I don’t know if I liked it, but at least it was saying something different. And it certainly caught your attention.

Suki Waterhouse wearing Burberry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2014 Costume Institue Gala 5 May 2014 200x300 The Met Gala 2014: Putting the Costume into Costume Institute

Suki Waterhouse in Burberry, at the 2014 Met Gala

You don’t equate celebrity red carpet choices with taking risks and daring to be different. It’s what fashion’s about, not Hollywood. The more “Hollywood” attired guests, in slimline sheaths and bias-cut slips with drippy trains, seemed to come a cropper: Blake Lively’s Gucci sequinned sheath was, ironically, easily outshone; Kate Hudson’s Stella McCartney dress was fine, but staid.

The issue? They aren’t enough to excite a fashion audience. And, unlike the mass appeal of the Oscars, the Met is appealing to a niche crowd of fashion aficionados, the kind of people who do get excited when Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen pitch up in vintage Chanel couture.

However, there’s an odd unwritten rule to the Met Costume Institute gala (rechristened this year the Anna Wintour Costume Centre) that, somehow, you should frock up in line with the exhibition’s theme.

“I think they should remove the word ‘Costume’ from this department… It seems to confuse a lot of people,” tweeted the stylist and fashion editor Tiina Laakkonen – as a sidenote, we had a brief exchange over this, like a passing conversation with a few thousand people overhearing us, so I don’t count this as one of those cringeworthy articles that passes off Twitter quotes as some kind of intimate tête-à-tête. But anyway. Laakkonen is bang on the money. Why did people feel the need to don cod-Jamesian corseted ballgowns in the twenty-first century, rather than a stunning but modern evening look? It seemed, well, costumey.

That was maybe the intention. The stated dress code for women was evening – rather than ball – gowns, but for men it was white tie. You could picture the scene in your mind’s eye, an Age of Innocence-esque whirl of sleek, dark men and pastel satin ballgowns like an Impressionistically animated Tissot painting.

It was never likely to pan out that way with these men: white tie was loosely interpreted as the more casual tuxedo by most, while Zac Posen in a couture Ralph Rucci cape upped the glam factor. Posen had a whale of a time last night, upholstering half-a-dozen attendees in two or three-seater ball gowns that could barely cram into the museum itself, let alone a taxi. It wasn’t modern, but there was a gleeful joy to those dresses, expressing the ebullience of both the wearers and the designer. That was a pleasure to behold.

MET Kim Kardashian and Kanye West 202x300 The Met Gala 2014: Putting the Costume into Costume Institute

Kim Kardashian and a white tie-d Kanye West, both in Lanvin at the 2014 Met Gala

They was plenty of nay-saying about the state of the red carpet today. Generally, I don’t find red carpet dressing interesting in the slightest. The Met gala is a great, grand exception, because fashion is its very raison d’être. Which means people take chances and showboat stylistically. A few get it wonderfully right. My run-down of favourites: Lily Allen in Chanel was great; I loved Donatella Versace in a reworking of the James “Butterfly” ballgown, with armoured corset; I’m intrigued by the Charleston-meets-Charlie-Chaplin-meets-Charles-James chrysoprase Prada frock on Lupita; Dakota Johnson’s Jason Wu was luscious; the more laborious, and frankly labial, Oscar de la Renta gowns on Taylor Swift and Amy Adams did James proud; and any man who wore full white tie looked tremendous.

However sometimes – in fact, quite often – people push themselves out of their comfort zone, and get it really wrong. And that’s great. At least they can say they tried.

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