This year’s Met Gala, widely known as fashion’s biggest night out, is back on May 1 — and the stars are sure to turn up this year for the theme “In honor of Karl,” four years after the death of fashion giant Karl Lagerfeld.
The event, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, coincides with the opening of a retrospective of Lagerfeld’s work on display at the museum’s Costume Institute. The German designer was best known for helming the creative direction of Chanel for more than three decades, and Fendi for half a century, but he also left his mark on Chloé, Patou and Balmain during his career, in addition to running his own eponymous label.
While red carpet photos of the Met Gala have become instantly accessible, documentation of the splashy gala has changed in recent years, as photographers have largely been limited to snapping attendees’ highly posed entrances; the images that come from the tightly controlled press area are polished and repetitive. To see celebrities letting loose (the likes of Bella Hadid and Marc Jacobs gathering in the bathroom for smoking breaks, for example) you’d have to turn to after-party photos or their Instagram feeds.
Images from the galas of yesteryear are enticing because of their nostalgia factor and retro styling, but they also reveal a more relaxed atmosphere.
Photographer Rose Hartman, who photographed the gala for decades until the early 2000s, recalled over the phone a time when there was more freedom to move around and engage with attendees. In 1986, she photographed actress Lynda Carter and socialite Blaine Trump mid-laugh.
“They were just so happily speaking to one another rather than posing,” Hartman told CNN in 2020. “I always try whenever possible to capture people who are engaged with one another.”
Photographer Ron Galella, who has photographed the gala since 1967, had a system in place to grab the best shots, from arrivals at coat check to the museum floor and dinner. “It was easy to shoot inside,” he wrote via e-mail in 2020. “A New York Press card was all you needed to gain entry.” (When press passes eventually became limited, there were years he smuggled himself in through the employee entrance.)
Over the decades, since the event’s first iteration in 1948, the gala has transformed from a swanky fete at off-site locations like Manhattan’s Rainbow Room into a spectacle of fashion. Socialites and artists have ceded the spotlight to A-list celebrities, who make headlines for how they choose to interpret, or flout, the theme of the night.
The theme is based on the Costume Institute’s new exhibition, such as this year’s “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” Other themes have leaned more conceptual, from 2019’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion” and 2018’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” But individual designers have been honored in previous years, including Rei Kawakubo in 2017, and Alexander McQueen, the year after his death, in 2011.
The shift in guest list and atmosphere was largely due to a generational change in vision. In the 1970s, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland positioned the gala as the opening soiree of the Institute’s major exhibitions and invited the crème de la crème of the fashion world and New York society. Her successor, Anna Wintour, has favored high-profile musicians, actors and entertainment figures, using the five-figure tickets to the event to raise millions of dollars each year.
In 1999, Wintour’s first year as chair of the event, Hartman snapped a photograph of the Vogue editor-in-chief walking in with former editor-at-large André Leon Talley, who passed away in 2022. The image of them is joyful, with both editors resplendent in costume and caught in motion.
“I love the fact that they are walking rather than standing,” Hartman said. “I love the gesture of their movement.”
Galella’s vast archive of Met Gala images, which he published in a book in 2019, also shows the endearing gestures between celebrities when they don’t anticipate the flash of a camera. In 1983, he photographed supermodel Iman and designer Paloma Picasso laughing as Picasso’s husband bent low to embrace the statuesque Iman by her waist. In 1995, he caught Christy Turlington seemingly teasing Kate Moss, slipping a finger into the dangerously low-cut back of Moss’s white gown.
Galella believes it’s a universal feeling to want to see the entertainment and fashion elite let their guards down. “We see them in movies, we see them as superstars. But I want to see them as humans,” he previously told Forbes. “How beautiful are they when they’re not acting?”
Top image: André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour in 1999.
A version of this article was originally published in May 2020.