Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
The first Monday of May this year marks an absence in the fashion world. With the cancellation of the Met Gala and the indefinite closure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art due to the coronavirus pandemic, the museum’s front steps will remain quiet, empty of the usual crowds of celebrities and fashion insiders who flock to the annual fundraiser for the Costume Institute.
Absent too will be the photographs that circulate after the event. In recent years, 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 smoke 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 not limited to red carpet arrivals.
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.
Hartman could sense the close friendship between Linda Carter and Blaine Trump as they shared a laugh, but also noted how glamorous they looked while doing so. Credit: Rose Hartman/Getty Images
“They were just so happily speaking to one another rather than posing,” Hartman said. “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 noted via email. “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.)
Cher smokes a cigarette during 1974’s “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design Exhibition” Met Gala. Credit: Ron Galella/Getty Images
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 last year’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion” and 2018’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The 2020 exhibition, “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” has been rescheduled for the fall.
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, but her successor, Anna Wintour, has favored high-profile musicians, actors and entertainment figures, using $30,000 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. The image of them is joyful, with both editors resplendent in costume and caught in motion. Such a serendipitous shot would be rare today — especially considering that Wintour and Talley are rumored to be on the outs.
“I love the fact that they are walking rather than standing,” Hartman said. “I love the gesture of their movement.”
Galella snapped this light moment of Iman, Paloma Picasso and Raphael Lopez Sanchez at the 1983 Met Gala, which honored the work of Yves St. Laurent. Credit: Ron Galella/Getty Images
Galella’s vast archive of Met Gala images, which he published in a book last year, 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.
Supermodels Kate Moss and Christy Turlington goof around at the 1995 Met Gala. Credit: Ron Galella/Getty Images
These days the gala may take itself seriously with its careful image, but 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 told Forbes last year. “How beautiful are they when they’re not acting?”