From the early 2000s to now: How the fashion choices at the Met Gala changed through the years

From the early 2000s to now: How the fashion choices at the Met Gala changed through the years

A fashion analysis

Text: Stephanie Boey

Image: Getty Images

How has the fashion at the Met Gala changed in the last 20 years?

The first Monday of May is set in stone as one of fashion’s biggest dates. It celebrates the opening of the annual exhibit by The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with a fund raising gala meant to encourage patrons to donate in support of the arts. The first gala was held in 1948 for the then newly-found institute and it’s reported the dinner tickets were priced at US$50 each!

Since the ‘70s, the Met Gala has been organised by Vogue U.S, and remains a longstanding tradition until today. Currently lead by one of the fashion industry’s most influential editors Anna Wintour and with the exciting choice of theme every year, the Met Gala has witnessed many iconic looks over the years.

What would’ve been this year's 2020 Met Gala was 'About Time: Fashion and Duration’. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Met Gala has been postponed indefinitely. (A bunch of hardcore fashion fans are organising an unofficial online Met Gala on Twitter. More on this here). You’ll be surprised to know that what may seem like an unprecedented event in Met Gala history has indeed happened prior. In the past 20 years, there were two years in the early 2000s (2000 and 2002) that had the Met Gala off the roster.

So what's a fashion fan to do in the absence of the Met Gala this year? Answer: Dive into the archives. Some of the most interesting themes through the years include 2004’s 'Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century', 2006’s' AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion' and 2008’s 'Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy'. In recent years, 'Punk: Chaos to Couture' in 2013, 2015’s 'China: Through the Looking Glass' and 2016’s 'Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology'.

When it comes to fashionable attendees, Rihanna wins the game. She has consistently brought statement-worthy and head-turning looks to the red carpet since her first appearance in 2007. She may not attend the gala every year but trust that she does shut it down when she chooses to grace the red carpet with her presence. Her most recent appearance was at the 2018 Met Gala for 'Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination'. Dressed as a pope in a exquisite jewel-encrusted bodice and coat by Maison Margiela, Rihanna looked like she fell straight from heaven. Don’t even get me started on the Guo Pei dress from 2015! That canary yellow gown single-handedly paved the way for fashion memes.

Being best-dressed at the Met Gala includes perfecting the fine balance of being elegant, while pushing the envelope and keeping to the theme. The best looks through the years are head-turning but rightfully so. Warranted attention, but not too much. There’s a strong yet quiet confidence that comes along with a great red carpet look, it's about stealing the limelight for all the right reasons. Here are the costumes and themes that hit the nail right on the head:

There’s a visible increasing trend from the early 2000s to present day: The growing fashion risks. And if I have to pick between the mundane and the risqué, I'd rather the latter. In the early 2000s, the fashion choices were good...but majority of them fell in the dreaded safe zone. It started in the lukewarm category of cocktail dresses, and then eventually graduating to evening gowns. With the birth of social media however, that trend took a sharp turn as we started to live our lives on Instagram.

Red carpet choices started to become larger than life, rather than IRL. Under the watchful eye of newfound fashion critics (read: keyboard warriors), the stakes were raised. Attendees were more than ready to fully immerse themselves in the theme and commit to the full spectacle. The result? An increasing number of best-dressed and iconic looks as the years go by.

Other memorable moments include Lady Gaga’s transforming multi-layered Brandon Maxwell dress for 2019’s 'Camp:Notes on Fashion', Katy Perry’s chandelier moment and Jared Leto’s second head. (Yes, you read that correctly). Welcome to the wonderful and magical world of the extremes, which brings us to the other key finding: OTT costumes.

In the past two decades, only a handful of people took the 'costume' idea from The Costume Institute as a dress code. '90s supermodel Amber Valetta dressed up as a Renaissance courtesan in 2004 for 'Dangerous Liasions'. What we can only imagine turned many heads in its hey day is the societal norm of celebrity culture today. Costumes have only gotten bigger since then, and leans heavily onto the attention-grabbing spectrum. 

In 2019, we saw the highest number of over-the-top costumes. The theme (Camp: Notes on Fashion) may be the strongest factor behind these but seeing as celebrities choose to walk down the red carpet movie premieres and award shows in equally outlandish ensembles off late, I don't think the costume principle is only reserved to The Met Gala.

And to be honest, I really do enjoy it. At the 2019 Met Gala, we saw Lady Gaga walk the red carpet in three different Brandon Maxwell looks. The first was a bubblegum pink ball gown, which transitioned into a fitted column dress (with props) and to end half naked in black underwear. She had everyone on the edge of their seats. Whether you love or despise the theatrics, I will have to commend these celebrities for their guts and follow-through. A+ for effort, but most importantly, think of all the memes.