Without the Met Gala, the Costume Institute wouldn’t be able to fund itself. Formerly the Museum of Costume Art, founded by philanthropist Irene Lewisohn, it merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1946, but remains the only department at the museum that has to raise its own funding—perhaps due to questions about whether or not fashion is, in fact, considered an art form. It’s the gala’s patronage that supports the exhibitions, as well as the institute’s staff, costume conservation, and maintenance of its archive of over 35,000 pieces from the last 600 years.
The gala was the brainchild of fashion public-relations legend Eleanor Lambert, who also founded “Fashion Press Week” in 1943, the precursor to New York Fashion Week. In the early years, it was a gathering of New York’s socialites. Billed by Lambert as the “Party of the Year,” the first event in 1948 cost $50 a ticket (or $527 today, when adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t held at the museum until 1972, but instead at elite venues like the Rainbow Room and the Waldorf Astoria.