To a select few, the first Monday in May is the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala, but to the masses, it’s the day we all become fashion commentators. Due to COVID rescheduling, it’s only been six months since the last Met Gala. And now, half a year later, we’re back on the usual schedule with this year’s theme: “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.”
If you’re wondering if that’s the same theme we just saw six months ago, the answer is no. The 2021 theme was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion;” this is an anthology, people. We don’t blame you for not keeping up, seeing as how they’re sooooo different. But one thing is certain: the theme matters. It matters to the attendees and to the spectators. The theme has the power to alter our perceptions of how “best-dressed” someone actually was. You can’t just show up in whatever you want to wear and expect to be number one on the best-dressed lists.
In the last decade, the Met Gala has moved from a fundraiser for New York socialites and the celebrity elite to the fashion moment of the year. Unlike every other red carpet, it is not enough to merely show up in a custom dress by a famous designer. For an attendee to successfully attend the Met Gala, their look—head to toe—must comment on the year’s theme. In that spirit, let’s look back on the past 10 years of Met Gala themes, ranked by execution.
10. 2017: “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between”
Coming in 10th place is 2017’s Art of the In-Between. If you’ve watched a season of Project Runway, you know the meaning of avant-garde. At the very least you know it’s about so much more than just a slinky little dress. The assignment was to challenge conventional notions of beauty, which is truly a challenge when beauty is pretty much synonymous with red carpets. So, to successfully execute the theme, risks had to be taken.
Queen of the Met Gala, Rihanna delivered, of course, in her Comme des Garçons dress. Was it a dress? Hard to tell. It was more like wearable art. Other notable attendees who understood the assignment were mostly mid-tier celebs: Hailee Steinfeld in Vera Wang, Liu Wen in Off-White, Solange Knowles in Thom Browne, and somewhat surprisingly, Kim Kardashian in Vivienne Westwood. Kim found a way to meet the theme and still show off the body that helped build her brand.
But then there was the barrage of famous names in beautiful, but utterly boring dresses. Topshop invested a lot in this year’s Met Gala, dressing a quartet of famous last names and supermodels: Sofia Richie, one of Sylvester Stallone’s daughters, Behati Prinsloo, and Joan Smalls. The dresses they chose to wear were pretty forgettable, but you cannot blame fast fashion for the misses; dozens of attendees wore very conventionally beautiful dresses by high fashion designers—and thus completely ignoring the theme.
9. 2020: “About Time: Fashion and Duration”
This Met Gala never happened due to the COVID pandemic. But its absence ranks above the bevy of boring dresses that walked the Met Gala Steps in 2017.
8. 2013: “Punk: Chaos to Couture”
In eighth place, is arguably the most fun theme in the last decade: punk. It was like a moment to dress like a high-fashion Avril Lavigne, but approved by Anna Wintour at the same time. Yes, this was the year a very pregnant Kim Kardashian gave us those floral sofa memes, but Kardashian was new to the Met Gala and only invited because of her then-boyfriend, Kanye West. We’ll give her a pass.
It seems punk intimidated many of the attendees and the theme was rather timidly embraced—or not embraced at all. Blake Lively in Gucci looked really pretty, but pretty is not punk! Stella McCartney put Kristen Stewart in lace and pumps, and Gwyneth Paltrow wore a pink, long-sleeved Valentino dress and later complained about how hot it was inside, saying she would never return. Which is fine, because if you cannot dress the theme, there are dozens of other red carpets to wear pretty dresses on.
Miley Cyrus in Marc Jacobs and Christina Ricci in Vivienne Westwood understood the assignment, but the rest of the night was a bit of a bore.
7. 2014: “Charles James: Beyond Fashion”
The year 2014 takes seventh place on our list. American fashion icon Charles James’ work still impacts the modern red carpet and merits its own Met Gala theme, but in some ways it threw the attendees a bone (or some boning). James is known for his ball gowns and tailoring, so as long as you showed up in a well-constructed dress, you delivered.
The stars who donned true ballgowns, like Claire Danes and Sarah Jessica Parker, both in Oscar de la Renta, and Karolína Kurková in Marchesa, delivered. But very few chose to challenge themselves with the theme, so this night resulted in a very pretty red carpet and not much more.
After being torn apart for her 2013 look, Kim Kardashian played it far too safe in Lanvin. And Rihanna had not yet solidified herself as Met Gala royalty. She looked cool, but oh so boring in Stella McCartney. What we would’ve given to see Rihanna in an over-the-top modern ball gown!
6. 2016: “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”
In 2016, everyone just read the headline “Manus x Machina” and said: metallic. The notes describe the theme as reconciling the handmade and the machine-made. It was a night to mix the details of master artisans with the work of the newest technology. But what we got was metallic, black, and more metallic.
Host Taylor Swift wore metallic Louis Vuitton, and though her short dress felt informal, it was not out of place. Many stars chose a short length in 2016. Full length is not necessary to make a statement at the Met Gala, but the countless short metallic dresses didn’t say much of anything. Most of the men were disappointed in classic suits, and Rihanna wasn’t in attendance to show us what we were missing.
Claire Danes was a standout dressed in a sculpted Zac Posen gown made with fiber optic-woven organza that literally glowed. This look truly embraced the theme: a master tailor used fabric woven with the latest technology to achieve something one could not do without the other.
5. 2021: “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”
In fifth place is last year’s: “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” The challenge for attendees was to answer the question: Who gets to be an American? And after a year and a half in sweatpants, we needed a night of over-the-top fashion, which thankfully we got.
Lupita Nyong’o wore a Versace gown made of denim—the perfect homage to America’s favorite fabric. Kate Hudson served Barbie vibes in a baby pink Michael Kors Collection ensemble. Normani made us totally rethink the color chartreuse in Valentino. And Rihanna made us rethink everything, in Balenciaga Couture with diamonds dripping from underneath a beanie. We won’t linger on Kim Kardashian because the jury is still out. But for a woman known for her famous face, her fully covered Balenciaga moment was certainly a statement.
The misses were those that went too Americana namely, anyone in Ralph Lauren: Kacey Musgraves, Lily Aldridge, and Jennifer Lopez. They looked like they were attending a cowboy-themed party on a billionaire’s ranch.
But the night belonged to Prabal Gurung. As an American immigrant from Nepal, Singapore, he had a lot to say and a long list of stars to help him say it. He dressed Venus Williams, Claire Danes, Diane Kruger, Leslie Grace, Teyana Taylor, and Dominic Cooper. The star of the night was Gemma Chan. Chan and Gurung paid homage to the first Chinese-American Hollywood star, Anna May Wong. The look was deeply meaningful, perfectly executed, the pinnacle of the night—and it made us all want to add mint green to our wardrobe.
4. 2019: “Camp: Notes on Fashion”
The directive: wear something that shows the influence of camp’s disruptive nature and subversion of modern aesthetic values. The problem: no one was quite sure what that meant. Camp is nearly impossible to define, but everyone tried and that made for a great night of fashion.
Zendaya came in Disney Cinderella cosplay. Her gown illuminated when her stylist, Law Roach—dressed as fairy godmother—waved a wand. Coincidentally, Kendall and Kylie Jenner were perhaps inspired by the evil stepsisters from Cinderella in coordinating Versace dresses. Perhaps, Disney’s Cinderella is the height of camp to a subset of young Hollywood. Cardi B wore a red Thom Browne creation that included 44 carats worth of rubies acting as nipple covers and a train that weighed more than her. Fashion moments were had.
Most importantly, this was a tipping point for men. For years, most men treated the Met Gala like any other event, arriving in well-fitting tuxedos or perhaps a suit in an interesting color, if they were really feeling it. But men delivered fashion this year. Jared Leto in Gucci carried a bust of his own face while wearing a full-length red robe. Billy Porter in The Blonds rocked wings. Jordan Roth in custom Iris van Herpen, also had wings. Ryan Murphy in Christian Siriano looked like Liberace and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting had a baby. And Odell Beckham Jr. broke new ground wearing the now infamous Thom Browne menswear skirt.
While the theme allowed for a broad mix of interpretations, some took it a tad too far. Katy Perry, called the queen of camp by some, walked the red carpet as a chandelier before changing into a burger costume inside. They were both certainly statements, but it’s unclear what they intended to say. To truly subvert fashion, it would’ve been like magic to see Perry show up in a Herve Leger bandage dress and a platform Louboutins.
3: 2015: “China: Through the Looking Glass”
In third place is 2015’s “China: Through the Looking Glass.” Other people were there that night, but this will forever be known as the Met Gala of Rihanna’s epic gold train.
The theme inspired many to wear black, red, or gold. The Olsens wore all black— a fashion statement, no, but we are just glad to see them. Justin Bieber’s intricately embroidered Balmain jacket was nice. Zendaya began making her mark in fashion in Fausto Puglisi. The color palette: you guessed it black, red, and gold.
But again, on that night and forevermore, the Met Gala will be synonymous with Rihanna’s heavily embroidered, imperial yellow, fur-trimmed gown by Chinese designer Guo Pei. This look set the standard for how to use the steps of the Met to make fashion history.
2. 2018: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”
In second place, a clear theme with hundreds of years of references to pull from delivered the most well-executed Met Gala to date.
Janelle Monáe in Marc Jacobs came as herself, transformed angelic. Her usual black and white tailored aesthetic was capped with a hat mimicking halos in early renaissance paintings. Kim Kardashian was the heavenly body itself in a Versace dress that looked poured on. Zendaya wore armor as fashion’s Joan of Arc in Atelier Versace, complete with a red bob and short bangs. Rihanna went the subversive route in Margiela dressed as the actual Pope. And to be fair, if the Met Gala was a religion, Rihanna would be its leader.
A lesson to take from 2018: a clear theme leads to a higher overall success rate. Very few boring looks were seen this night.
1. 2022:“In America: An Anthology of Fashion.”
Fashion is always looking forward, so in that spirit, we’re giving first place to the first Monday in May 2022. We are manifesting an epic night of fashion with this year’s theme: “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.”
This theme is supposed to look at the evolution of American fashion and the individuals who played a role. We hope to see some 2022 references to the Gilded Age, followed by anything Cher wore in the seventies. And if we see a single man in a plain black tux, we will scream! There are so many more fun ways to experiment with fashion these days.