To the Costume Institute, yes. It’s the only curatorial department at the Met that has to finance its own activities, and the gala is its biggest fundraiser. The event was initially named the Party of the Year, but it’s only relatively recently that it fulfilled that promise.
From 1948 to 1971, the benefit wasn’t pegged to an exhibition, and was held off-site at the Waldorf Astoria or the Rainbow Room. Guests (mostly New York society types) indulged in fine dining and were entertained by “skits, raffles, and pageants of models in historic costume,” according to the museum’s records.
Former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland brought new glamor to the Costume Institute when she joined as a consultant in 1972. Vreeland curated some of the most ambitious and heavily publicized exhibitions in its history, and used the gala as an opportunity to inaugurate them. Her themes were exotic and far-reaching — “The Glory of Russian Costume,” “La Belle Époque,” “The World of Balenciaga” — and no detail was ignored. (Chanel’s 1924 fragrance Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather) was pumped through “The Glory of Russian Costume,” for example.)
The galas became launch parties for the exhibitions, where designers, industry insiders and fashionable celebrities turned out in full force.
Anna Wintour, Vogue’s current editor, shifted the focus to celebrities when she took over as chairwoman in 1999, recruiting A-list honorary and co-chairs (including Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Tom Brady) and inviting everyone from Lil’ Kim to Kim Kardashian to attract more attention to the event. (The Vogue team’s participation in the planning and execution were the highlight of the 2016 documentary “The First Monday in May.”)
“Ms. Wintour has used an intimate understanding of fashion, and of her own role in that universe, to transform a dowager social event into a frenzied red-carpet romp that now surpasses, at least in terms of frocks, the Oscars,” former New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote in 2006.