Ahead of “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” here’s a history of every Met Gala theme since 1995.
It’s official: the theme for the 2023 Met Gala is “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” The exhibition will examine the life—and creative legacy—of the late designer, who shaped the face of fashion for more than half a century.
The theme announcement is an important one. It dictates the dress code (celebrities, designers, and change-makers are challenged to create costumes that serve as both a fashion statement and a tribute to the concept), the decor, and most importantly, the larger purpose of the night itself. The gala is, yes, a major star-studded fundraising event, but its importance goes beyond dollars raised and social media impressions made. It’s a grand display of art as fashion and fashion as art, showing how both forms comprise and define our cultural fabric.
Each theme is chosen with the utmost consideration, asking: What story does this tell? What history does it teach? In 2018, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” showcased hundreds of holy items from the Vatican. A few years earlier, “China: Through the Looking Glass” celebrated China’s influence on Western and Eastern design, while May 2019 explored “Camp” and its exaggerated artifice.
Below, we’ve charted out each year’s Met Gala theme dating back to 1995, the first year Anna Wintour became a chair of the event.
2022: “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”
“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” was the second part of the Metropolitan Museum’s examination of American fashion. (The first, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” debuted in September 2021 and served as the theme for that year’s Met Gala.) Whereas “Lexicon” was an expansive look at American fashion as a whole—especially its younger designers—Anthology acted as a historical retrospective on both the designs and the stories of their makers. “The stories really reflect the evolution of American style, but they also explore the work of individual tailors, dress-makers, and designers,” Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, explains. “What’s exciting for me is that some of the names will be very familiar to students of fashion like Charles James, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta, but a lot of the other names really have been forgotten, overlooked, or relegated to the footnotes of fashion history.”
2021: In America: A Lexicon of Fashion
Andrew Bolton, The Costume Institute’s Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, told Vogue he centered the 2021 event around the question “Who gets to be American?” which was originally posed on a red, white, and blue silk sash from Prabal Gurung’s 10th anniversary collection. “American designers are at the forefront of conversations around diversity, inclusivity, sustainability, gender fluidity, and body positivity,” he said. “The framework of the show enables us to focus on the younger designers who are engaging thoughtfully and deeply with those ideas.” The exhibition included over 100 pieces from American designers, ranging from Marc Jacobs to La Réunion.
Guests, which included co-chairs Timothée Chalamet, Billie Eilish, Amanda Gorman, and Naomi Osaka, abided by the night’s official dress code: American independence.
2020: “About Time: Fashion and Duration”
The 2020 gala was postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, but its theme is still worth revisiting: In honor of the Met’s 150th anniversary, “About Time” took a look back at a century-and-a-half’s worth of fashion. Bolton found inspiration in Orlando, the 1992 film based on the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name. “What I like about Woolf’s version of time is the idea of a continuum,” Bolton said. “There’s no beginning, middle, or end. It’s one big fat middle. I always felt the same about fashion. Fashion is the present.”
2019: “Camp: Notes on Fashion”
For 2019’s exhibition, Bolton drew on Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’.” The essay describes a sensibility marked by performance, excess, and a kind of winking bad taste exemplified by figures like Oscar Wilde and outré aesthetic movements such as Art Nouveau. Among the pieces on display were dazzling looks from Off-White, Schiaparelli, Moschino, Dior, Thom Browne, and lots more.
2018: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”
2018’s divine theme had hundreds of holy items on display, including dozens of artifacts and objects sent over from the Vatican (most of which had never seen the light beyond Rome). Guests rose to the occasion at the annual gala, with Rihanna dressing as the pope and Katy Perry as an angel (wings and all).
2017: “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between”
The Met Gala toasted the legendary Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo and featured her “objects,” as she likes to call them. Some guests, like Rihanna and Caroline Kennedy, stuck to the theme and sported original pieces, while others interpreted the topic through other designers. The event was co-chaired by Katy Perry and Pharrell Williams.
2016: “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”
The exclusive event went back to the future with tech at the forefront. Stars like Claire Danes literally lit up the ball in a glowing gown, while Emma Watson wore a five-piece Calvin Klein Collection set, which was made from recycled plastic bottles. The exhibition itself focused on the dichotomy between handmade and machine-made fashion, displaying more than 100 pieces of haute couture and ready-to-wear.
2015: “China: Through the Looking Glass”
The gala celebrated China’s influence on Western fashion with a theme fit for an emperor. The exhibition was a joint effort between the head of the museum’s Department of Asian Art and the Costume Institute, showing looks from Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and Christian Dior Haute Couture. Attendees from George and Amal Clooney to Rihanna (wearing a stunning yellow robe by Chinese designer Guo Pei) dressed on-theme for a night at the museum.
2014: “Charles James: Beyond Fashion”
The museum celebrated a major figure in the fashion world, but one less known to the general public. The Charles James theme was lively and highly anticipated, with a display of 100 of his most important designs. Co-chaired by Sarah Jessica Parker, Bradley Cooper, and Oscar de la Renta, the party was filled with ball gowns of the sleek and larger-than-life variety.
From designer retrospectives to celebrations of the supernatural, see all the themes of the last two decades, below:
2013: “Punk: Chaos to Couture”
2012: “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations”
2011: “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”
2010: “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity”
2009: “The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion”
2008: “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy”
2007: “Poiret: King of Fashion”
2006: “AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion”
2005: “The House of Chanel”
2004: “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century”
2003: “Goddess: The Classical Mode”
2002: No theme
2001: “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years”
2000: No theme
1999: “Rock Style”
1998: “Cubism and Fashion”
1997: “Gianni Versace”
1996: “Christian Dior”
1995: “Haute Couture”
This article was originally published on Vogue.