Customs, costumes, and couture

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The day after the Met Ball. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023. The weatherman calls it an “Omega” block that is keeping the weather rainy and occasionally cold like March, rather than May, with temps in the cool low 50s.

This past Monday night, as you most certainly know, was the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Costume Institute fundraiser. This has been one of the major social events on the Spring calendar. I don’t know how long the Costume Institute has been exhibiting but it’s safe to say Diana Vreeland really put it on the map as a social event in New York with a black tie dinner back in the 1980s.

Met Museum met ball cleanup
Post-Met Ball cleanup.

Mrs. Vreeland had been in the fashion magazine business, first at Hearst’s Harper’s Bazaar and then at Conde Nast’s Vogue. Vreeland was a remarkable personality. Sophisticated, curious, easily charming, socially adept and a lover of fashion — with which she made her way in the world.

Harry Benson photograph of Diana Vreeland and mannequin in Balenciaga at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973.

At a certain point during her time at Vogue Si Newhouse decided that the magazine needed some new energy and she was unceremoniously dumped (her desk was removed from her office for starters) and replaced with the new kid on the block, a young Englishwoman who had already put in time at Andy Warhol’s Interview — named Anna Wintour.

Vreeland took on a new job at the Met Museum in the Costume Institute. The assignment was seen as a way for Mrs. Vreeland to continue to earn a living. It was also a perfect step for the lady whose artfulness was fashion. 

It also led to the fundraising habit of the Costume Benefit which with the help of Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley, among others, they turned into an annual fund-raising ball. It became the go-to social event of the season — all those ladies chicly dressed to the nines in their designer gowns, and the old boys in their black tie. And always held, of course, at the Met.

Today we are re-running a Diary written by Mary Hilliard, the photographer who covered the dinner. She wrote about her assignment for us, along with her photos of the evening, with great shots of many familiar faces.

Dinner is served at The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Dinner with D.V,” December 7th, 1987. Photographed by Mary Hilliard.

I covered it in the ‘90s although the most memorable one for me, was in 1996. The honored guest was Diana, Princess of Wales, already on her way out of the Royal door with her marriage to Charles over, and her misery not yet lifted. I was just curious to see her in the flesh. I also wanted a word with her mainly just to get a sense of her energy. And I felt sorry for her dilemma which was as public as it can get for a princess.

In retrospect, she was chosen to be the Princess because of the “old” rules: a virgin. It was a rule that was included centuries ago when the monarchy became an institution and therefore “pure” had become “required.” 

Diana wearing Dior at the 1996 Met Gala. Photo: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

By the time Charles and Diana came along, “pure” was merely a word to define all heirs to the throne. On a piece of paper. From the sound of it Charles was in a bind and never interested in the solution that he would be bound to honor. The British notion of royal honor is made up make believe anyway.  They’re not alone on that one.

Ironically Diana was the best thing that happened to the Royal Family’s reputation with The People at the end of the 20th century with a new one coming in. Really a first in that family. She may not have been the toast of that family but she was surely the toast of the world, as the Everywoman carrying the banner of love and kindness for our fellow man. 

It took her death — never really clearly positively explained   to free her from her husband’s life.  And it demonstrated that even her in-laws were unaware of her powerful effect of her Goodness on the World — until they saw the thousands and thousands of floral bouquets left in her honor at the palace gates. 

To an outsider — which is you and I — it was easy to understand why she evoked those basic feelings. She had been a gift to everybody including all of England.  Her second son, not so incidentally, carries that same vibe in his public appearances representing Britain to the world. There are no other British royals who possess that quality. In fact there are no other British public personas who possess that quality.

The Spencers — Diana’s family — are Churchills. Or vice-versa. John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, had been a general who led the British and other armies in a battle with Louis XIV of France, known historically as the battle of Blenheim (hence the name on the Churchill palace).

When John died in 1722, his only son had pre-deceased him, and so his heir was his daughter Anne, named after Queen Anne. There were only two dukedoms in England where the female could succeed. Marlborough was one of them.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Captain-General of the English forces and Master-General of the Ordnance, 1702 (c), attributed to Michael Dahl, after Godfrey Kneller. This painting is in the collection of the National Army Museum, London.

Lady Anne Spencer Countess of Sunderland in the collection of Althorp House in West Northamptonshire.

No doubt the exception was assisted by the duke’s wife the duchess Sarah, who had been a friend of Queen Anne from childhood. For the next few generations into the 19th century, the family name was officially Spencer, and Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough. It was the fifth or sixth Duke succeeding who added the Churchill name to make it more impressive and official on any list: Spencer Churchill.

My late friend Lady Sarah Churchill gave me that lesson in family history. She knew Princess Diana, although not well. But when one of Sarah’s sisters died, there was a memorial service afterwards and a reception held at another sister’s house. Charles and Diana were among those attending. When it was all over, Charles left immediately but Diana stayed on to help her “cousins” (including Sarah) wash and clean up the house after the guests had left. 

All of this came to mind Monday when Anna Wintour’s event was taking place.  I didn’t go near the museum because it was surely a slow moving traffic jam. And raining off and on. The weather, no doubt had already been anticipated. The arriving guests especially those who were “all dolled up” were ready for their closeups (or as close a camera could get considering the immense space a number of the get-ups took).

Jojo Korsh/

It is fun to watch. You can have a laugh, and the “fashions” are often wild and imaginative (I liked Jared Leto dressed up as Karl Lagerfeld’s beloved cat Choupette, pictured above). There was a lot of flesh and even Kardashians were out-Kardashianed by newcomers to the camera halls. 

Anna Wintour with Bill Nighy at this year’s Met Ball to celebrate the opening of “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty.” Photograph by Jojo Korsh/

This event which was designed to draw great media attention was clearly the work of the 21st century Vogue editor, who herself, would have looked very gotta-have-it glamorous back in the day, and still does. You could see her whole face without the wall of black glasses that is part of her public signature. Her hair is perfect and her face is beautiful, like a movie star. 

She is the director, La Directrice, and this is her production. The koo-tour among the guests is full of imagination and attitude (different ones). Some of it goes all the way over the top. I would call it freak-chic and meant to be noticed and even amused, as well as maybe shocked.

That is the intention as well as the vibe in much of this world we are all living in. Ms. Wintour, who has raised millions for the Costume Institute which now bears her name, has succeeded in raising the popularity and increased public attention also. It’s the nature of fashion always reflecting the changes it provokes.

But before you go, do visit Mary Hilliard’s Diary of the Costume Benefit which took place 36 years ago in December 1987. That particular month and moment, the stock market had just had its sudden plunge that for a few minutes, days and months, it looked like worst.

Many of the guests at that particular Benefit were people who were either personally and deeply involved in the market as well as finance and industry. No doubt they had other things on their minds besides this gala for costumes. But, aha! we survived it, and it’s beautiful just remembering it through Mary’s eye (and camera).

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