(CNN) This year’s Met Gala, widely known as fashion’s biggest night, returns on May 1 – and the stars are sure to turn out this year for the ‘In Honor of Karl’ theme, four years after the death of fashion giant Karl Lagerfeld.
The event, which takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, coincides with the opening of a retrospective of Lagerfeld’s work on display at the museum’s Costume Institute. The German designer was best known for leading the creative direction of Chanel for more than three decades and Fendi for half a century, but he also left his mark on Chloé, Patou and Balmain during his career, in addition to running his own eponymous label.
Although photos from the Met Gala red carpet became instantly available, documentation of the glamorous gala has changed in recent years, as photographers were largely limited to capturing attendees’ entrances in high-profile locations; the images that come from the tightly controlled press area are polished and repetitive. To see celebrities letting loose (like Bella Hadid and Marc Jacobs congregating in the bathroom for smoke breaks, for example), you have to turn to after-party photos or their Instagram feeds.
Images from the galas of yesteryear are alluring for their nostalgia factor and retro style, but they also reveal a more relaxed atmosphere.
Photographer Rose Hartman, who photographed the gala for decades into the early 2000s, recalled over the phone a time when there was more freedom to move around and interact with attendees. In 1986, she photographed actress Lynda Carter and socialite Blaine Trump during a laugh.
“They were just so happily talking to each other instead of posing,” Hartman told CNN in 2020. “I always try, whenever possible, to capture people who are engaged with each other.”
Photographer Ron Galella, who has been shooting the gala since 1967, has a system in place to capture the best shots, from arrival at coat check to the museum floor and dinner. “It was easy to take pictures inside,” he wrote via email in 2020. “A New York Press pass was all you needed to get in.” (When press passes eventually became limited, there were years through which he slipped through the staff entrance.)
In the decades since the first iteration of the event in 1948, the gala has transformed from an elegant celebration at off-site venues like Manhattan’s Rainbow Room to a fashion spectacle. Socialites and entertainers ceded the spotlight to A-list celebrities who made headlines for how they chose to interpret or ignore the theme of the night.
The theme is based on the Costume Institute’s new exhibition, such as this year’s Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty. Other themes are more conceptual, from 2019’s Camp: Notes on Fashion and 2018’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. But individual designers have been honored in previous years, including Rei Kawakubo in 2017 .and Alexander McQueen, the year after his death, in 2011.
The change in guest list and atmosphere was largely due to a generational shift in vision. In the 1970s, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland positioned the gala as the opening soiree of the Institute’s major exhibitions and invited the crème de la crème of New York fashion and society. Her successor, Anna Wintour, favored famous musicians, actors and entertainment figures, using the event’s five-figure ticket sales to rake in millions of dollars each year.
In 1999, Wintour’s first year as chair of the event, Hartman took a photo of the Vogue editor-in-chief entering with former editor-in-chief Andre Leon Talley, who died in 2022. Their image is joyous, with the two editors resplendent in suits and caught in motion.
“I love the fact that they’re walking, not standing,” Hartman said. “I love the gesture of their movement.”
Galella’s vast archive of Met Gala images, which he published in a book in 2019, also shows the tender gestures between celebrities when they’re not expecting the camera’s flash. In 1983, he photographed supermodel Iman and designer Paloma Picasso laughing as Picasso’s husband bent down to hug the statuesque Iman around her waist. In 1995, he caught Christy Turlington seemingly teasing Kate Moss by sliding a finger into a dangerous the low cut back of Moss’s white dress.
Galella believes it’s a universal sentiment to want to see the entertainment and fashion elite let their guard down. “We see them in movies, we see them as superstars. But I want to see them as people,” he previously told Forbes. “How beautiful are they when they’re not playing?”
Top photo: Andre Leon Talley and Anna Wintour in 1999.
A version of this article was originally published in May 2020.