“I didn’t want to be a marquise, you know?” said Diane Von Furstenberg, with a conspiratorial narrowing of her dusky brown eyes. It was Monday, April 26, an hour into the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Gala, and the designer had paused in the airy cool of the Wrightsman Galleries-being there after-hours felt very naughty and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -to explain why she had chosen to wear a simple white sequin-sprinkled gown of her own design, rather than the elaborate corsetry suggested by the evening’s “Dangerous Liaisons” theme. “I don’t think I would’ve liked to have lived in the 18th century,” she said, glancing behind her, where an elaborate tableau had been erected containing period outfits and furniture from the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI.
Did we detect a slight shiver? After three years of rather generic shows with broad commercial appeal-“Rock Style,” “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” “Goddesses”-the Costume Institute this year has re-embraced a chilly elitism, if not downright esotericism. The exhibit this massive party was promoting, according to official materials, is intended to “explore the body’s spatial negotiation of the 18th century interior as a choreography of seduction and erotic play.” Say whaaa ?
“It’s intimidating,” admitted curator Harold Koda, who was holding court for trustees in the Wrightsman.
Out in the Great Hall, meanwhile, about 700 human bodies were “spatially negotiating” an area lit by twinkling lavender votive candles and scented with fresh lilacs, but there was nothing terribly erotic about it. It was sort of like a gigantic Queen Mary cruise ship of Manhattan celebrity, with a few first-class passengers from Hollywood hopping aboard, like Jennifer Lopez. On the starboard side: a crush of actresses, socialites, designers and models so dense that the trains of their gowns formed a perilous obstacle course.
“This is the night they all come out. I must say, they really make an entrance,” said Hamish Bowles, European editor-at-large at Vogue , who was clad in a complex ensemble of Hedi Slimane, Katherine Hamnett and Fred Leighton topped by an elaborate printed djelleba from Tangier. “I think it’s sort of an Olympic Pantheon-the Mount Olympus of a certain aspect of Manhattan life.”
Portward, where people coming through the big doors were steered with an urgency directly correlated to their star power, Vogue editor Anna Wintour played captain in a glittering green Christian Dior ensemble, standing next to beaming “first officer” Renée Zellweger, the actress and recent Oscar winner, whose skin and hair eerily matched her gold-column Carolina Herrera gown.
The formidable Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley had abandoned this well-guarded receiving line and was lurking behind a pillar, wearing a billowy haute couture “beating” coat, or monteau battant , with authentic 18th-century buttons that had been made for him by the Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. It looked like there might be room for several other party guests beneath its capacious folds.
“I’m in the clouds, in this beautiful French coat,” Mr. Talley said. “Totally glorious.” Asked if the exhibition’s decadent subject had any relevance to today, he puffed out a bit further. “I think they lived only for pleasure,” he said of 18th-century French aristocrats. “They put all their attention into the art of living, the pursuit of perfection in your interiors and your environment. We don’t have time to do that. You know, we have forgotten how to sit down and take a beautiful porcelain cup. We are all into Starbucks, all busy, drinking café latte out of Styrofoam cup, as opposed to Biscuit Porcelain!”
At least these days, Mr. Talley said, the masses can experience good taste.
“I mean, it’s what turns you on,” he said. “Be it a porcelain cup, or a boiserie -paneled room, or be the minimalism of going to Crate & Barrel and getting lime-green dishes for your summer-porch terrace for lemonade! I love Bed Bath & Beyond. I go there all the time. You always have to keep a balance and keep a steady accord between over-the-top and the reality of the world we live in …. Don’t trip!” he called to a guest trying to step over a low-slung velvet rope.
The balance in the great room, of course, listed (perhaps a bit queasily) toward great wealth. Tickets to the dinner were priced at $3,500 apiece, with an after-party for plebeians for $250. “This is about as decadent as fashion gets,” said the designer Donna Karan.
But fame was an even more welcome currency, and at times the event seemed more like an exercise in sober product placement than anything else. It was telling, somehow, that the most Moses-parting-the-Red-Sea moment came when Apprentice star Donald Trump showed up (what could be more 18th-century voyeuristic than the rise of the reality show?); that Ms. Lopez paraded up the purple carpet not on the arm of her old-new boyfriend Marc Anthony, but flanked by the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana-priceless publicity for all parties concerned.
Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher on The Sopranos , had also been outfitted by Messrs. D and G., in a black pinstriped suit.
“They invited us, that’s why we’re here,” said Mr. Imperioli, who had his right arm wrapped tightly around his delighted-looking blond wife, Victoria, and his left hand clamped on a glass of water. “At first, I heard ‘Dolce & Gabbana want to invite you to a costume ball’ and I’m like, ‘Costume?’ I thought it was masks and stuff. Then I realized. I’ve heard about this party, obviously. I didn’t know it was gonna be that event.”
Bill Clinton’s old buddy Denise Rich was also wearing Dolce & Gabbana-hot pink. “I just bumped into them, and I think they were happy that I was wearing their dress,” she said of the designers. “I think this is an amazing event. That would be a lot of fun, to live in that era. I would’ve loved to have someone on a stepladder putting my hair up. I’m looking around tonight and I’m finding that people are rather understated, and I don’t think that’s as much fun.”
Flummoxed by the apparent period-costume mandate, many female attendees had simply thrown up their hands, like Ms. Von Furstenberg, and gone for simple sheaths, though the model Amber Valletta bravely sallied forth in full Madame du Pompadour mode.
Last year, then-Gucci designer Tom Ford was committee chair, and his late-1990’s ethos of raunch and sex had informed the entire wing-ding. This year, no one designer dominated (Mr. Ford was milling around, just another scruffy face from L.A.), and guests seemed reluctant to anoint an heir to the sartorial Zeitgeist . No, not even the knowing, ironic Marc Jacobs, who together with his muse, Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola, might be described as post-sex.
“It’s very different with Marc,” said the socialite and artist Ahn Duong, thoughtfully swishing her semi-translucent Christian Lacroix frock. “Marc is so laid-back.”
“There’s a lot of talk about Narciso [Rodriguez],” said Rory Tahari, the wife of Elie Tahari (both are designers), who was concealing her second pregnancy under a white mink poncho. “But you know fashion-it’s so fleeting! I think if I had to name somebody, I would say Narciso or Nicolas Ghesquière [of Balenciaga].”
(Both Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Rodriguez, by the way, showed up in sneakers.)
“I really like Tuleh a lot right now,” said the actress Eva Mendes, sipping a Scotch and water. “Stella McCartney-I mean, you can’t go wrong with Stella.” She accepted an olive from a passing tray. “Oh wow, these are amazing-thank you so much.” It was her first time at this occasion, and she was wearing a teal satin Zac Posen. “It’s just so easy and fun and sexy,” she said.
In fact, Mr. Posen was on many people’s lips, his slinky gowns gracing many starlets’ hips. Found in the flesh, the young designer showed off a toreador jacket he said was made by the French Army in North Africa. “That’s very nice,” he said of the accolades. “But I think we’re in a different era, and I don’t think it’s about dominating. Hold on one second …. Natalie !” he screeched, as the actress Natalie Portman walked in, looking like a little lost doe.
Mr. Posen disappeared for a few moments of kibitzing and then returned. “The 90’s were more about one’s wealth, and now it’s about one’s empowerment and self-expression,” he said, a faint sweat appearing on his upper lip, as his escort, Stella Schnabel (daughter of artist-director Julian), bobbled toward him. “It’s different. Women now want to be distinct. The 90’s was about … sex.”
And what is this era about?
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was stopped. Could he answer a question? “What do you think?” Mr. Seinfeld said, turning to his wife, Jessica Sklar.
Ms. Sklar wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
“No, thanks,” said Mr. Seinfeld, plowing on.
Trumpets were sounding dinner in the Charles Engelhard Court of the American Wing, which according to the mouthwatering press materials consisted of artichoke hearts with poached quail eggs and caviar, accompanied by an insouciant Chablis Premier Cru, Fourchaume, Domaine Boudin 2002, followed by a fillet of beef with Béarnaise sauce washed down by a commanding St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon 2000. For dessert: soufflés and Veuve Clicquot.
Society dame Carroll Petrie was one of the first to leave this feast. As a young blonde in a strapless black dress and mesh see-through skirt scampered past, her loose ringlets bobbing up and down, Ms. Petrie tightly gripped her date’s arm. In a pink Mary McFadden gown with a matching pink shawl, she slowly made her way down the steps to a waiting car.
Streaming up the steps were the many young New Yorkers who had come for the after-party in the Temple of Dendur, the more populist part of the evening, where the pop-funk-soul-rap band N.E.R.D. was scheduled to perform.
On line for the coat check, two girls in their twenties wearing bustiers and poofy skirts- more Victoria’s Secret meets Salvation Army than French Revolution- were sandwiched in between exiting older couples in muted silks. One of them, Lindsay Pauly, a business manager at Henri Bendel, had heard about the event through her boss, Tiffany Dubin, who was on the board of the museum.
“She’s a socialite, a vintage maven,” said Ms. Pauly proudly.. “She goes to this every year and we thought it would be fun to go to the after party since it’s not, like, $3,000 a ticket. We did the young working-girl version.”
This “‘young working girl version” had many incarnations, including a white lace belly skirt and blue heels even Orva wouldn’t stock. As socialites in long gowns and mink shawls waltzed outside after dinner for cigarette breaks or to their waiting Lincoln Town Cars, suburban moms in Dupioni “mom” suits looked them up and down admiringly.
A gaggle of female recent Princeton graduates in Betsey Johnson–esque black dresses was watching another Sopranos star, Jamie Lynn DiScala, and her manager husband wait for their car outside at the bottom of the stairs. Then, the inevitable … “I feel like I’m in Sex and the City! ” said one.
Mrs. DiScala was trying to avoid having her H for Hilfiger gold off-the-shoulder gown drenched by the rain. “J. Lo and my wife tied for best dressed,” Mr. DiScala said with what passes for gallantry these days.
As the limos pulled away, more and more taxis were puling up, and slowly thenight’s costly theme attire was yielding to cocktail tube dresses. But a drag queen named Chucky had gamely trotted out full Dangerous Liaisons attire, including a flowing sequined skirt and white wig. He stood with his friend Adrian Rodriguez, who had dressed as the Count of Monte Cristo, watching the fancy guests leaving the dinner. They said they were bridal directors at Elizabeth Arden.
“We’re all going later to the Red Door and having cake,” added Chucky, chuckling.
Inside the Temple of Dendur, the dance party was just warming up, with socialite Fabian Basabe surrounded by an entourage of lithe young boys in the entrance. The room itself was minimally decorated: a projected illusion of reflected water on the walls, and bright pink and blue lights over the temple itself. It might’ve been a bar mitzvah.
“The place used to be very decorated, more so than this,” said Alan Schoenfeld, a caterer who has attended the party every year for two decades, since he took his now-wife Deborah there on her first date. “This is very minimal, this is nothing .”
There were far more women wearing Asian inspired cheongsams than powdered wigs and boned bodices. “Obviously I am not going to go out and buy some elaborate thing for one night, but kudos to people who do ,” said a 30-year-old female banker who didn’t want her name used.
Back in the Great Hall, dance party guests were still hopefully monitoring the celebrity exodus. Dr. Lewis Feder, a Manhattan plastic surgeon with offices across the street, was there with his wife-both in black suits. “It’s sexy, people want to get dressed up and glamorous and want to be seen,” he said. “People don’t want to hear about all the problems in the world- they want a little excess.”
Nearby, a marriage and family therapist from Cold Spring Harbor named Diane Tiernan was standing with her teenage daughter, Paige, who was keeping a close lookout for the by-now long gone J. Lo and Renée.
Wearing a black strapless dress with a ribbon around her waist, young Paige breathed in the scene.
“It smells good,” she said.