Inside the sold-out Costume Institute gala.

Met Life

André Leon Talley was whomping on a tambourine in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Court as Harlem’s Memorial Baptist Church choir energetically sang a gospel song that asked repeatedly, “Can I Get a Witness?” The rapturous look on the Vogue magazine contributing editor’s face suggested that any minute now, he was about to repent all of his sins. Next to him, Cher, in her black rubber Morticia Addams-style dress, stood in stark contrast to the choral group’s bright white vestments. She smiled and swayed to the music and the rhythmic popping of flashbulbs.

As the celebrity-assisted choir sang and stomped to its music, a crowd of V.I.P.’s filed past on its way to the seats for the gala dinner celebrating the opening of the Costume Institute’s Gianni Versace exhibit. Some, such as actor Rupert Everett, stopped to join the raucous tableau. Model Claudia Schiffer and magician David Copperfield seemed to be lured there by the lightning of the flash strobes. And photographer Richard Avedon offered his own contribution to the performance, a Chuck Berry-esque duckwalk past Cher and Mr. Talley, who was decked out in a gray quilted tuxedo jacket (with tails), glittering with several medal-like brooches.

Once he had put down his tambourine, Mr. Talley told The Transom that it was the idea of his boss, Anna Wintour-the Vogue editor who, along with Fairchild Publications chairman Patrick McCarthy and socialite Julia Koch, co-chaired the dinner-to infuse the evening with a little gospel. This, he said, was in tune with Versace’s talent for fusing “today’s popular culture and today’s global society.” Indeed, in choosing to embrace the globally recognized celebrities of the rock and film worlds, rather than the insular society mavens traditionally favored by other couturiers, Versace grasped early in his career the idea that a new social order, one based on fame and merit rather than on privilege and station, was in the making. On this evening designed to honor his memory, the composition of the crowd at the museum suggested that the social metamorphosis was all but complete. The transformation has not occurred without friction. For those members of the old guard who attended the Dec. 8 ball, it must have been quite a shock to watch the Met’s erudite longtime director, Philippe de Montebello, take the stage to introduce the streetwise longtime pop star Madonna (who then introduced Versace’s sister and successor, Donatella Versace). As it was, the Versace exhibit was a last-minute theme, relatively speaking. (Before the designer’s murder, Costume Institute members had been thinking more in revival terms.) For at least one person, the shock may have been too much to bear. Costume Institute sources told The Transom that when the gala was still in the planning stages and Madonna was scheduled to perform, Jayne Wrightsman, who is a member of the Met’s board of directors and was also on this year’s Costume Institute event committee, protested any performance by the Material Girl. There were even rumors that she threatened to resign from the board. Ms. Wrightsman could not be reached for comment, but several people who knew of her sentiments said she felt that the Metropolitan Museum would “never be the same again” if Madonna performed.

Asked if Ms. Wrightsman had voiced any objections to Madonna or the Versace exhibit, Harold Holzer, vice president of communications for the Met, said “not to my knowledge, and certainly not at any meeting of the board of trustees.” Besides, Mr. Holzer said, given that Madonna has lent artworks to the museum in the past, he doubted that anyone affiliated with the museum “would have reacted badly to her.” “She has a long-term relationship with the museum,” he said. “I would suspect, if anything, that Madonna is a part of the museum family.”

Ms. Wrightsman did not attend the Costume Institute ball because, according to her secretary Adelaide Sharry, the socialite had a dinner engagement with friends from out of town. She also said that Ms. Wrightsman was a “big supporter” of the Costume Institute. She nevertheless hails from a much older part of the museum’s “family” tree. Ms. Wrightsman remains a force among New York society’s old guard. She and her husband Charles Wrightsman founded the Metropolitan’s Wrightsman Gallery of French furniture and artwork, and in the 1960’s and 1970’s, they bankrolled a five-volume catalogue of the collection that is said to be the first scholarly approach to French furniture. Ms. Wrightsman is also seen as a gatekeeper at 820 Fifth Avenue, one of the most coveted co-op addresses for socialites.

Madonna, on the other hand, remains a powerful and surprisingly enduring figure (in a largely disposable culture) of the new order. She is globally famous and has built a fortune in music and film (she even has her own label, Maverick Records). And in 1992, she published Sex , a single volume of photographs depicting her in various erotic situations that is said to be the first time an international celebrity had pushed the cultural envelope so far.

Madonna did not end up performing at the Costume Institute gala, but it was not because Ms. Wrightsman had triumphed. No, Madonna had one of those scheduling problems that plague the meritocracy. Reportedly, her new album was delayed and, because she had no album to promote, she decided against performing.

The chasm between the old and new orders was no more evident than when The Transom asked Madonna if the story about Ms. Wrightsman was true. “I don’t even know who Jayne Wrightsman is,” she said. “So I don’t know.”

Had Ms. Wrightsman showed, she might not have even noticed Cher, despite the actress’ latex evening wear. There was plenty of star power in the crowd, but the celebrities in attendance seemed to have dimmed their lights in deference to the slain designer. As the crowd during the cocktail hour wondered whether the decision to serve only sweetened almonds and endive leaves for hors d’oeuvres was some sort of esthetic decision, Sandra Bullock could be seen slicing through the room practically unnoticed. And later, as the guests filed past the gospel choir, both Gwyneth Paltrow and Elizabeth Hurley seemed practically transparent as they made their separate ways to their seats. “I thought it was going to be more glittery, more show-bizzy,” said Versace friend and New York magazine food critic Hal Rubenstein. “I did see lots of stars and stuff, but there was something subdued about it.… There was an air of melancholy. You couldn’t get away from it.” Some celebrities were invisible-as in, they didn’t show-including, most notably, Courtney Love, who just shot a Versace ad campaign. (A Versace spokesman said she was on the West Coast recording an album, although there have been rumors that she and Ms. Versace have clashed and that Ms. Love felt the spotlight for the evening was trained too much on Madonna. Naomi Campbell was also not present.)

For some, that melancholy deepened when it became apparent that the Versace garments displayed behind the Costume Institute’s glass cases-beneath such Gianni-isms as “Always Shine” and “Contradict Yourself”-were not that much older than the Versace outfits that many of the crowd wore in homage to the late designer. Indeed, Veronica Hearst seemed to be wearing the exact same silvery-gray creation from Versace’s last couture season that was displayed on one of the mannequins. Costume Institute curator Richard Martin noted that, unlike previous exhibitions, “which have a built-in sense of distant memory,” the Versace exhibit consists of many recent gowns, such as the safety-pin dress that Elizabeth Hurley once wore.

“You would see one dress and remember when it came down the runway. You would see another one and remember sitting next to Naomi [Campbell] when she was wearing it. You would say, ‘These are my clothes. What are they doing in a museum?'” said Mr. Rubenstein, who added: “It was kind of eerie.”

If there was a group that did bring some energy to the event, it was the fashion V.I.P.’s. Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld came bearing a walking stick with an ornate silver top that screwed off to reveal a daggerlike end. Mr. Lagerfeld, who designed with fur even as it became politically incorrect, told The Transom that his weapon was for “those P.E.T.A. [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] people” should the organization stage a sneak attack on the event. (Indeed, the event’s organizers were apparently so worried that the committee chairs and many of the designers were assigned security guards for the evening.) Dior designer John Galliano wore an exaggerated hat and suit that made him look like a gangster from a 1930’s Looney Tunes cartoon. Both model Iman and Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman wore tiaras. And the gaze of model Kate Moss said trouble ahead. The best possible kind of trouble.

Despite its wistful moments, Mr. Rubenstein noted that the Costume Institute gala was, after all, “still a business event.” Fashion, by its nature, must keep moving, and it was Madonna who, in her remarks, made it clear that the house of Versace was carrying on. “It’s no secret that Donatella is more than a muse,” said the Material Girl. “She is a force to be reckoned with.” The pop singer went on to talk about the diamonds that Ms. Versace occasionally forced on her, and said she knew “what only a handful of people know”: that “to be loved by” Ms. Versace is “to feel like a queen.” Madonna then added, for Mr. Everett’s benefit: “Shut up, Rupert.”

Both Ms. Versace and her brother Santo Versace soft-pedaled a similar message to a gathering of business journalists who had been invited to the Versace family town house on East 64th Street on Dec. 4 for a dinner of pasta dusted with caviar, salmon and an eyeful of the décor. After dinner, a nervous-looking Ms. Versace made a brief speech to the very off-the-rack business press corps and wished the assembled a merry Christmas. Later, over coffee and dessert, Mr. Versace met with small groups of the reporters to say that while the company had postponed its scheduled public offering, it was still planning one in the future.

At the Costume Institute dinner, Ms. Versace told the crowd that it was her brother’s dream to have an exhibition at the Met. She got a good laugh when she mimicked her brother telling her: “The only problem, darling, is that you cannot show here.”

“Please think of this not as a retrospective, but as a celebration of his life,” said Ms. Versace.

Next up was Sting, whose brief set included that Frank Sinatra chestnut, “My One and Only Love.” Later in the evening when Sting had returned to his table, The Transom asked him about a story in that day’s New York Post that had him angry over being third choice to perform. “It was obviously a slow news day,” said the performer, who added that the story was untrue. “That cliché about artists being egomaniacs is obviously bullshit,” he said. “Elton is my best friend.”

As dessert arrived, the crowd began to table-hop and gawk, with much of the attention centering around the table where Madonna, Mr. Everett, Jon Bon Jovi and Kate Moss sat. For a moment, Ms. Moss had Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis in her lap. At one point during the evening, Ms. Tilberis’ husband, Andrew Tilberis, could be heard saying, “Anything could happen in this crowd.”

It was Ms. Moss who led Donatella Versace through the dining room with Santo Versace, the model Stella Tennant, Mr. Everett and Marianne Faithfull in tow. By then, the evening’s after-party had begun, and the drum-and-bass music that was being played in the museum’s lobby and in the Temple of Dendur (where a laser light show was projected on the ancient stones) reverberated among the sarcophagi and the medieval suits of armor. But instead of heading down the grand staircase and into the crowd of aspiring designers and socialites that waited some 20 deep to eyeball the celebrity element, the Versaces and a small entourage headed toward a freight elevator that would take them directly to their cars. The next day, after all, was a workday. One person who descended the staircase asked a woman in the crowd why everyone was waiting so patiently. To see celebrities, came the response. Well, explained the person, the Versaces had left via another exit. “Yeah,” replied the woman, “but what about Madonna?”

Inside the sold-out Costume Institute gala.