LOS ANGELES: It could have gone any way last night, considering the theme of the Costume Institute exhibition: “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity.” There could have been neo-jazz babies, flappers, debutantes, feminists, disco queens, Hollywood sirens, Nouvelle Society matrons and Playboy bunnies.
And that’s just a few archetypes off the top of a stack. But most of the women attending the gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among the 725 guests, dressed elegantly, more so than in recent years, and they did their best to heed Anna Wintour’s e-mail messages to be on time.
At 6:30 p.m., Ms. Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, was waiting at the top of the red-carpeted grand staircase, a tiny figure in a gold Chanel dress and jacket. If the gala’s other leaders, Oprah Winfrey and Patrick Robinson, the executive vice president of design for Gap, had ascended the front steps, they still had a climb before they reached Ms. Wintour and the receiving line.
Asked if she felt any pressure to wear clothes by American designers, Ms. Wintour smiled and said, “Well, if you see the exhibition, they’re all wearing French clothes.” Ms. Winfrey wore a design of Oscar de la Renta, who had invited Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Barbara Walters, among others, to sit at his table.
In recent years, the themes of the Costume Institute exhibits have included “Anglomania,” superheroes and models. That at least provided some direction for how to dress for the party, where this year the top table price was $250,000 and Lady Gaga sang after the dinner. But this year’s exhibition, organized by the curator Andrew Bolton, looked at styles between 1890 and the 1940s, relying on exceptional pieces from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection like Worth gowns, gray walking suits and bicycling outfits.
It’s a serene view of American style, set against murals, and it was almost shocking to see how tiny the figures were, with tiny waists and tiny feet.
Naturally, everyone had her own idea of what defined American style.
“I think it’s confidence,” said Vera Wang, in a long white dress, as she talked to members of the Newhouse family and then Wendy Murdoch, who wore a fitted green silk dress with a long black train. Its designer, Prabal Gurung, was new to her. She said that Ms. Wintour had recommended him.
A few feet away, and trying to avoid the train of Mrs. Murdoch’s dress, were Nicole Richie, in a silvery Marc Jacobs dress, and Margherita Missoni, in a long black dress that sort of left her bare on the sides. “It’s my idea of grunge,” Ms. Missoni said. “I want to bring back the ’90s.” Ms. Ritchie said she wanted to dress up more these days. “I actually wear long dresses a lot,” she said.
Across the Petrie Sculpture Court, where cocktails were held, Lauren Santo Domingo was channeling the ’90s as well. “Tom Ford,” she said, mentioning a designer whose name seemed to be on a number of people’s lips. Ms. Santo Domingo’s long beige beaded dress was actually a Proenza Schouler. She was standing with Chloë Sevigny, who had on a bright turquoise Proenza dress with a short belled skirt.
“I couldn’t pull off your dress,” Ms. Sevigny said to Ms. Santo Domingo, “and you couldn’t pull off mine.” They seemed agreed about that.
Christopher Bailey, the Burberry designer, had his idea about American style: “It’s easy, functional, comfortable with an earthy sexiness. I still think of Lauren Hutton as the epitome of that style.”
Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, had on a beige silk satin Valentino dress (“From way, way back,” she said, waving her hand), and she stood surveying the jam-packed, train-tripping room with Donatella Versace.
“To me, American fashion is Charlie James,” Ms. Sozzani said.
Ah, Charlie. Someone was summoning him, too. Dr. Lisa Airan, the Manhattan dermatologist, had wanted to wear a real James dress to the party, but her friend, the designer Gilles Mendel, had told her that wasn’t such a great idea. So she went to the Met library, did some research, and asked Mr. Mendel to make her dress in the James spirit.