On the first Monday of May each year, the steps to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) transform into an elaborate red carpet for one of the most exclusive galas in the world. The annual gala marks the opening of the new fashion exhibition and raises money to support the Costume Institute. 2024’s exhibition celebrates “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion”. This year’s exhibition reawakens archival fashion, bringing celebrated garments back to public view, but also highlights the change in fabric and garment construction. Each year, the Met leads conversations on sustainable fashion, how consumption and public spending have evolved, and future developments in clothing.

Met Gala’s Sleeping beauties sustainable fashion theme

The title of this year’s exhibition is Sleeping Beauties — a nod to once dormant, beautiful, archival fashion, now returning to public view. It also has a second meaning. Some of the clothes featured in the exhibit are physically on display lying down, including jackets from Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent. Many of these older works of fashion are fragile and cannot be hung on mannequins because the delicate fabric will droop and fall. Couture fashion plays with shape and construction, therefore some pieces will be distorted if gravity pulls on them for an extended period.

A Lanvin dress, too fragile to hang in the Met until September for fear of fabric distortion, is just one example of how fabrics have changed over the years. Many of the looks from the 2024 Met Gala drew inspiration from fashion house archives. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2023, Hollywood actress Natalie Portman wore a recreation of the iconic Dior Junon dress from 1949. The original dress is too delicate to be worn — the recreation in design is the same, with the bejewelled and ombre petals. However, the silk is different, the cut is not the same, and there are fewer sequin embellishments.

Similarly, articles have already been written on how high street clothes are seemingly not as well made anymore. Consumerism has led to the growth of fast fashion with microtrends dominating and fashion cycles seemingly lasting mere weeks. As well, there are more rigorous quality control measures, and many companies use sustainable and traceable materials.

Consumerism versus regeneration

There is a sense of irony with this year’s Met Gala. The red-carpet theme had attendees dress for ‘The Garden of Time’, turning to nature to find inspiration. But despite the themes of archival fashion and nature, the majority of attendees have opted for new custom-made garments that will in all likelihood never be worn again. Ultimately, very few attendees wore archival fashion, a choice that would mean a new garment didn’t need to be produced and one that would give an older garment a new lease on life.

That said, there are some sustainable highlights from this year’s gala. Stella McCartney is a designer leading the way in sustainable high-end fashion. This year she dressed singer and actor FKA Twiggs in a garment adorned with lab-grown diamonds and used sustainably sourced wool. Elsewhere, musician Charlie XCX’s dress was made of worn-out vintage t-shirts, and actor Demi Moore wore a gown fashioned from vintage wallpaper.

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Like some of the garments worn on the red carpet, innovative and sustainable materials are being developed. Regenerative wool is being developed in New Zealand. On these farms, the sheep producing wool are raised on land that is managed according to the principles of regenerative agriculture — like rewilding, restorative biodiversity, and minimal intervention — which all help to restore the soil. Similar regenerative fashion concepts can be found on cotton fields in Türkiye and sheep farms in Argentina. Innovations and developments in fashion are aiming to make the industry more sustainable, as consumer trends push for quick turnovers.

The Met Gala has opportunities to highlight and celebrate vintage, archival, and quality garments but falls short of the mark.

However, innovations in fashion, some on display at the 2024 gala, do show signs of promise for reducing the industry’s impact on the environment.