The Met Gala is something like Super Bowl Sunday meets the world’s most major award show for the fashion-focused set. Since commencing in 1948 (though you’d be hard-pressed to find anything from that era resembling the Met Gala of today), the industry’s biggest names and most charitable patrons make their annual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in, celebrate, and raise money for the museum’s newest Costume Institute exhibit. In the past eight years or so, though, the event has morphed into arguably the biggest fashion event of the year — and the best Met Gala beauty looks also happen to be some of the greatest hair, makeup, and nail moments of all time.
You can track the shift easily by sifting through the well-kept photo archives: around 2013, Met Gala attendees began turning up in what are essentially designer costumes of their own, over-the-top and painstakingly planned with teams of creative directors and stylists. Prior to that, whatever theme was on for the year was acknowledged much more subtly — if at all. As a result, a trip back through the Met Galas of yesteryear is full of both decade-defining beauty, classically pretty looks, and the show-stopping masterpieces everyone’s accustomed to today. To celebrate all three genres, take a look back at some of the best and most iconic Met Gala beauty moments of all time.
Take time to consider the greatest looks of all time (both fashion and beauty) from any annual award show, event, or performance, and there’s about a 99% chance Cher makes the cut. For her appearance at the Gala in 1985, with designer and friend Bob Mackie in tow, the legendary singer’s makeup was delightfully ‘80s — the blue shadow and frosty rose-pink lipstick in particular.
Everything about Iman’s appearance at the 2003 ball (on the arm of her beloved husband, the late David Bowie) embodies the type of glamour for which the supermodel is famous: pure, unadulterated elegance. Her ‘20s-style finger waves call to mind silver screen starlets of yesteryear, underscored by her skinny brows. Meanwhile, the warm brown lipstick and nude smoky eye are totally reflective of the early aughts.
Kim Kardashian, 2019
It’s wild to think that Kim Kardashian’s appearance on the Met Gala red carpet was once anything other than de rigueur. Any lingering critics in 2019 were immediately silenced, though, when Kardashian turned up in a hyperreal, totally post-modern ensemble perfect for the camp theme: a Thierry Mugler dress designed to look dripping wet with hundreds of well-placed crystals, cinched impossible tight on purpose. To match, Kardashian’s hair was styled into a wet-looking wave, officially kicking off the wet look trend still seen at award shows and at events today.
Princess Diana, 1996
It was the late Princess Diana’s one and only Met Gala appearance, but — surprisingly — she made quite the splash. Her signature sapphire color showed up in both her slip gown and decadent jewels while her famous blonde coiff and colorful makeup are both classic Diana calling cards and the perfect encapsulation of mid-’90s beauty aesthetics.
A trawl back through the archives makes it explicitly clear: Rihanna has never — not once — missed on the Met Gala carpet. Her costumes, always perfectly on-theme without looking too on the nose, are rivaled only by the corresponding beauty looks she’s served up. While there are many iconic Rihanna Met Gala beauty moments (do yourself a favor and look at this shot of her long red braid back in 2011), there’s one clear winner: her all-over blush moment with an architectural top knot from 2014’s ball showcasing the work of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo.
Lady Gaga, 2019
She was a celebrity co-chair for the most recent Met Gala, but even if she weren’t — the theme, Camp: Notes On Fashion, was made for Lady Gaga. It’s no surprise then that the multitalented star turned up in a very theme-appropriate series of costume changes complete with a bow-adorned platinum bob (a tiny homage to her career’s early years) and eyelashes so long and sharp, they should be registered as weapons. Now that’s Camp!
Considering the downright indelible mark she’s already left on modern fashion, it’s still mindblowing to remember Zendaya just turned 25. Her appearance at the Met’s Heavenly Bodies-themed gala, built around Catholic iconography, cemented her status as an icon when she turned up as Joan of Arc herself with a historically accurate red wig and glistening chainmail.
Janet Jackson, 2008
The world owes a lot to Janet Jackson in general, and a fine place to start would be her undeniably influential beauty moments. For the 2008 Met Gala, the “Together Again” singer opted for a sleek, straightened version of her go-to ponytail paired with peachy-brown lips, a bronzed cat eye, and a warm wash of blush across her legendary cheekbones. It’s red carpet beauty at its very best: refined, elegant, and impossibly glamorous without feeling too out-of-touch at all.
A lip-first makeup look from Beyoncé is always cause for fanfare, but her deep oxblood stain at the 2014 event looks like it was made just for her. With a super-sleek side part and a gown-matching fishnet veil to add even more intrigue and drama, it’s at once simple and utterly statement-making. The look is only rivaled by Bey’s mile-long ponytail the following year, but this standout lip color and the star’s utterly serene energy make this one win by a hair’s breadth.
Elle Fanning, 2019
Put Malibu Barbie, I Dream of Genie, and a 2005-era Juicy Couture charm bracelet in the world’s chicest blender (it’d be a Vitamix, right?) and the result would be Elle Fanning’s celebrated look for the Camp-themed Met Gala and one seriously glorious set of nails. Each peach-pink nail is host to a tiny, colorful nail charm depicting things like fries, bagels, and toothpaste. Crucially, Fanning’s thumbs are left dangle-free — the girl’s gotta text, you know.