Nightlife is dead, as is Anna Wintour’s venerated First Monday in May, also known as the Met Gala. Before the national shutdown, prospective attendees prepared their best attempts at not sticking to this year’s theme: Time itself, and something about Virginia Woolf. Historians and pop gossip archivists, however, looked forward not to the event itself, but what would be happening in its underbelly. In the recesses of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the most exclusive club in New York City history—the bathroom—the richest and most famous people in the world would be kicking off their shoes and lighting up some cigarettes.
Historically, the bathroom at the Met Gala has been described as cliquey, pretentious, social climb-y, desperate, crowded, and smoky. All are true, especially that last bit about the smoke. For years, clubgoers lucky enough to wield an exclusive invite were besieged by the Met’s donors and board, who desperately sought to stop the once-yearly revelries of cigarettes and god knows what else. Never mind that smoking was the accepted mode of partying for decades in NYC nightlife, until Mayor Bloomberg outlawed the practice of doing so indoors completely in 2003. Legend has it that the Met Gala Bathroom was, in fact, the last smoking-room club left standing in all of New York City.
Portraits of attendees smoking often captured the ephemeral nature of the club itself. Sometimes, the room was packed to bursting, while other times, select social circles would spread themselves out, snapping selfies and texting.
Like most other venerated depictions of NYC nightlife, scenes from inside the club speak to our all-consuming need for the warmth of interpersonal relationships, touch, and the sharing of gossip around a campfire. (Or, in this case, bright fluorescent light.) In these—as they’ve been called—“socially distanced times,” the Met Bathroom is a vital archive. It is also a space where the absurdist nature of modern celebrity is confronted with the base functions of the human body. Consider this archival footage of Katy Perry changing her outfit while Jennifer Lopez heads towards a private stall, where she was likely about to pee or shit.
But like this unending thirst for human interaction and community building (or a refuge for our bodies’ excremental cycle), the club also acted as an ivory tower, reminding us of the need to accumulate power, and exclusivity, and draw lines between ourselves. Invitees were exclusive denizens of the celebrity class, and its subservient lesser millionaires. Actors, fashion designers, rich wives of Wall Street goons. And, most importantly, The Kardashians.
As is often the case, the bathroom featured lots and lots and lots of pictures of the Kardashians.
Here’s one more angle, in case you needed it:
But the Queens of Calabasas weren’t the only Californians on the bathroom’s guest list. Hailey Bieber and her tightknit circle of influencers were often in attendance.
Reese Witherspoon and Eva Chen have both been invited, on occasion, as well as Diane Von Furstenburg’s Angels—Priyanka Chopra, Emrata, and Camila Coelho.
Emrata, quite frequently, was a staple in the club. Some attendees like Alexander Wang, Behati Prinsloo, and Maggie Gyllenhaal preferred the group photo, forgoing individual snaps. The ethos of the space, after all, was the communal scent of toilet bowls and cigarette smoke.
If it wasn’t already exceedingly clear, the bathroom was also a utopian vision of the future, one that still hasn’t come to fruition in most public restrooms. The club was genderless by design, allowing everyone to partake in the revelries of what was once a “women’s” restroom.
The frenetic energy captured in shots from the bathroom will live on, even as hordes of invitees dejectedly stare at their now-useless invitations to the Gala. Across the world, they are united in their remembrance of the most exclusive club in New York City. Nightlife might be dead for now, but it will return. The only thing more powerful than death, after all, is our need to party in the face of it.