“Oh, that’s a good shot,” said Marc Jacobs, the fashion designer, as Kate Moss, one of the world’s most famous models, wearing what was possibly the world’s shortest gold lamé toga and a matching twisted turban, posed for photographs on a staircase lined with zebra print carpet inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was noticeable change of social scenery, on Monday night, to see a fashion model (not, say, a routine celebrity) as the center of attention at the annual Costume Institute gala, generally considered the most glamorous, anticipated and expensive (with dinner seats starting at $7,500) event of the year. Ms. Moss, and about 96 of her colleagues, drew more attention than usual at the event, which typically focuses on the clothes and their designers, largely because this year’s theme and the title of a related fashion exhibition was “The Model as Muse.” It may have also been a factor that one in seven guests was well taller than 6 feet, beautiful and wearing an extremely short dress.
“Donatella!” hollered Gisele Bundchen when she spotted Donatella Versace, the designer of her blue sequined dress, which was roughly the size of a bandage. “It’s too long!”
“Models are not just faces and bodies,” Ms. Versace said. “They have brains.”
This has been a rough decade for models, with accusations that their industry has been encouraging unhealthy behavior by promoting a stick-thin figure and underrepresenting models of color. Beverly Johnson, the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue, in 1974, said the exhibition, which traces fashion history from Richard Avedon’s portraits of Dovima and Sunny Harnett in the 1950s through the supermodels of the 1980s, was a great acknowledgement of the contributions of models to fashion.
“This is long overdue,” Ms. Johnson said.
As the curators surely would concede, the exhibition could not quite visually express the significance, and sometimes insignificance, of the role that models have played in fashion in the same way that the party did. It was startling, and dwarfing, to walk through the galleries and bump into Brooke Shields, whose Calvin Klein jeans from the 1980s are in the exhibition, or Lauren Hutton, whose imperfect smile appears in Scavullo photographs along the walls, or Helena Christensen, now 40, wearing a Zac Posen minidress with the word “Vogue” pouring down from her cleavage.
“It’s so I can remember whose party I’m at,” Ms. Christensen said. (Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, organizes the event and was co-chairwoman of this year’s party with Mr. Jacobs, Ms. Moss and Justin Timberlake.)
Asked how she felt about being a museum-worthy muse, Ms. Moss shrugged and pulled a big piece of gum out of her mouth.
“I’m amused,” she said. “I think it’s quite interesting for somebody to go outside of the box and think that a model actually has had some input into fashion. A lot of the time, the models don’t really get a say.”
But in recent years, since the end of the era of supermodels more than a decade ago, designers have increasingly sought to cast their fashion shows with models with blank faces and indistinguishable features, partly because the supermodels were getting more attention than their clothes. Besides Ms. Bundchen, there has not been a new supermodel in years, let alone one whose name is easily recognizable. And that was intentional.
“It was hard to sort of overcome the bigness of some of those personalities, or to bring those personalities sort of down, you know?” Mr. Jacobs said. “Now fashion is about looking at the clothes and not the girls.”
It did not go unnoticed at the party that there was a supermodel revolt. On Monday afternoon, Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell announced they would not attend, following complaints from the Paris designer Azzedine Alaïa that his work was not included in the exhibition. Mr. Alaïa’s omission was indeed surprising, given his close relationship with the models throughout their careers.
Despite reports that the organizers had difficulty selling tickets to this year’s party — charging up to $250,000 for a prime table during a recession is ambitious — organizers said it was a sellout. Among the 650 or so guests was a meticulously calculated assortment of celebrities (Madonna and Anne Hathaway), designers (Carolina Herrera and John Galliano) and moguls, like Donald Trump, who is married to a model and also owns a modeling agency.
“It’s been a very good time for models,” Mr. Trump said. “Well, better than Wall Street.”Some even tried to crash. Russell Simmons, the hip-hop entrepreneur and part-time garmento, arrived shortly before 7 p.m. without an invitation, but was let inside for cocktails. “I was just arriving and realized my secretary had forgotten to R.S.V.P.,” he confessed. He promised to send a check.