Anna Wintour is still queen of fashion, but glitz won’t reign at her Met gala | Anna Wintour

What to wear to a party vexes the best of us, but when it’s the Met Gala, the high-profile fashion-world event at which celebrities compete to wear the most extravagant and lavish outfit, the style stakes are somewhat higher.

Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turned up at the annual ball in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last year in a dress emblazoned with “Tax the Rich”. The effect of her provocation, disparaged as too jarring for such a glittering display, may still be felt at the fundraiser on Monday hosted by Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.

Guests have been asked to “embody the grandeur – and perhaps the dichotomy – of gilded age New York” and directed to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: “Everything about her shimmered and glimmered softly, as if her dress had been woven out of candle-beams, and she carried her head high, like a pretty woman challenging a roomful of rivals.”

But it’s likely that the politically or sartorially astute will avoid ostentatious displays of wealth. For every family that lived like the Astors, thousands “sent their nine-year-olds off to factories from squalid tenements”, the New York Times said on Friday.

Which to chose? Katy Perry says she’s not coming back as a chandelier or a hamburger. Designer Tom Ford has lamented the party’s drift towards fancy dress.

Showing off the skill of les petites mains (little hands), the craftspeople who execute couture designs, might be more appropriate.

The New York fashion business is debating employees’ demands for union recognition and better pay and conditions.

Vogue publisher Condé Nast has been sent a letter from 350 staff asking it to recognise their union, protesting that “prestige doesn’t pay the bills”. The company said it planned “to have productive and thoughtful conversations with [staff].”

A bill that seeks to create “financial transparency and accountability at management companies that represent models and creative artists in New York” is meanwhile working its way through the state’s legislature, backed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Karen Elson, Mancunian model and rock wife turned labour activist with The Model Alliance, said recently: “The biggest misconception about modelling is the money. Most working models are barely getting by.”

The group plans to protest in New York on Sunday. And on Monday comes the publication of Anna, a biography of Wintour by former New York magazine writer Amy Odell. Odell, who spent more than three years on the book, said: “It was an opportunity to talk about her power, how she became so powerful, and how she held on to her power. She’ll have been at Vogue 34 years this summer and that’s wild, especially in media. For someone so public, she’s really a mysterious figure whose been the subject of so much gossip.”

In 2020 the now 72-year-old editor was elevated by the corporation to become, in effect, queen of all Vogues and glossy titles bar the New Yorker. “She’s an intimidating figure, that’s no secret, but that’s what makes her so intriguing,” said Odell.

But the force field around her, Odell learned, was largely a function of her retinue. Wintour is known for acts of kindness – delivering fashion editor Isabella Blow the largest bottle of Fracas perfume anyone had seen when she was unwell, for instance – but her reputed likes and dislikes (no black to be worn in the office) may actually have passed down as lore from generation to generation of assistants without anyone knowing if it is even true.

Odell said: “There’s a lot of that around Anna, and I want people to come away from the book asking ‘why is she powerful?’ Is it just a contract?”

In the book, New York designer Aurora James, who dressed Ocasio-Cortez, said plenty of designers had succeeded without Wintour’s support, just as plenty have failed with it. “What is this power, and could we all just opt out of it?” Odell asks.

The answer, of course, may come down to clothes. Relatively few are worth photographing, and competition for them is, as Odell writes, fierce. Senior editors hoard them, creating the atmosphere, says fashion editor Grace Coddington in the book, of “a girls’ boarding school – with its sulky outbursts, tears and schoolgirlish tantrums”.

Or as the late fashion writer André Leon Talley tactfully put it, Anna “surrounded herself with strong independent thinkers which could sometimes lead to differences of opinion”.

In that environment, a bright cloak of mythology is an essential part of the psychic wardrobe. “Anna was kind of cool, could cut through the bullshit, make a decision and then they’d listen to her,” said Odell. “She somehow had the right personality for that job and managing that process.”