The gowns are as eleganT as ever, buT Is IT TIme To say bye-bye To The black-TIe charITy ball?
The gowns are as elegant as ever (see: Hilary Rhoda), but is it time to say bye-bye to the black-tie charity ball?
Taxes. Private school tuition. Mobile car detailing services. Add to the list of realities that people in particular zip codes and income brackets in major metropolitan centers cannot avoid: galas.
Like allergies, galas are seasonal. They emerge with the forsythia, ebb a bit in summer, and hit hard again in the fall. And there is no cure. No matter how much they complain about spending X nights out in a single week, lament that multiple committee obligations are killing them, or bemoan the number of friends they’re obliged to cajole into buying tables—and buy tables from, in a bizarre twist on what evolutionary biologists call “reciprocal altruism”—the philanthropists keep doing it.
“Plenty of people who aren’t religious still go to church or celebrate the high holy days,” Richard Kirshenbaum, the author of Isn’t
That Rich: Life Among the 1%, explained when I called him to get to the bottom of our refusal to let galas go.
Like religious rites, galas have a formula, after all. Honorees are chosen for their ability to pony up—and to fill a room with the usual list of conspecifics: friends, colleagues, the envious, and the curious. They hope to do business or cement a connection by supporting the honoree’s cause. Or they just aim to climb the town’s social hierarchy while doing good, logging one step at a time on their Philanthropic Phitbits (when such a thing is invented, I call dibs on the IP).
If luncheons are still for ladies only, galas make an effort to include guys. And for good reason: Much of the time, if observation serves, it is he who holds the auction paddle like a swinging dick, declaring that, yes, he can afford to overbid on this fractional jet share or bottle of Screaming Eagle. Such OTT is never de trop. While it’s a way to keep galas fresh and fight back against formula fatigue, raising the stakes can be desensitizing. “Rihanna performed at the last Robin Hood, so I figured Beyoncé was going to be telling all the hedgies to get in formation this year,” one wag observed when I asked for her seasoned thoughts.
Why do we still do it? In an age when we can raise millions via the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and GoFundMe and Kickstarter, when we don’t feel it’s real if we’re not Instagramming it, maybe showing up feels somehow retro, tangible, genuine.
And there’s precedent. More than three decades ago Felix Rohatyn spoke out against the philanthropic potlatch paradigm in a speech at the City Club, saying that “it is increasingly difficult to find money for less glamorous needs.” Why not write a check to the charity of one’s choice, skipping all the expenditure of energy and endless favorite-playing, he suggested. His event-hopping peers were not amused. Rohatyn and wife Elizabeth learned that rebuking New York’s hallowed social practices could get you hissed out of Doubles. Elizabeth resigned from a fundraising post at Sloan-Kettering because she became, in her words, “controversial.” Ahead of his time, Rohatyn had to do three backpedaling interviews with the New York
Times to acknowledge the fissure—or risk social death. Galas are an entrenched cultural practice, but they have had to make concessions in the age of Snapchat. Technology is now part of the evening—from iPads on tables to texting during tributes. (“There’s less shushing when honorees talk because attendees are glued to their phones,” one gala planner told me, in a resigned tone.)
One titan of finance confided, “No one really wants to attend a gala. Even less if I have to change into a tuxedo—not for attribution!” he said, proving that dress codes have relaxed but adherence to strict social codes—criticize them at your peril—has not.
As we repair to our summer habitats, event standards are relaxed. “Is it sit-down?” I asked a friend about a charity-inflected event last month. “God, no. I wouldn’t do that to you,” she said in mock horror. At least not until the fall.