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The legendarily haughty editor of US Vogue has transformed the annual Costume Institute Gala during her years at the helm of the event. What was once just another fund-raiser for Manhattan socialites is now the most watched event in the global fashion calendar, where designers fight to dress the celebrities du jour in the ultimate in product placement for their $250 billion industry.

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The dress code selected this year by Wintour is "White Tie and Decorations" - ball gowns and gloves for the ladies; top hats and tails for the gentlemen, plus medals and awards (ie the decorations). This classic aesthetic - an about-turn from last year's punk theme - is a tribute to Charles James, an Anglo-American often described as the first US couturier, and the subject of the annual institute exhibition.

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The Berkshire-born son of a British Army officer and a wealthy Chicagoan was dispatched to Illinois by his family in his late teens after being expelled from Harrow for a "sexual escapade". He set up a millinery business in 1926 before moving into dress design, where he made his name with "architectural" sculpted ball gowns - near-weightless despite their voluminous look - that were beloved of mid-century society figures such as Millicent Rogers and Gloria Vanderbilt.

Wintour, another British transplant to New York, will be honoured earlier in the day. The revamped Costume Institute will be reopened as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, in the typically ostentatious style of US philanthropy, in honour of her fund-raising for the institute - $125 million in 15 years as a trustee, including $40 million to pay for the new look.

Wintour has also landed an impressive ribbon-cutter and speaker for the event - Michelle Obama. What the First Lady will wear for the occasion is, of course, the subject of febrile speculation. She is not expected to stay for the main event - the evening ball - as the security required would be a logistical nightmare.

The gala this year is chaired by Aerin Lauder, granddaughter of the cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder and proprietor of her own "lifestyle brand". Co-chairs include the actors Bradley Cooper and Sarah Jessica Parker, the designer Oscar de la Renta, and Wintour. But in moulding the night, from invitation list to dress code, this is one woman's party.

"The level of control is amazing," a source told the Hollywood Reporter. "The invasion of Baghdad was nothing compared to this. If Michael Kors is coming, Anna is deciding which celebrity will wear Michael Kors and which Michael Kors outfit the celebrity will wear." Word is that Lupita Nyong'o and Michelle Dockery will be wearing Prada; Amanda Seyfried will opt for Givenchy; while Taylor Swift will go for J Mendel.

Last year's show on the impact of punk on fashion garnered a lukewarm reception, and the gala pleased neither punk sartorial aficionados - they found it too wimpy - nor the fashion crowd.

This year's attendees will be aiming for a vintage look in honour of James. For women, that will mean classic gowns with bustling skirts and full bosoms, nipped at the waist. Elegant gloves will feature, with French house Perrin Paris reported to be providing the finger cover.