Something that always strikes me as ironic about fashion movies is that we are always advised that fashion is art, while at the same time we are reminded that fashion is commerce. Not that the two cannot peacefully co-exist, as we are also told in The First Monday in May. That’s just the first of many fashion truisms that the viewer is exposed to in this 2016 documentary on the annual Met Gala which is a fund-raiser for the Costume Institute.
I had not been anxious to watch this one, as my interest in galas and celebrities is so low, but throw in the Costume Institute and the availability of the film on Netflix and I decided it was worth a try. As it turns out, I’ve watched it twice, not because it is so good, but because of what it reveals about the relationship between Vogue and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and the Costume Institute and curator Andrew Bolton.
First of all, I’m glad that Wintour has been so effective at raising money for the Costume Institute. In 2015 alone, $12.5 million was raised. It’s obvious that she is an excellent manager, and her brusqueness seems to me to be a characteristic of a person who just wants to get things done. In the film there was a not so sly segue from Anna May Wong as the Dragon Lady, to Wintour. Can’t we just get past the fact that here is a woman who has a lot to do and who can’t spend her time pussyfooting around feelings?
Apparently not, and it seems a bit odd seeing how The First Monday in May was co-produced by the director of special events at Vogue, Sylvana Ward Durrett. It seems very unlikely that a woman who worked so closely with Wintour would portray her in any light other than the one Wintour wanted. In fact, knowing of Durrett’s involvement in the film puts a whole other light on it. She also is a major player in the movie, as the planner of the gala.
But what I found to be most interesting was how much input Wintour had on the exhibition itself. In the photo above, (taken from the press kit on The First Monday in May website) you see Wintour looking over the projected exhibition. Months before the opening, Bolton is seen showing Wintour a montage of photos of the clothing that was to be included in the show. She is shown giving approval (or not) at every step of the process.
As Wintour herself explained it, “Andrew is a real visionary and our job is to help him execute his creative genius.” She did not make clear exactly who she meant went using the pronoun “our.”
I’ve always suspected that Wintour has a lot of influence in the Costume Institute shows. It’s always been a bit puzzling as why, when the Institute has one of the best collections of historical clothing in the world, that so many of the more recent shows rely on clothing from the 21st century, much of which is borrowed from the design houses. Putting so much focus on recent clothing would certainly help boost the current fashion industry, something that is also the mission of Vogue.
The exhibition in 2015 was China Through the Looking Glass, about how designers have used the historical view of China as an influence. Heavily represented were Alexander McQueen, John Galliano for Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and John Paul Gaultier. Less represented were historical artifacts from the Met’s own collection, though I did see a 1920s Lanvin and a group of Poiret dresses, a 1920s embroidered shawl, and two dresses from the 1950s. I’m sure there were more (I did not see this show in person) but considering there were around 150 garments in the show, the few I spotted are definitely in the minority.
It just seems like so much of the permanent holdings of the Costume Institute never sees the light of day. Considering how Chinese culture has been an influence on Western fashion for centuries, I feel quite certain in saying that this exhibition could have pulled almost entirely from the Met’s own collection. But then without all the current designer’s work being represented in the exhibition, how could one get them to the gala, and especially how could they get them to pay for one of the sponsor tables?
It all seems so cozy, with the designers and their muses touring the exhibition, looking for their own work.
The film shows the large banquet, where designers, sponsors and celebrities seem to just fall into place. That’s because the seating was not just carefully arranged, but agonized over. For weeks the seating chart was arranged and rearranged. To me, this was the most cringe-inducing part of the entire movie, with Durrett explaining to Wintour, “These are people I’m hoping will just go away,” and Wintour referring to seating “…somebody better here…” In the end, actress Chloe Sevigny was a big loser, being seated at a “bad table.” The look on her face when she realized she had been exiled to Siberia was made even sadder when she said, “I’m going to be all by my lonesome just like in high school.”
While so much of the movie is about the planning of the gala, quite a bit of time is also devoted to Andrew Bolton and his process of working through the plan of the exhibition. This might have been interesting if not for the constant hand wringing over whether “others” at the museum considered fashion to be art. By others, I guessing Bolton was primarily referring to the curator of East Asian art, who was supposedly in a collaboration with the Costume Institute for this exhibition. This curator repeatedly voiced his concerns about how the objects in his department were going to be used, and each conversation seemingly ended with Bolton yet again whining about how fashion was so misunderstood in the Met.
It occurred to me that it might not be a good idea to go on so on camera about colleagues not respecting you, especially with words like, “Some people have a very 19th century idea of what art is.” And even at the very end, when the installation was complete and was looking over the top marvelous, the Asian art curator congratulated Bolton, but Andrew very ungraciously dismissed the other curator and turned to his partner for a hug.
Frankly, I’m sick to death of the “Is fashion art?” question. As long as people are lining the halls of the museum to see fashion, who cares.
I could actually go on longer with this, as I’ve not even touched on how questions of appropriation and culture were handled, but I’m over my word limit. I suggest you watch The First Monday in May, not as a lover of fashion history, but with the goal of looking for the great bits. I loved seeing inside the fashion conservation department. There is an interesting interview with John Galliano. But best of all is when the late Bill Cunningham congratulates Bolton, but makes the faux pas of bringing up the ghost of Diana Vreeland. You just can’t make this stuff up.