It was the year that Sarah Jessica Parker showed up in a literally flamboyant head piece, and the year that Kim Kardashian showed up in (almost) literally nothing, and never has so much ridden on the strategic placement and secure fastening of paillettes and lace appliques. It was the 2015 Met Gala, the one that raises money for that institution’s Costume Institute, and filmmaker Andrew Rossi takes us behind the scenes of how this annual extravaganza of fashion and pop culture comes about.
The theme of that year’s gala was “China: Through the Looking Glass.” the fashion exhibition conceived and executed by Andrew Bolton, the wunderkind Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A young man burbling with enthusiasm as he galumphs through the museum galleries and offices in his iconic high-water pants, and chunky shoes worn without socks, he masterminded the Savage Beauty retrospective of Alexander McQueen shortly after that designer’s suicide in 2010. It was a dazzling success, and he’s been trying to live it down, while also living up to it, ever since.
Produced by, among others, Conde-Nast, the parent organization to Vogue, whose editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, also figures prominently in the film, is a documentary that, ahem, skirts provocative social and political issues while making a strong case for fashion as high art rather than mere frippery. Certainly the McQueen gowns evoke the sort of visceral reaction that good art should. The statement made by the model walking the fashion runway ensconced in one of his metallic gowns, whose cowl covers her head in a such a shrink-wrap fashion that seems to be suffocating her, can be interpreted on many levels. Indeed, it demands to be.
Wintour, a Museum Trustee and Costume Institute Benefit Co-Chair, is everything we expect her to be. Impeccably dressed, precisely bobbed hair echoing the severity of Wintour’s personality, she is demanding, decisive, and not prone to suffer fools at all. The point is made that if she were a man with these qualities, the perception of those qualities would be different. A point made before in another documentary, THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, where we were also invited into her professional meetings and the more semi-private aspects of her life. Here we see her rearranging the seating charts according to social, political, and cultural considerations, some understood only by Wintour herself, and on the day physically moving tables a few inches to better serve her aesthetic vision. She chooses the linens, decides on the decorations, and she travels to Beijing along with Bolton to promote the exhibition to journalists who have reservations about the stereotypes that might be reinforced by the air of exoticism that permeates the show. One of the film’s wittiest moments concerns the stereotype of the Dragon Lady, a concept explained with a vintage film clip describing a Dragon Lady as someone who will devour you. Cut to a close-up of Wintour.
Where THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE let us in on Wintour’s history, FIRST MONDAY IN SEPTEMBER gives us a whiff of Bolton’s British middle-class upbringing, from which we learn that this is the job for which he has been pining since childhood. Hence the burbling. And it’s that childlike delight that is informs the film as he rifles through the vintage St. Laurent collections in Paris, and becoming positively giddy over a witty design that incorporates blue-and-white teacups. For every cutting remark or carefully pouted lip from Wintour, there is Bolton waxing rapturous over a fabric choice, exuding an unrestrained joy at the prospect of this exhibition, even when time runs short and he is feeling pressure from within himself and the Board, chatting the finer points of display with the workmen creating translucent bamboo groves, and filmmaker Kar-Wai Wong. As a counterpoint for the exquisite gowns that make their entrance at the gala, and the sometime vapid comments from the people wearing them, it makes for a sly social commentary, wickedly delivered without formal comment. It’s perfect.
FIRST MONDAY IN MAY is an ode to excess and to art. Perhaps the two cannot be separated. It’s not as though we didn’t suspect the contained chaos of organizing both the gala and the exhibit, but discovering the specifics of the preparation, and seeing the cream of society gamely attempting to get down to Rihanna as she danced across their very pricey tables, is a treat that excites awe, envy and schadenfreude.