28 Sep 2016

The First Monday In May: high fashion through the looking glass

10:17 am on 28 September 2016

The First Monday In May sees cultural tensions swept under the rug in exchange for the kind of red carpet porn you can only dream of, writes Katie Parker.

No caption

Photo: AFP

In this age of the beautiful Instagram, so-so Snapchat and shameful, shameful Vine, celebrity access is at an all-time high, and yet certain events, certain moments, still elude us. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala, held each year on the ~first monday in May~ is one of those and, in spite of the juicy tidbits that emerge, it remains a veritable scrum of A-list secrets.

The First Monday In May may not tell us those secrets, but it opens the door just a crack to allow us lowly folk a slit through which to peep. And it delivers, opening with the kind of red carpet porn you can only dream of, with J Lo and George Clooney and Kimye all existing in perfect harmony. Just the opportunity to see Rihanna ascend the Met staircase in slow motion, decked out in the most beautiful yellow coat of all time, is worth $100 or so in moviegoing costs nowadays. 

But The First Monday In May is less about Rihanna and more about Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met’s costume institute and exhibitioner extraordinaire, and whose upcoming show China: Through the Looking Glass is to set the theme for the legendary Vogue-sponsored Met Gala that year.

Living in the shadow of his most successful exhibition, 2011’s tribute to the then recently-deceased designer Alexander McQueen, Bolton is on a quest: to beat his own record and make an even more successful exhibition complete with a super sweet opening party to kick it all off.

So off he goes and with director Andrew Rossi + film crew in tow, Bolton, along with mysterious and notoriously terrifying Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, sets about putting the exhibition in motion.

In some ways that’s all there is to The First Monday In May. Beautiful clothes are retrieved from eye popping couture archives; thin fashionable people have slow-looking meetings about aesthetic minutiae invisible to plebeian eyes; and talking head fashion designers wax lyrical about Bolton and Wintour and the ball.

Yet there is also a smidgen of drama: conceived as a collaboration with the Museum’s Asian Art Department, Bolton’s *ahem* understanding of the East is soon revealed to be a little thin on the ground, and with his fondness for Western designer’s “fantasies” of China outweighing cumbersome authenticity, the threat of cultural appropriation looms increasingly large in the film.  

Perhaps drama is too strong a word: there are no raised voices or strong words. The patient folk of the Asian Art Department just want to make sure Bolton’s giant fibre optic bamboo sculpture won’t obscure their displays. And fair enough.

Unfortunately Rossi seems uninterested in pursuing this issue further, and just as Bolton dismisses the concerns of the Asian Art Department, so too does the film skirt neatly around the flimsy rationalising with which the exhibition is conceived.

In some ways this feels like a generation gap. Your grandma might see this and wonder why the issue gets the screen time it does. #Millennials could write a thesis on it. This stuff is still working its way into the mainstream vocabulary, so you’ve gotta be kind of patient. Still, the lack of nuance here robs the film of substance and with such ripe cultural fruit ready for the picking, it feels like a missed opportunity.

But Rossi is skilled, I’ll give him that, and in one fell swoop cultural tensions are swept under the rug and shiny, distracting slow-motion celebrities emerge through the back door. The ball itself is the crescendo of The First Monday In May, both unveiling the results of the arduous work we have just observed and granting the VIP access we secretly crave. It’s a winning and fascinating combination and after watching Bolton’s meticulous assembly of the exhibition, it’s jarring to see Justin Bieber making communist jokes within it.

As with the last Vogue-based movie The September Issue, The First Monday In May knowingly operates on two levels: the cerebral “I think fashion is an interesting and legitimate art and business sector” level and the “I want to see if Anna Wintour talks shit about Sienna Miller” level. And as in that film, both are skillfully balanced and shot beautifully to create a genuinely enjoyable and immersive visual experience.

It’s a bummer the cultural appropriation stuff doesn’t get a better platform because, in a way, it could have supported Rossi’s suggestion that fashion is not such a trivial artform as people think. But The First Monday In May is still a solid, fascinating documentary, cleanly and expertly offering a glance into a world that is so fun to dip into from time to time.

The First Monday In May is in NZ cinemas from September 29.