Fashion is full of dichotomies: designers and journalists may be talking about genderless garments, but there are still distinctions between male and female collections; besides, there are further divisions between classic and edgy, wearable and avant-garde, traditional and technological, hand-made and machine-made; ethically manufactured or produced in a sweatshop.
There is actually another fashion-related dichotomy that too often turns into a dilemma - the one that juxtaposes art and fashion. Director Andrew Rossi tries to answer it in "The First Monday in May". This docu-film has also got a sort of dichotomic structure: Rossi follows Andrew Bolton, the Curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while he works on the "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibition, but the director also films Anna Wintour, Artistic Director of Condé Nast and editor-in-chief of Vogue, as she organises at the same time the Met Gala.
There is therefore a sort of balance between an arty topic and a more commercial situation: when the documentary opens the camera lingers on the Haute Couture dresses donned by many celebrities at the 2015 Met Gala, but soon the scene changes and we are invited to follow a woman pushing a delivery cart along the corridors of the Met archives. "Yeld to art in transit" reads a sign almost predicting that, as the story unfolds, fashion will turn into art and art will eventually win our hearts. At this point of the documentary, though, we are still far from this conclusion and Thomas P. Campbell, the ninth director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, coldly reminds us that when he started off as a curator paintings, architecture and sculptures were to be filed under the "art" category, everything else – including fashion – was decorative arts and therefore looked down.
Yet again shows such as "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" proved that fashion can be art and can easily attract huge numbers of visitors. "McQueen" brought indeed 661,509 people to the Met, but turned at the same time into the proverbial albatross around Bolton's neck. After all, organising record hitting exhibitions is no mean feat. For "China: Through the Looking Glass", Bolton suggested to combine fashion with works from the museum's Department of Asian Art. That's actually when things became a bit tricky: the historical and cultural disputes between the East and the West turn indeed in the documentary into tensions between different museum departments.
For decades, given also its subterranean location, the Costume Institute has been seen as a secondary and less important institution compared to the other departments of the Met. So, apart from finding solutions to show specific pieces such as Buddha statues and Mao uniforms in a way that doesn't offend visitors, Bolton has also got to face further complexities in the documentary, like reassuring the Asian Art Department that paintings, porcelains and other fine art won't be used as wallpaper or won't be diminished by imposing installations like a glowing Plexiglass bamboo forest.
Bolton travels to Paris, meets Galliano who provides insights on his inspirations; then goes to the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation where he unveils and researches rare pieces (and touches an iconic Mondrian dress – a little epiphany as Bolton discovers it wasn't hand-sewn, but made by machine - the starting points for the "Manus x Machina" exhibition opening on 5th May at the Met) and visits Guo Pei's atelier in Beijing (it remains a mystery why Bolton didn't check out a more engaged artist/fashion designer from China such as Ma Ke...).
In the meantime, Anna Wintour clutches (rather than drinks...) endless cups of coffee, advises the Met Museum board to reduce the numbers of people invited to the Gala and shifts around the seating map. Where you seat at the Met Gala - "the Super Bowl of social fashion events," as André Leon Talley calls it - is indeed a matter of power.
While Bolton is the historical mind, the curator and researcher (Rossi briefly introduces us to his background) behind the event and film director Wong Kar Wai is the Artistic Director, Wintour is the "dragon lady". Hidden behind her dark glasses (she wears them even at home...), she looks at renderings of the temple section in the exhibition and shatters expectations by stating "it's going to look like a Chinese restaurant" (further comical moments arrive when she visits Vogue's new offices and, standing appalled in front of a row of screens on which an image of a beach vertically slides on a loop, proclaims "this is making me violently ill").
Rossi disappears behind the camera and avoids intruding in the narrative. He lets the drama unfold as pressure builds and the exhibition installation slowly proceeds. Bolton comes out as a very hands-on curator who spends every second of his time adjusting the garments on display. Wintour, though, is as obsessed as him: at one point she tries to cover a couple of Louis Comfort Tiffany's pillars from the four-columned loggia gracing the Charles Engelhard Court because she needs more space, moves tables with the help of her assistants and more or less tells Rihanna what she should say before her performance. At times she steals the scene with her dragon lady power, but Bolton doesn't seem to mind, since he prefers the bowels of the Met to the spotlight.
Fashion and celebrity fans will love the long section dedicated to the Met Gala preparations and the red carpet, with celebrities clad in exclusive Haute Couture designs, and they will enjoy seeing Jean-Paul Gaultier chaperoning Alicia Keys around the exhibition and the paparazzi going crazy at Rihanna in Guo Pei's yellow egg yolk cape. Though these sections of the documentary clearly show that fashion creates a dream and a fantasy and the red carpet is a theatrical stage, these parts will be less interesting for art fans who will instead prefer the shots from behind the scenes with Bolton walking along the corridors and through the museum rooms as chaos erupts on the red carpet, as if he were checking if his installations were taking a life on their owns or if a gown needed a final adjustment.
There is actually another character in the documentary who remains silent: Rossi doesn't mention Diana Vreeland's contribution to the Costume Institute, but the institution wouldn't be where it is without her ground-breaking exhibitions. Vreeland remains a ghostly presence, though: she haunts the place through a life-size papier-mache statue that can be seen in the background as Bolton speaks and she is evoked in a brief dialogue between Bolton and New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. "When you think how they allowed you this, poor Mrs Vreeland, they killed her with the exhibition, keeping it downstairs," Cunnigham tells Bolton. "The Asian Art Department were incredibly generous", Bolton explains. "...twenty years later," Cunningham replies.
The documentary has a circular rhythm since it opens and closes with celebrities in Haute Couture gowns and in a way it doesn't feature any shocking conclusion as many Costume Institute fans will already know before sitting to watch "The First Monday in May" that "China: Through the Looking Glass" hit a new record for Bolton, reaching 815,992 visitors (it became the fifth most visited exhibition at the Met).
But the documentary is definitely worth watching because it gives a unique insight into the Costume Institute archives, there are indeed no fashion documentaries out at the moment showing archive workers in white laboratory coats being amazed by the magnificence of a couture gown by Galliano for Dior or featuring milliner Stephen Jones humbly and effortlessly fixing a hat on a dummy with some invisible magic.
"The First Monday in May" will undoubtedly inspire a few young people to become fashion curators (as long as they can take in the hard work, sleepless nights and skepticism of more conservative "art" curators and critics), but the best thing about it remains the fact that it is a coherent documentary that continues Rossi's analysis of the missions of large institutions through the people who run them. In "Page One", Rossi went indeed behind the scenes at the New York Times, while in "Ivory Tower" he examined the higher education complex.
As Rossi states in the film production notes, "I have gone behind the scenes of organizations that seem impenetrable from the outside to try and understand what earns them such a vaunted role in our society. I look at whether or not that position is warranted through the humanity of someone who represents the organization. So when I had the opportunity to go inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the most impressive cultural institutions in the world, I wanted to understand why we have museums, what their functions are and how we decide what qualifies as the 'art' entitled to be housed inside their hallowed walls." While "The First Monday in May" will attract both fashionistas and art fans, it is therefore highly recommended to all those museum curators around the world who are still underestimating the power of fashion.
"The First Monday in May" is out now in the States, distributed by Magnolia Puctures. It will be released in the UK and other European countries in September 2016.
Image credits for this post
1. Poster for "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
2. A scene from "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
3 and 4. Andrew Bolton in "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
5. A scene from "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
6. Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and Wendi Murdoch in "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
7. Wong Kar Wai in "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
8. Andrew Rossi, director of "The First Monday in May", a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
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