Words by Síomha Connolly
September 26th, 2016
Directed by Andrew Rossi to chart the creation of the “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The First Monday in May explores the highs, lows and everything in between of what goes into producing the biggest costume exhibition ever housed in the Met. Every year, on the first Monday in May, the Met curates a fashion exhibition which is launched with the Met gala, a star-studded event which raises necessary funds for the museum. “China: Through the Looking Glass” was the highest attended fashion exhibition in the history of the Met, topping “Savage Beauty” the Alexander McQueen retrospect that was on show in 2011.
Following Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue magazine and Andrew Bolton, the Curator of “China: Through the Looking Glass”, The First Monday in May is an intriguing insight into the massive production that takes place every year for these events. The documentary brings the viewer through the whole process, from the initial concept to the night of the Met gala itself, where over 500 celebrities and other guests arrive walked the red carpet and Rihanna performed live later that night.
Wintour, who we were first introduced to on-screen in The September Issue comes across as a slightly warmer version of her usual cool self, this is helped when viewers get an insight into the “real” Anna when the documentary follows her into her own home. When asked how she feels about her reputation as being “intimidating” during an interview with CNN, Wintour swiftly replies “I think I’m decisive and I like to get things done quickly so if that comes across as intimidation, I’m sorry to hear it.”
Bolton comes across as the softer yet still strong figure whose creative genius is put to the test with this show, that is three times the size of anything he’s ever put together before. We see the dedication and extraordinary passion that goes into every single element of the show and follow Bolton on every step of this journey, including his panic-stricken state in the days and mere hours before the launch when things still aren’t finalised. Bolton however, essentially steals the show in what could have been another documentary all about the Anna Wintour.
The documentary raises the age-old question of whether fashion can in fact be considered art, and after watching The First Monday in May in its entirety it’s easy to see that fashion has confirmed its legitimacy as an art form. In fact at times it appears that this documentary was made to prove this. “I think fashion should be recognised as art, when it touches people and moves people, I mean what more can you ask for from art?” Wintour says. We also hear from designers such as John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and John Paul Gaultier who are all of opposing opinions on the topic. Of course it’s clear that not all fashion can be regarded as art, but the 140+ pieces of both haute couture and ready-to-wear which are housed in this exhibition most definitely deserve their place in the museum as extraordinary works of art.
The exhibition aimed to explore the influence of China on Western design. During the development of the exhibition curators had to ensure that it was not misconstrued as a romanticised, or indeed fantasised, version of China. Sensitivity to the nation and its past was necessary. Although, as we can see in the documentary when the team visits Beijing there are certain elements that curators may have been slightly ignorant to. One scene reveals how the exhibition was set to house a statue bust of General Mao Tse-tung and a selection of his uniforms, Bolton was quickly advised that Mao wares were not to be placed in the same room as Buddhas, where Bolton had originally planned to place them, as this would be extremely offensive to both Communists and Buddhists.
During this promotional trip to Beijing, Wintour and Bolton are met with slight skepticism by the Chinese media who are curious to understand why the exhibition is so focused on the history of China and not the present, which they are more eager to promote. The media are also keen to find out who exactly this exhibition is aimed at; the East or the West? Bolton argues that a current definition of Chinese fashion has not yet been defined and so Western designers are generally inspired by traditional Chinese designs as well as both old and new Chinese film which features this fashion. Wintour explains how the majority of visitors to the Met museum every year are, in fact, Chinese and so she hopes that this show will appeal to them as much as it will to Western audiences.
Wong Kar-Wai is the Artistic Director of the exhibition and is also a critically-acclaimed Chinese film director whose films have inspired so many of the featured fashion designers. Wong Kar-Wai helped to popularise the ‘cheongsam’ or ‘qipao’ (a traditional Chinese dress that’s tight fitting with a high neck) among Western fashion with his 2000 film In the Mood for Love. It’s clear throughout the film that the interests of the Chinese and of the exhibition team remain divided, however, as stated by Bolton that the exhibition was always intended to look at historical Chinese influences on Western fashion as an homage to the traditional styles of dress in China.
In some ways representative of the debates that surround the fashion world around cultural appropriation as well as the legitimacy of fashion on a larger scale, The First Monday in May acts as a foray into these topics but does not let them overwhelm the final product, rather treating them as underlying issues that must be addressed. Having witnessed the exhibition in person, this documentary has an added personal value, however, it is still extremely fascinating viewing for those who want a glimpse into the production and scale of such cultural events and for anyone who has an interest in the cinema, the arts and fashion as their worlds collide into one celluloid moment.
The First Monday in May will be screened in The Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield from Friday 30th of September. Watch the trailer below.
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