New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art–“the Met”–is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and the first Monday in May. That last one is because it’s the day of the Gala, the Met’s big fund-raising dinner, attracting movie stars and rock stars, fashionistas, and donors. Ah yes–donors. Gala co-chair Anna Wintour, whose day job is Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, has raised over $150 million for the Met’s Costume Institute.
It’s with the 2015 Gala, and the block-buster show, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which it was associated with, that Andrew Rossi’s “First Monday in May” concerns itself. The documentary raises such questions as: Is fashion an art form? And should art museums devote their space and energy to (unquestionably crowd-pleasing) shows featuring the work of fashion designers?
Andrew Bolton and Wintour, both Brits, are the “stars” of the film, so to speak. Bolton arranged for the exhibit, whose art director was filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai; Wintour arranged the Gala. We follow the creation of both to the climactic, star-studded evening event (George and Amal Clooney! Lady Gaga! various Kardashians! Justin Bieber! Michael Bloomberg! Karl Lagerfeld! The New York Times’s Bill Cunningham! Rihanna, who entertained! And some 500 other carefully selected guests, their names plotted on a seating chart as carefully thought-out as the Battle of Waterloo (the names are color-coded, with green standing for trouble-makers); plus 250,000 white roses decorating an enormous Chinese vase. First there’s the red carpet, then the tour of the exhibit (Bieber makes some juvenile comments), then they eat. The menu isn’t specified. The Gala raised $12.5 million dollars.
The next morning, the commoners queue up to see the show.
“China: Through the Looking-Glass” is not the first of the block-buster fashion shows–proven money-makers–that the Met has put on. A major precursor was the 2011 Alexander McQueen show (McQueen had committed suicide the year before). (Personal note: to me, McQueen’s work, with its creepy face masks and football-like helmets, perfectly illustrates the hostility towards women of some male fashion designers. Don’t get me started on stiletto heels.)
“The First Monday in May” follows the creation of the “China” show, which occupied both the Costume Institute’s basement digs and the more spacious Asian galleries upstairs. It trails Bolton and Wintour first to Paris, where they visit Yves St. Laurent’s vaults and examine his 1977 China-inspired collection, and also talk with John Galliano (another designer with what I perceive as hostility towards women, not to mention Jews, as evidenced by a drunken outburst in 2011, for which Galliano has reportedly atoned); then on to Shanghai, where they meet with designer Guo Pei (who created Rihanna’s gown for the gala) and hold discussions with journalists and others concerned with how the museum folks will deal with sensitive issues, such as the depiction of Chairman Mao (remember Mao jackets?).
Then, month by month and day by day, we follow the design and mounting of the exhibition. Director Andrew Rossi (whose doc “Page One” was a fascinating examination of work at the New York Times’s media desk) builds thriller-like tension as the days dwindle down to a precious few. The exhibition will examine the influence of China’s art and style on Western designers by incorporating Chinese art and artifacts, clothing, and depictions of China in mid-century Western movies such as Anna Mae Wong films (“Shanghai Express” and “Daughter of the Dragon”) as well as more recent movies (“The Last Emperor,” “Raise the Red Lantern”). It will include antique vases, blue-and-white porcellain dishes, and other Chinese artifacts intermingled with the Western fashions, as well as a “bamboo forest” consisting of hundreds of illuminated Plexiglas poles.
The film raises a number of questions. First, why are America’s curators and museum executives almost invariably non-American? Not to sound jingoistic, but don’t American institutions produce museum personnel on a par with the troops of Brits and continental Europeans who seem primarily to inhabit those posts? (San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums recently lost its British head, who went to greener pastures at New York’s Morgan Library, and replaced him with an Austrian.)
Secondly, why are these folks almost universally male? Sure, the Met’s offices are crammed with young women manning (excuse me) the phones, unpacking the garments, schlepping stuff; but the bosses, including former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley, are men. That Anna Wintour reached the powerful position that she has is a tribute to her legendary toughness.
My third question is: why can’t Met chief Andrew Bolton afford to buy a few pairs of socks? Or is the high-water, ankle-baring, sockless look still au courant?
Another personal note. Last summer, I visited “China: Through the Looking-Glass” at the Met. I started downstairs in the Costume Institute along with scores of other (mostly female) museum-goers. What greeted me was an explosion of lights, mirrors, films, and music. The visual bombardment made me–literally–nauseous, and after ten minutes or so, I left. Did any other visitors have a similar reaction, I asked one of the guards? Yes, she said.
I never made it to the Asian galleries, where the exhibition continued, retreating instead to my beloved American Wing.