Did The First Monday In May Address The 2015 Met Ball's Controversial Theme?

Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
There's been lots of buzz leading up to The First Monday In May, the documentary chronicling the entire year it took to craft 2015's Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibit and the lavish gala (a.k.a. the Met Ball) that accompanies it. The most attention-grabbing elements of the flick are threefold: ample access into, arguably, the most exclusive fashion event that exists; a chance to devour copious screen time of the one, the only Anna Wintour; the fact that it was directed by Andrew Rossi (the guy behind critically acclaimed films like Page One: Inside The New York Times and Ivory Tower).

But there are some fascinating insights into the exhibit and gala's contentious theme, China: Through The Looking Glass, that shouldn't, and hopefully won't, be overlooked between the film's lighter-hearted pleasures. (The latter includes relishing the gossipy gala table seating debriefs between Wintour and Vogue Director of Special Events Sylvana Ward Durrett, marveling at how expensive Rihanna was to nab, and watching a super-selective coterie of A-listers get down at the actual Met Ball.)

“I think it was really important," Andrew Bolton, the Met's head curator, told Refinery29 of how the film addressed criticism surrounding the theme of China: Through The Looking Glass. "I wish there was more about it in the film, actually. The subject matter was complicated...Orientalism is Orientalism," Bolton told Refinery29 of the polarizing theme. "What I wanted to show was that China has been quite complicit in the images Western culture has formulated. There’s a complexity behind that, and that was interesting; I wish there was more in the film."

The film does depict (quite polite) impasses between the museum's Asian Art curatorial staff and Wintour's Vogue camp (given their steely focus, unsurprisingly, on the exhibit and party's fashion merits). "It wasn’t wasn’t easy to get my colleagues in the Asian Art department to incorporate much fashion into the galleries," Bolton says. The tension runs both directions, telegraphed via Wintour's more dismissive commentary about things unrelated to fashion that could potentially get the way of her grand Met Ball vision.
Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
This was Rossi’s first fashion-centric film: “I was interested in the opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and understand why it’s an institution of such important cultural power,” he explained. Rossi sees Bolton as a “perfect guide” to the fashion orbit for the uninitiated — the director also hopes the film’s appeal will extend beyond the fashion crowd because of his own unfamiliarity with the industry.

“I’m not taking anything for granted in the storytelling,” Rossi says of approaching a topic he isn't well versed in. Before working on The First Monday in May, Rossi watched documentaries delving into both the fashion and art realms — The September Issue as well as National Gallery, for example, and he hopes his flick comes off as “a hybrid” of the two.

There was also, of course, the allure of decoding Wintour: "Many of the films I’ve made have gone behind the scenes of institutions like The New York Times and higher education, but along with the brick-and-mortar institution of the Met, Anna Wintour’s role within popular culture has become not only an icon, but a woman of mythic status," Rossi explained of the subject's appeal. "Being able to unpack that mythology” and suss out if Wintour’s epic rep is “premised on truth or cliches was a big draw for me,” Rossi says of the project’s appeal.
Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Bolton has worked very closely with Wintour for years and the formidable editrix's philanthropic side is highlighted in the doc. "Anna is endlessly fascinating — she is an enigma. But I think what comes across in this documentary is her commitment, not only to the artistry of fashion, but her commitment to the Met," Bolton says. "The gala is our primary fundraiser and Anna’s very passionate about how fashion is showcased in the museum."

What might not have translated fully to the silver screen, perhaps, are some more emotional qualities: "Anna is a deeply generous and sympathetic; maybe the portrayal [in the film] could have been more nuanced," he remarks.
Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
It's fascinating, and about time, that the documentary treatment was given to fashion's biggest two-part annual blowout: the breathlessly covered, incredibly exclusive, fashion industry-dominated lavish party and the always-deeply-analyzed fashion exhibit it celebrates. And beyond the plentiful celeb cameos and seemingly insatiable appetite for any access into Wintour's psyche, Rossi happened upon particularly rich material in terms of the theme's sensitive nature. Whether it's appropriately addressed in the film is still up for debate.

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