Anna Wintour in ‘The First Monday in May’

Tuesday May 17, 2016

(above is from “Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective”, now at the de Young.)

Dave and I just got to see The First Monday in May, and it is such a delightful, and at times controversial, documentary about 2015’s Met Gala by Andrew Rossi. The documentary follows Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, as he designs and implements the year’s chosen theme: “China: Through the Looking Glass.”

For the uninitiated, the Met Gala is an annual fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted by Anna Wintour. The gala raises nearly $10-20 million annually for the Met’s Costume Institute. Ms. Wintour, since her tenure as chair of the gala began in 1995, is responsible for raising nearly $145 million for the Institute.

More interestingly, and the focus of the documentary, is the the opening of the Costume Institute’s annual exhibit at the Met, which coincides with the gala. Each year brings a new theme, for the exhibit as well as the gala, and guests are expected to dress in accordance with the theme.

“China: Through the Looking Glass” was an exploration of China’s affect on and interpretation by Western designers (mostly, Guo Pei, a Chinese designer, does have a gown in the exhibit). It is a topic rife for charges of cultural appropriation and insensitivity, which lends a sharpness to a documentary that might otherwise come across as pure (glorious, beautiful) fluff.

We watch Mr. Bolton not only have to conjure up the creativity and vision needed for such an endeavor — the exhibit not only used the Met’s exhibition space, but also for the first time infiltrated the permanent galleries, in this case the Met’s Asian art collection — but also get approval by a series of exacting perfectionists: Anna Wintour herself, the executives at the Met (who worried it might look a bit Vegas) and the Asian art collection curator, who feared the true, millennia-old Asian art collection would be overshadowed by the loud fashion (good luck there.) Director Wong Kar Wei advised as a curator on the exhibit; Baz Luhrmann advised on the gala. The documentary allows us to be flies on the wall as some of the most accomplished creative visionaries discuss and mold the exhibit.

In the middle of the film, Mr. Bolton and Ms. Wintour take a trip to China to get a better sense of Chinese attitudes towards what the Met had planned. This was an illuminating trip, and highlighted the often sharp conflict between art and culture. Mr. Bolton pitched that it might be interesting to have the Mao-inspired art and fashion in the great Buddha hall. To an art curator, the contrast between the two would be interesting, perhaps making a statement of how Mao had been elevated to a God. He had to be slowly stepped through exactly how offensive this would be, to nearly every Chinese person and Buddhist.

The exhibit featured more than 140 haute couture and avant-garde pieces, and became the most-attended exhibit in the Met’s history. It was a monumental endeavor.

In addition to the art and gowns, of course, is the deliciousness of seeing Anna Wintour in action. Watching her eyes slowly narrow into slits is an absolute delight; when she gives a handler a subtle reminder of who has the power here, we whooped it up. (We also spent the hour and a half trying to guess who the real-Anne Hathaway was.)

It is still the Met Gala, though, so the documentary ends with celebrities wrapped in silks and fur. And, we finally get to see what happens once their inside, if you’re also a nosy person like me.




The First Monday in May

Currently in theaters and also available on Amazon Video

Check out the trailer here

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