The first Monday in May sets the date for the annual Costume Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commonly shortened to The Met Ball or Met Gala. It is also the name of an intimate and insightful film that closely follows curator, Andrew Bolton, from initial conception to the development and execution of the 2015 Met Ball themed ‘China: Through the looking glass’.
The gala has become an extremely coveted event. Since the arrival of Anna Wintour, American Vogue Editor-in-Chief as it’s Chair, the benefit has grown immensely in scale. Attended by celebrities, designers and other household names from the fashion world, politics and business, the proceeds are often so large they finance the entire operational budget per annum for the Institute alone, raising funds in excess of tens of billions. The starting price for an individual ticket is $30,000 and a table almost 10-fold at 275K.
The theme of the Met Ball rotates each year. 2017 paid tribute to Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and the concept of ‘the art of in-between’ contrasting past and present, self and other, male and female and six other dualities. 2016’s Manus vs Machina, translating into man vs the machine, was inspired by the influence of technology on the fashion industry. However 2015, which forms the basis of The First Monday in May film explores the West’s long-standing fascination with Chinese art and style, which is bold and theatrical yet simultaneously delicate and refined in nature.
Director, Andrew Rossi, captured the production process behind China: Through the looking glass and the challenges curator, Bolton, had to navigate to successfully exhibit hundreds of pieces of haute couture, Chinese paintings and porcelains, and snippets of cinema to fully portray the richness and history of its culture.
The first instance of opposition came from within the museum itself. There had been much debate among Bolton’s peers as to whether fashion could really be deemed as art and whether as such it had the right to occupy space within the museum alongside canvases and sculpture. The popular, simplistic argument condemned fashion as being shallow, frivolous and silly.
In Bolton’s next set of meetings, he was critiqued on the potential look and feel of the set design and staging. He was confronted with accusations that it was at risk of becoming grossly stereotypical with too much dragon symbolism. It had almost been ‘Disney-fied’, too closely and insultingly, bearing the resemblance of an amusement park.
Similarly, Bolton was warned against his enthusiasm for placing a portrait of Mao, Former Chairman of the Communist Party of China, in a room full of Buddhas. The show’s Artistic Director, Wong Kar-Wai of Hong Kong asserted that it would be offensive to the Chinese people and government. The Department of Asian Art also advised Bolton that the homogenisation of Chinese, Thai and other aesthetics of the Far East under the umbrella of ‘oriental’ repeatedly results in the misrepresentation of each country as its own, distinct entity, creating a sad loss of individuality and uniqueness.
However, when Bolton’s consultations were complete, compromise and careful decision-making had been reached, the exhibition came together and it was beautiful. The displays were respectful, understanding and appreciative of Chinese traditions and heritage as well as new practices in the contemporary age. The score at the end of the documentary was soft and romantic as Bolton strolled through the galleries in wonder. He glanced at the intricately embroidered gowns glowing in illuminated glass boxes and then upon the moving imagery of Anna May Wong, late Chinese actress, once a star in Hollywood.
China: Through the looking glass topped the success of Bolton’s prior exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage beauty. It was visited by almost 1 million people and raised $12.5 billion for the museum that year, leading to Bolton’s promotion as Head Curator and an excitement in me each year as I eagerly await the Met Ball’s latest theme come the first Monday in May.