THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY is a fascinating documentary about the collaboration between Vogue magazine and the Costume Institute at the Met - as embodied in the iconic American Vogue editor Anna Wintour and the Met's Curator Andrew Bolton. While he is an unknown quantity at the start of the film, you soon learn to respect him. He has a passion for costume, and an understanding of how applied art is as important as a means of creative expression, and as a reflection of our economic social and political times. He also shares an obsessive eye for detail and a faith in his own taste with Wintour. Together, we see them shape a new exhibition and fund-raising ball, to be themed China: Through The Looking Glass. For the curator, this is an opportunity to showcase haute couture that has been influenced not just by China, but by the fantasy of China shown to the West through movies and stars such as Anna Mae Wong or Wong Kar Wai. Indeed, the latter is a designer of the exhibition and helps pull together the sound and visual design of the work. For Wintour, the main task is to organise the now iconic Met Ball, balancing egos and red carpet stars and their entourages. We realise that the money raised by this one event keeps the Costume Institute in business for the entire year.
Together the pair work against tight deadlines and pull of a fantastic show and event. They battle naysayers. At the Met, the head of the Asian galleries is justifiably concerned that the fashion and showmanship is going to overshadow his works of art. And in China, there are concerns that the exhibition is showing a fantasy rather than the reality of engagement with China, and reflecting years of Western appropriation and exploitation. But no-one seems more conscious of those debates than Bolton himself, who is keen to unpack those issues and explore those debates.
I came out of this documentary conscious that it was partly produced by Conde Nast, and so unlikely to show the protagonists in a bad light. Nonetheless, I was surprised at how far it was willing to engage with, and honestly depict the real controversies around the West's engagement with China, and indeed other issues in fashion. For instance, the show uses pieces from a John Galliano show, and the designer explains candidly what drew him back to fashion after he became, in his own words, an outcast, for an anti-semitic rant. In general, it's the time spent with the designers that's the most fascinating. I loved touring the galleries with John Paul Gaultier - seeing him reminisce about different collections and explain why they worked. And I guess that reflects the real strength of this doc - which is its access to people. I loved hearing Galliano and Gaultier comment on design, or being taken inside Wintour's home. All of this makes THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY essential viewing for anyone interesting in art or fashion or the combination of the two.
THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY has a running time of 90 minutes and is rated PG-13. The movie was released in the USA on streaming services in April and is currently on release in the UK in cinemas and on streaming services.