The First Monday In May does a remarkable job of unravelling the intricacies of mounting a world class exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York City.
By Steven P. Magstadt
The First Monday In May, directed by Andrew Rossi and premiering at New York City's TriBeCa Film Festival, is on it’s surface a documentary about the 2015 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute China: Through the Looking Glass. The exhibit drew over 800,000 visitors, and the Met Gala opening the exhibit in 2015 raised a record of over $12.5 million for the museum.
Then Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton’s groundbreaking 2011 show, Alexander McQueen; Savage Beauty would radically change many museum attendees’ perception of fashion considered as art. Bolton observed, “Many people have superficial understanding of fashion. People underestimate the power of clothes to tell a story, or to speak to people.”
As the film begins, the voice of Anna Wintour underscores this stating, “Fashion can create a dream, create a fantasy, but there might be some questions about whether fashion belongs in a museum like the Met.”
You would assume you were listening to a painter or mixed media artist when you hear John Galliano say thoughtfully in this film as he looks beyond the camera, “I like to express my emotion through the cut. Each time you cut a fabric it’s a different relationship you have to it; it can be like mercurial liquid oil, or like licorice. The creative process is my meditation. Playing with textures, and shapes, and volumes; that’s something that I love.”
Later, Galliano comments that he doesn’t feel he is the one to say what is or is not art, but then a sense of wonder comes into his facial expression and voice as he smiles and says what wonderful things have been done in fashion that I couldn’t help but recall archeologist Howard Carter first looking into the tomb of Tutankhamen while being asked by Lord Carnarvon if he could see anything. Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things.”
This wonder, this approach to creation beyond market or function, makes the Costume Institute a unique fit for a museum like the Met that specializes in housing what has become arguably one of the most diverse collections of human expression through the ages.
Filled with a massive array of celebrities, designers, models, film directors, fashion editors, and quirky personalities, The First Monday In May did a remarkable job of documenting the process of making a word class museum exhibit. The film also deftly handled the topics of fashion as art, and what art can do to enrich and inform the lives of people who choose to reach out and converse with it.
Visually stunning in a way that does its subject matter proper reverence, musical cues are a minor element in the film until Rihanna was revealed onstage guiding the energy of the 2015 Met Ball to open China: Through the Looking Glass. Behind the ball as Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton walked through the now still, empty exhibit that night, Nat King Cole croons Stardust in a beautifully melancholic anticlimax after all the meticulous planning had paid its expected dividend. This film should be required watching for anyone who claims to love beauty, as well as those who are discussing the boundaries of what makes art.