fashion on film

The Met Gala Documentary Offers Chic Voyeurism

Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton and Wendi Deng.
Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton and Wendi Deng. Photo: Conde Nast Entertainment

Bradley Cooper turning up to Rihanna while J.Lo unself-consciously lip-syncs along with the performance. George and Amal canoodling like teenagers. The Hadids lying prone on the Met steps in an attempt to get a perfect selfie angle. Justin Bieber singing “Gonna party toniiiight” at the top of his lungs as he walks through the Egyptian corridor of the museum like a delinquent playing hooky in an ‘80’s movie, except that he’s in head-to-toe Balmain.

These are the inside moments at the Met Ball that the public rarely sees. After carefully preening outside the event, the celebrities and designers and assorted billionaires repair inside to a theoretically social-media-free zone. Even the photos that do leak out are expertly posed and polished. The Met Ball is one of the few fashion parties that remains truly closed-off to the public, hermetic enough to give rise to an Ocean’s Eleven–style heist film set in its glitzy quarters.

So the fascination of The First Monday in May, a September Issue–style documentary about the machinations behind last year’s China-inspired fashion exhibit and gala, comes from the way it lets us peek into the industry’s most exclusive party, to see what its revelers look like when their guard is down.

Director Andrew Rossi is no stranger to working his way into powerful institutions — he also directed the New York Times–in–crisis documentary Page One, and he coaxes out the awkward, revealing moments that can only happen when powerful institutions — fashion, politics, art, celebrity, commerce — collide for what André Leon Talley, in the film, calls “the Super Bowl of fashion events.”

For example, when Anna Wintour wants an ancient pillar moved to make room for an extra table at the gala, to the displeasure of the museum bigwigs. (She sharply reminds them how much money the event raises for the museum every year.) Or when the head of the Asian-art department, which collaborated with the Costume Institute on the show, expresses concern that the result will look like “Disneyland.”

But perhaps the most unmovable pillar is Rihanna, who wants a sum so large for her performance of (what else) “Bitch Better Have My Money” that it has to be bleeped out of an otherwise uncensored film. “Do you have a second to chat re: Rihanna’s budget?” writes Vogue’s director of special events, Sylvana Ward Durrett, to Wintour, in surely the most nerve-racking subject line to date. We’re not shown what transpires, but Rihanna shows up, and she sings, so fill in the blanks.

The quiet anchor of the film is supposed to be Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute. Bolton is both a genuinely lovely individual and one of the most erudite people you could possibly hope to consult on fashion, but his particular brand of introversion doesn’t equate to onscreen charisma. Bolton told the Cut that he was a “reluctant participant” in the film, and it shows.

In his tailcoats and ankle-baring Thom Browne trousers (the designer is Bolton’s partner, and makes occasional appearances in the film), he ferrets out treasures from around the world and carefully installs each designer piece in the exhibit. You can tell his brain is whirring a mile a minute, but we’re not treated to much of the contents. Despite his significant amount of screen time, he takes a backseat to the big personalities of the film — Wintour, Baz Luhrmann (who was brought in to consult on the event), and the host of A-list celebrities.

Rossi doesn’t go deep into the entirety of the controversy surrounding the show — for example, the stealth name change from “Chinese Whispers” to the more p.c. “China Through the Looking Glass.” But he does depict some of the theme’s blowback, notably in a scene in which a Chinese reporter presses Bolton and Wintour on why the museum decided to present China explicitly through a Western lens, and why the exhibit contains very little about the nation’s recent history. (I had some of the same questions after seeing the exhibit last year.)

There are breadcrumbs dropped about some of these elisions. What, to me, was one of the most puzzling facets of the exhibit — the contextless inclusion of Chairman Mao as mere fashion motif — is explained by an aside about Chinese sponsors who asked that he not be presented in a negative light. It would have been nice to see these weighty questions tackled more wholeheartedly, but I understand why they weren’t. The film is meant to put a high gloss on the production, not sand away at it.

Bolton hard at work. Photo: Conde Nast Entertainment

“I feel like I’m in high school,” she says. Someone at the adjoining table replies, “You can sit with us.” It’s the faintest gesture toward inclusion in an event known for its vacuum-sealed exclusivity, and we’re lucky to get a good seat.