“The First Monday in May,” a new documentary by Andrew Rossi, plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. It will dazzle viewers with its displays of elegant and often dramatic couture. These designer clothes vie for status as art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion Institute and its annual Fashion Institute Gala.
One of the Met’s major fundraising events, the gala, also known as the Met Ball, is as much about celebrity as fashion, although it also launches the Fashion Institute’s annual exhibit at the museum. Mr. Rossi is best known for his documentary, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which not only explored the history of the Gray Lady but examined the general decline of newspapers in the face of electronic news delivery. In “The First Monday in May,” he follows two key figures in the Met’s 2015 Gala: curator Andrew Bolton, who designed the accompanying exhibit, and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who supervised the event.
Both play important roles in the development of the exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass.” As a collaboration between the Met’s Fashion Institute and its department of Asian art, the exhibition explores the impact of Chinese art and culture on Western fashion. It follows Bolton’s controversial and groundbreaking 2011 exhibit, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” Mr. McQueen, who committed suicide in 2011, transformed the fashion industry with his designs.
The curator discusses many of the complicated issues involved in developing the China exhibit. Designers represented in the exhibition, such as John Galliano, describe how they draw inspiration from Chinese fashion and art. Members of the Met’s board of directors consider possible repercussions from thorny issues like Orientalism, colonialism, racism, and a reliance on Western stereotypes. Mr. Bolton defends his plans, which include projecting images of Chinese stars like Anna May Wong and movies like “The Last Emperor.” He appoints Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai as the project’s art director, and includes Chinese fashion designers like Guo Pei. Ms. Wintour, the movie argues, has enlivened the Met through her support of the Fashion Institute and the gala.
Along with the issues involved in creating “China: Through the Looking Glass,” Mr. Rossi tracks the eight-month runup to the event. Ms. Wong suggests a Mao uniform with Buddhas would send the wrong message. Carpeting the Met’s grand staircase in red is rejected. Instead, a giant replica of a Chinese vase covered with 250,000 white roses goes in the front entrance. Ms. Wintour oversees seating arrangements, while her staff negotiates with pop singer Rihanna’s handlers over her entourage budget.
Once the event gets underway, it outsparkles Oscar night, with celebrities dressed in costumes inspired by the event. Rihanna makes a grand entrance in a yellow gown with a train easily 10 feet long. Guests ooh and aah as they wander past displays of spectacular clothes matched with Chinese art and artifacts.
The next day, the Met reopened to the general public, and more than 800,000 spectators viewed the exhibit’s 40-plus designers and 150 costumes. Three times the size of any similar exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass” raised $12.5 million for the Met. Its curator, Andrew Bolton, was named head of the Fashion Institute in January.