The First Monday in May seems a simple documentary on the surface. Showing the lead-up to one of the fashion world’s biggest days of the year – when the Met Ball opens the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibit – the film branches off into a discussion of fashion’s place in the art world, contrasting the demands of art and commerce and gently touching on issues of gender, race and class in the process.
In 2015 the annual exhibition’s theme was China: Through the Looking Glass, which aimed to explore the ways the mystique of China has been re-appropriated and re-contextualised through the lenses of film and fashion. Showcasing the work of designers like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Guo Pei and more alongside classical Chinese art, The First Monday in May explores the laborious efforts of Met curator Andrew Bolton, Vogue editor-in-chief and art director of Condé Nast Anna Wintour and ambassador filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai to ensure that the exhibition is a fully realised effort and not tone deaf cultural appropriation.
With this film, documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi has made something that feels wholly accessible about a topic that is often misunderstood and even maligned. One of his key tricks is allowing the larger-than-life personalities of those involved, particularly the stoic but sweet Anna Wintour, to shine. Talking heads with the likes of André Leon Talley and Baz Luhrmann are full of vibrant passion and spark that helps the audience to feel just as strongly about the ground-breaking fashions on display.
The garments themselves are caressed lovingly by the camera. Many of them are literally breathtaking in the way they’re presented on film, with the camera exploring every lovingly crafted fold and contour. The film is as perfectly composed and constructed as the fashions at its centre, using an exact and very cinematic visual style and a striking soundtrack that feels just as forward-thinking as the most avant-garde Alexander McQueen piece.
Taking in the events at an objective distance, the audience feels as if they have been invited into a secretive world – allowed to be part of gossip and in-jokes. The fast pace and stress of organising the enormous event are keenly felt, as well as the events’ principal organisers’ worries and fears about the rhetoric of the fashion they are presenting, but ultimately it is the thrill of celebrating the beautiful fashions on display that comes through most clearly. In an arresting climax, the Met Gala fills the screen with music, lights and famous faces in gorgeous and iconic couture.
As documentaries go, The First Monday in May is not as pointed as other films – it does not have an overarching statement to drive home – but it succeeds in being informative and consistently interesting and engaging. Even those who know very little about fashion will find something to love about this film as it explores the history, the future, and the distinctive culture of the fashion world with a pervasive sense of wonder and excitement.
The First Monday in May opens in Australian cinemas in limited release on Thursday May 12.