In an early moment from The First Monday in May, Andrew Bolton walks through the bustling streets of Paris and explains aloud how “it’s quite easy to dismiss a fashion designer’s engagement with China as being inauthentic.” As a rebuttal to this perceived shallowness, which sounds more like an apologia than meaningful awareness of cultural tension, Bolton, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, claims he wants to use his upcoming exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, to explore “extraordinary examples of a designer’s imagination.” Tellingly, instead of citing the Chinese designers whom he reveres, Bolton mentions Yves Saint Laurent, promptly confirming the very fears of inauthenticity he refutes just moments earlier. In fact, it appears Bolton misunderstands what might be problematic about a U.K. native’s exhibit on Chinese fashion, hosted by a New York cultural institution. It’s not that he’s a fashion curator, but that he’s a Western one, whose interest in Chinese art risks being perceived as appropriative and exoticizing in the name of professional- and self-legitimation.
These would be meaty terms of engagement were director Andrew Rossi not seemingly oblivious to the depths of these dynamics as well, constructing a documentary that pays sporadic lip service to recognizing cultural specificity before returning to its star-gazing ways, which is fully cemented by the film’s lengthy red-carpet sequence in its final third, providing a fan’s-eye view of every exciting celebrity arrival. The First Monday in May reveals itself to be three docs in one, wishing to simultaneously function as a mouthpiece for legitimizing fashion as a fine art, a thesis on intercultural interaction, and a behind-the-scenes exposé of the haute-couture process, with a “____ weeks until opening” scroll appearing at regular intervals throughout the film. But Rossi fumbles all three approaches through hesitancy and indecision, so that the film uncomfortably transitions between one of these three dispositions without convincingly, or purposefully, settling into any of them.
Take perhaps the most intriguing of these threads—the cultural legitimation of fashion as art—and the film only offers talking heads providing specious claims to the contrary, such that fashion is historically, and still unfairly, relegated to a feminine or frivolous domain. While there’s undoubtedly some truth to this claim, Rossi makes no effort to trace where these perceived biases came from, nor is there a larger sense of what’s at stake in placing fashion within the realm of fine art. In other words, a kind of self-imposed marginalization takes shape, where designers and curators instantiate a straw man for their exhibits to refute as evidence of their worth.
A similarly limp maneuvering develops as Bolton and Vogue’s Anna Wintour, whose Costume Center hosts the event, field questions from Chinese press about the exhibit’s cultural interests. In a revealing sequence, Bolton and Wintour are asked by a reporter whether they view the exhibit as “appropriating Chinese symbols” and how that relationship works. By zooming into Wintour’s irritated expression, Rossi implicitly privileges her perspective on the topic; he doesn’t even include a similar shot of the interviewer’s reaction (in fact, the woman is only seen in profile). And after the interviewer has left, the camera lingers on Bolton and Wintour, who whisper about the reporter’s questions, before Wintour sarcastically concludes that “she just wants everything to start in 1949.” Wintour’s dismaying flippancy suggests that she’s disinterested in actual conversation, and Rossi complements her disregard by neglecting to offer even a short segment that would allow the interviewer, or another Chinese voice, a chance to weigh in on the subject.
The First Monday in May compounds these shortcomings in its final third by representing the exhibit’s opening as if it were Vogue’s own coverage of the event. Rossi’s slow-mo close-ups greet stars upon their red-carpet arrival and their attire is treated not as decorative art, but as celebratory spectacle, like an E! special. In fact, the film’s entire questioning of the gala’s purpose dissolves into the background, as random celebrity interviews, from George Clooney to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, become the film’s narrative focus. Once Rihanna takes center stage to perform, Rossi’s camera has stopped looking for answers to questions of cultural insensitivity or value, but instead Justin Bieber’s visage, which it unsurprisingly finds and lingers on.