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Anna Wintour’s armour

Anna Wintour’s armour

“The First Monday in May”, a new documentary, claims to take a behind-the-scenes look at fashion. But it only tells the story the industry wants it to tell

“The First Monday in May”, a new documentary, claims to take a behind-the-scenes look at fashion. But it only tells the story the industry wants it to tell

Rebecca Willis | October 3rd 2016

“The First Monday in May” is a documentary with a simple narrative. It tells the story of two feats of organisation: the mounting of the “China Through the Looking Glass” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the staging of the fund-raising extravaganza that accompanies it, known as the Met Ball. That this event is also known as “Anna’s party” (as in Anna Wintour of American Vogue) and attracts worldwide press coverage for its glamorous guests and their red-carpet outfits, goes some way to explaining the attraction of the project for the film’s director, Andrew Rossi.

He follows Andrew Bolton, curator at the Met’s Costume Institute and the brains behind the museum’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen show in 2011. We watch as he picks his way through the minefield of his chosen subject: broadly, how Western fashion has been influenced by the East, and by the West’s stereotypes of the East. The museum’s own Department of Asian Art must not feel its artefacts are being used as a mere backdrop; China itself must not be offended by the placement of images of Mao. The film also follows Wintour as she helps hone the exhibition and simultaneously “curates” the gala dinner which will go on to raise $12.5m. The table plan for all the celebrity egos is a consumate work of diplomacy.

“The First Monday in May” is part of a flourishing genre of films that go behind the scenes of fashion. It was kicked off in 2009 by “The September Issue”, about the making of American Vogue’s biggest-ever edition, from which the BBC’s recent two-part “Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue” evidently took its inspiration. In the interests of narrative arc and dramatic tension, all three focus on a particular occasion and the run-up to it – we even get big-screen suspense music as the Met Ball draws near. In the case of “Absolutely Fashion” it was British Vogue’s centenary celebrations, focused on an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and overseen by the editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman. The suggestion is that the viewer is being allowed into a secret world that, like Narnia, exists through the back of the wardrobe.

In fact they are squinting through a crack in the door. The film-makers can shoot only what they have permission to film, so they are destined only to tell a part of the story – the part that the magazines want them to tell. These movies and programmes act as shrewd pieces of branding and marketing.

As a piece of messaging, “The First Monday in May” is effective in two ways. First, it raises the question of whether fashion is – or ever can be – art. Or, as Wintour puts it, “there might be questions about whether fashion belongs in a museum like the Met”. Traditionally fashion, as one of the decorative arts, has been looked down on by fine art. But the lingering shots of clothing being installed and lit as objects of reverence in an important gallery argues the other way. If a shark in formaldehyde belongs in a gallery, then why not a frock? The debate gives the film, and by extension its subjects, the appearance of intellectual heft. But once that idea has been sewn, the din of celebrity takes over: George and Amal Clooney and Lady Gaga step on to the red carpet, and Rihanna stands on a table and sings swearily at the gala dinner. It may not be art, but it sure as hell is a publicity coup. The result is a balance of high-mindedness and raucous celebrity, seriousness and approachability.

That the view from behind the scenes is restricted quickly becomes obvious in the films themselves. Richard Macer, who directed “Absolutely Fashion”, tells the viewer at the start that at Vogue “things are not quite what they seem” and “appearances can be deceptive”. Yet he is completely fooled by Shulman’s bogus cover design which is meant to stop anyone finding out that the Duchess of Cambridge is going to appear on the front of the centenary issue. It’s an emblematic moment. He told us at the start that he “hopes to get under the skin” of Vogue. Instead, all he can do is look at the magazine’s perfectly made-up complexion from a distance of its own choosing.

If you scratch the surface of these programmes – themselves hymns to the seductive power of surfaces – you will see another narrative which, rather than getting behind the façade of fashion magazines, reinforces it. They conform to the stereotypes of “The Devil Wears Prada”, in which Meryl Streep plays a frosty magazine editor. Initially Rossi seems to want to unpick the cliché: at one point Wintour is asked if she considers the book on which the film was based, written by a former assistant, to be a betrayal of trust. But he spends most of the film lingering over her brusquer comments: “this is going to look like a Chinese restaurant”, she says coldly, rejecting a design out of hand. Macer’s film is full of scenes showing Shulman as some aloof and mysterious figure rather than a working woman with a high-powered job.

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