Film Review: The First Monday in May

In association with Glasgow Film Theatre


‘Some people have a very nineteenth century idea of what art is’ says exhibition curator Andrew Bolton, ‘there are people within the museum that still dismiss fashion.’ If there’s a message that this film intends to convey, as it follows Bolton, Anna Wintour and the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in the creation of their annual fashion exhibit, it is that fashion is an art form as valuable and as deserving of respect as any other.

Chronicling 2015’s ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, which examined Western fashion’s relationship with Chinese art and history, the film combines heady close-ups of ornate embroidery and sequin work and the obligatory sweeping shots of angelic red carpet dresses with big-name interviews examining fashion’s relationship with gender, sexuality, and race. Bolton – a softly-spoken Brit who has lost the accent of his native Lancashire for a slightly Americanised RP – remarks that ‘fashion is still considered more in the female domain than something like painting, and I think that’s a reason why some people exclude it from being called ‘art’’.

Segueing from a piece on Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, and the orientalist stereotypes of the era, the film turns to another supposed ‘dragon lady’ – Vogue Editor-in-Chief and exhibition curator Anna Wintour. Though the film shows clips of her at her most Miranda Priestley, casting death-stares over the top of her Chanel sunglasses, it also notes that male bosses and editors-in-chief (of whom there are far more, by the way, in modern journalism) aren’t branded cold and icy for the same behaviour.

More complex is the exhibition’s relationship with race. There is a legitimate concern about the imperialist implications of an American exhibition on the influence of Chinese fashion. As one Chinese reporter points out, fantasy always lends itself to misinterpretation, and in this case the lines between appreciation and appropriation are certainly blurred. Although the exhibition also features the work of Chinese designers, like the high-fantasy creation of Guo Pei, the film leaves this as an open ended question.

The First Monday in May is an incredibly in-depth look at the highly-strung work of museum curators, and a gem for art and fashion fans alike.

[Clare Patterson – @clarepttrsn]

The film will be running at Glasgow Film Theatre from the 14th-20th October. Tickets here.

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