Andrew Bolton, First Monday in May (Magnolia Pictures)
Andrew Bolton is tired of being asked whether fashion is art. “I think that debate is irritating,” the curator in charge of the Costume Institute said, in an interview at the museum last week. “There’s always been that debate, and I find it so anti-intellectual, and I find it so reductive that I find it frustrating.”
Bolton, eternally trim in a suit by his partner, Thom Browne, is also the apprehensive co-star (sharing top billing with Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour) of Andrew Rossi’s new documentary, The First Monday in May. The film follows the costume department as it assembles “China: Through the Looking Glass,” last year’s blockbuster exhibition, from its conception in the department’s basement offices to Vogue’s star-studded Costume Institute Gala.
The reserved Bolton makes for a reluctant matinee idol, but Rossi, the director behind the viva-la-print-media eye-opener Page One: Inside the New York Times and the student-loan exposé Ivory Tower, knew immediately that he would anchor the film. (We should note that the movie is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment, a division of Vanity Fair‘s corporate parent.) “He would sort of be our window into understanding what makes the Metropolitan Museum of Art so effective and amazing at elevating objects and works of art to a level of study and appreciation that is, you know, so nurturing to the soul, for those who come to the museum,” Rossi said.
In the film, Bolton emerges as the visionary whose ambitions are thwarted at nearly every turn. The Asian art department, while collaborative in spirit, is hesitant about the staging of the exhibition in its halls, many of which feature religious art. The Chinese media take Bolton and Wintour to task for what they perceive as the Western fashion world’s appropriation of imperial culture. And the curatorial brass remains discomfited about the department’s easy mingling with celebrities. What unfolds is a deftly paced debate about the feat of holding up a glamorous medium as a subject worthy of intellectual rigor, while also embracing its frothy associations.
“I think maybe there’s a sort of, um, I don’t know—jealousy around fashion sometimes, that it has a power to speak to people in a way that painting and sculpture can’t,” Bolton says. “I think it’s an immediate art form, it’s a living art form, it’s democratic, and we all wear it no matter if it’s jeans and a T-shirt or haute couture. There’s an appreciation of fashion in terms of its transformative possibilities.”
And its ability to provoke. Perhaps the exhibition’s most high-profile controversy was the charge of appropriation, which Rossi and Bolton address head-on, in almost surreal circumstances. They audaciously choose as their oracle John Galliano, who may now be making great art again under the eremitic auspices of Maison Margiela, but whose name remains a lightning rod when it comes to racial and cultural sensitivity. Galliano was known for drawing heavily on Chinese motifs during his tenure at Dior, and many of those pieces appeared in the exhibition. The interview takes place in a sumptuous Parisian pagoda.
Galliano argues that he is drawing on the sense of “danger” of the dragon-lady stereotype perpetuated in 30s and 40s Hollywood film, and Bolton seems convinced that fashion designers should have the “prerogative,” as Rossi says, “to play with cultural influences, even if those come from a place that is contested.” If Bolton is arguing that fashion belongs in a museum, Galliano is making the case that it also belongs outside of one.
The trouble is that once a garment is removed from a curatorial or runway space, it can be difficult to hold onto that nuance. Bolton makes an alluring case that fashion designers have earned the right to experiment with influence, but the commercial nature of their craft—which is intrinsic to it, rather than incidental—means that they exercise far less control over the context in which their art is viewed than artists working in other media. (Many Met Gala guests chose to forgo thematic dressing altogether, perhaps to avoid such contextual controversies, and part of the impact of Rihanna’s now-legendary Guo Pei dress was that it was one of the few made by a Chinese designer.)
But for Bolton, that controversy is meant to be courted, as inherent to fashion as its capitalist underpinnings. “I think that sometimes, the function of fashion to provoke and confront is forgotten,” Bolton says. “It’s become very safe. Perhaps you’re seeing it in other cultures where the establishment is still needing to be broken down, but in the West, there’re very few things that can provoke and shock anymore.”
While it is a glowing portrait, the film doesn’t seek a definitive answer to that debate—or even that of whether fashion is art, for that matter. Instead, it takes up the inquiry in the spirit of fashion: as with any other influence, it’s something to play with, a proposition to stretch and re-interpret. And if you indulge in the intellectual fantasy, settling on one answer may be beside the point.