The Met Gala – A Forgotten History

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.

The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.

Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile.  For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the Looking Glass," which translates into Chinese as "Moon in the Water," suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator's created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer - a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. "When 'Moon in the Water,' is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy." Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” which translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator’s created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer – a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. “When ‘Moon in the Water,’ is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy.” Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

A porcelain- inspired couture gown included in "China Through the Looking Glass". Image: Carolina Reyes

A blue-and-white porcelain- inspired couture gown included in “China Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibition pointed out that the story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchannge between the East and the West. It was originally developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. However, because of its popularity potters in the Netherlands, Germany and England began to produce their own imitations with a particular willow pattern, causing Chinese craftsmen to begin producing their own hand-painted versions of the willow pattern. Image: Carolina Reyes

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache.

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Image: Carolina Reyes

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the "Party of the Year" now known as the Met Gala.

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the “Party of the Year” now known as the Met Gala.