Fashion as Ritual: First Monday in May


Written by Deirdre Kelly
Translated by Iris C. Chay and Ricky Lai

Photography provided by the Metropolitan Museum of art


Before getting dressed in the morning, I wade through the dresses, blouses, skirts, jackets, scarves, hats, shoes and handbags clogging my bedroom closet and still can’t find anything to wear. It’s become a daily ritual. My tastes change with the fashion. Or is that I expect too much from my clothes? One day I wear ruffles and feel pretty, and the next a camouflage print to channel my inner warrior. My friend has trouble packing her suitcase for overseas trips because she simply cannot anticipate what her mood might be on the road. “I dress to express what I feel,” she tells me. “Or what I want to make happen on a given day.”

Clothes are powerful that way. They can transform and transfix, shape perceptions, spark and subdue desire. Clothes mark people as being individuals or conformists, standing with or apart from a crowd. It’s what makes fashion such a potent expression of personal identity. Clothes do more than just cover the body. They carry hidden meanings, making them open to interpretation much like works of art. Forms of material culture, they are embedded with clues about the thoughts, habits and mores of the people who wear them. On a grander scale, clothes are the barometers of civilization, measuring shifts in styles and attitudes along with entire belief systems. But I didn’t glean all this from peering at my own wardrobe.




My deeper understanding about fashion as a mirror of everyday life and culture comes courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York. I have visited this sartorial treasure trove often, lured by the richness of the vast and important collections contained within its walls. It’s one place where fashion, in all its variety, does not confuse me or leave me feeling wanting. It feeds a deeper yearning for knowledge. The Costume Institute, you see, is not just interested in the kind and form of dress. It wants to uncover its history and symbolic function.

Fashion has always had a ritualistic aspect. The act of dressing embraces repetition to form patterned behaviours that give people the illusion they are in control of their lives. Women will dress in particular ways for the office, their families, and for nights out. Some women will simplify their lives by wearing the same look every day. A communications professional I know is frequently in the public eye and to ensure she never makes a mistake, fashion-wise, she dresses each day head-to-toe only in black. It’s her work uniform, and because it is fail-safe; it makes her feel empowered.

In China, clothes have long served a ritualistic purpose within society. Loaded with codes and symbols, for millennia they have distinguished the rich from the revolutionaries, the priests from the peasants, the fanatics from the functionaries, the simpletons from the scholars. Colour as well as cut denotes rank and prestige. In China, clothes bring good luck, and must be chosen carefully. Red clothes at a wedding symbolize love, success, and fertility. White worn at a funeral is a sign of mourning. Yellow carries associations of imperial grandeur, being the favourite colour of at least five Emperors who made it synonymous with gold. Wearing yellow continues to be auspicious. It is said to bring power and prosperity to the wearer.

Certainly yellow has been lucky for Chinese fashion designer, Guo Pei. When pop star Rihanna wore one of her bright yellow gowns to the Met Gala, the Costume Institute’s annual fundraiser, the Beijing-based couturier became an overnight sensation even though she had been working at her métier since the 1990s, albeit mostly in obscurity. Weighing 55-pounds, Pei’s canary-coloured cape dress came with a fox fur-trimmed train so massive, Rihanna — who discovered Pei online while researching Chinese couture — needed three attendants to lift it up the Met’s stairs. The hand-stitched garment became the focal point of The First Monday in May, director Andrew Rossi’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the gala and its accompanying exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass.

Pei appears in the 2016 film as a link between past and present approaches to Chinese fashion. Rossi captures her in the studio where she had created the gown over a two year period, embellishing it with hand-embroidered floral scrolls and delicate hand-painted cherry blossoms before topping it off with a golden headdress. Embodying centuries of Chinese craftsmanship, the gown is a resurrection of ancient concepts of glamour and luminosity. Speaking through a translator, Pei proudly calls her fashion masterpiece a wedding dress for the Chinese nation. This metaphor speaks to another kind of ritual. As the key costume a woman wears at her nuptials, the wedding dress symbolizes hope, fecundity and the promise of renewal. Through her devotion to China’s longstanding needlecraft traditions, Pei is helping to revive her country’s fashion industry and restore a sense of luxury to the Made in China brand. The sense that fashion is regenerative is a major theme of Rossi’s film.


The First Monday in May takes its title from the actual day on the calendar when the Met Gala yearly takes place in New York. The date is significant. May represents spring and Monday is the start of most people’s weeks. That it is the first Monday in May makes it all the more noteworthy as a symbol of new beginnings. Just as the pagan ritual of skipping around maypoles celebrates the arrival of spring, the Met Gala, with its ritual dance involving preening celebrities and cat-calling paparazzi locked in a kind of two-step, heralds the return of the new fashion season and a fresh crop of clothes. “The Super Bowl of social fashion events,” as it is described in the film, unfolds in a temple of high art, providing a theatrical celebration of a new Costume Institute exhibition, the party’s raison d’être.

In 2015, that exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, an examination of Eastern influences on Western aesthetics, in particular fashion as created by leading European designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, and Jean-Paul Gauthier. The exhibition also looks at Chinese culture in cinema, paying particular attention to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong whose thigh-slit cheongsam image, as portrayed by Hollywood in the 1930s, paradoxically gave rise to Asian stereotypes in the West while inspiring the making of great fashion.

Met curator Andrew Bolton created the exhibition in collaboration with production designer Nathan Crowley, presenting Eastern-inspired fashion alongside its source material. In one gallery are the Peking Opera costumes that influenced John Galliano when designing his Spring 2003 Christian Dior Haute Couture Collection. In another is a large 15th-century Ming porcelain storage jar with a cerulean dragon, an image replicated on a Roberto Cavalli strapless blue-and-white silk-satin evening gown. Through these juxtapositions Bolton makes the case that fashion
is itself an art, worthy of serious study and reflection.

A parallel argument, explored in the film, involves the contentious issue of cultural appropriation. What does it mean to adopt or use elements of Asian culture within Western design? Does it celebrate or does it desecrate?

Rossi shows Bolton stepping bravely into this cultural minefield, aware that what he is attempting is controversial but feeling that he has no other choice. “The political hurdles the exhibition is addressing could be interpreted as racist,” Bolton says, but then forges straight ahead. He needs to up his own ante.

Successful in spite of its inherent controversies, China: Through the Looking Glass also ended up being the Costume Institute’s largest ever presentation, attracting over 800,000 visitors, surpassing the previous McQueen show, which had set a high standard. It involved more than 150 garments and months of delicate negotiations involving delegates from China as well as co-workers wary of fashion’s presence within a museum setting.

The collection of Asian art at the Met is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the West, with more than 35,000 objects, ranging from 3 B.C. to the 21st century. 

To minimize damage from any potential, if not inevitable, cultural clashes, Bolton calls on celebrated Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love; Ashes of Time) to serve as the exhibition’s artistic director. A good idea.

When the Chinese filmmaker notices that the Met’s envelope pushing curator has put Chairman Mao’s name-bearing tunic suits in a gallery showcasing Buddhist statuary, Kar-wai tactfully informs Bolton that his intellectual proposition might get lost in translation, offending the Buddhists in Tibet while ruffling feathers in Beijing. It is one of the film’s more dramatic moments.

But eager to please, Bolton quickly diffuses the tension and follows Kar-wai’s advice. Nothing is left to chance. Elsewhere behind the scenes, the Vogue editor-in-chief micromanages everything from the table linens and the flowers to the chess-like seating arrangements for the A-list Met Gala dinner celebrating Bolton’s achievement. “I think fashion should be recognized when it touches people, and moves people,” Wintour tells the camera.

Often when wandering through the Costume Institute, I have seen myself in one of its bias-cut gowns, imagining a Hollywood life of cocktail parties and jazz piano at breakfast. Fantasizing about clothes
is a key component of fashion ritual.

I envisioned myself in an even more lavish outfit while watching The First Monday in May. Had I gone to the Met Gala in 2015 I would have conformed to the East-meets-West fashion theme by wearing lotus flowers in my hair to represent rebirth and a dress of flowing citron silk to represent the Yellow River, whose basin is said to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Yes, I would finally have found something to wear, borrowed from the closet of my dreams.




想當然而,黃色勢必一直以來是中國流行設計師的寵兒:郭培。當流行巨星蕾哈娜穿著亮黃色的禮現身大都會藝術博物館慈善晚宴﹝Met Gala﹞,這位北京的服裝設計師就這麼的一夜成名。郭陪自九零年代以來已在這一行已奮鬥了二十餘年,然而卻未能在這一夜前順利的嶄露頭角。

蕾哈娜(Rhianna)身著的這五十五磅重的龐大金色斗篷禮服鑲嵌著狐狸毛草是如此的龐然大物。這重則需三位助理才能搬移到晚宴階梯上的傑作,是蕾哈娜在線上研究中國式服飾時後發現郭培的作品。這件純手工作品也成為導演安德魯·羅西(Andrew Rossi)的紀錄片—《潮遊鏡花水月》(The First Monday in May) 的焦點。該紀錄片記載了晚宴及其附帶的展覽—透視中國。



片名《潮遊鏡花水月》(The First Monday in May),取自年度慈善晚宴(Met Gala)舉辦於紐約的實際日期。這個日子是重要的,由於五月代表春季的來臨,而周一則是大多數的我們一周的開始。因此五月的第一個星期一便象徵著新的開始。如同異教徒旋繞著五朔節花柱歌舞以慶祝春天的來臨,該慈善晚宴 (Met Gala)漫舞與名流與狗仔,預告著新時尚季節的回歸與新裝的來臨。如同在紀錄片裡描述的超級杯社交時尚活動,它讓新服飾設計能展現在這高科技的聖殿,這也是這些派對活動存在的理由之一。

在二零一五年,這展覧的主題為《中國:鏡花水月》,探視東方文化對西方藝術的影響,當中更聚焦於歐洲頂尖的時裝設計師,有 Yves Saint Laruent, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gauthier 等等。展覽亦考究演藝業中的中華文化,其中特別矚目的是荷李活三十年代美國華裔女星 Anna May Wong 著起高叉旗袍的影像,矛盾地同時衍生了西方對亞洲人的刻板印象和啟發了一些重要的時尚設計。

大都會藝術博物館策展人 Andrew Bolton 與著名產品設計師 Nathan Crowley 聯手塑造這展覽,把受東方感染的時尚與其靈感來源一同展出。這包括了John Galliano 為二〇〇三年春季的 Christian Dior Haute Couture 系列和設計靈感的京劇戲服,更有十五世紀的明代青花瓷和 Roberto Cavalli 的青花圖絲綢晚裝。Bolton 利用這並列的對比,證明時裝本身便是一種藝術,值得我們的深入硏究。


Rossi 顯示了 Bolton 怎樣在洞悉這題目的爭議性同時,別無他法的勇闖這個文化地雷陣。Bolton 説:「這展覧所提及的政治障礙可以被解讀成為種族主義」。在賭一把的心態下,Bolton 決定勇往直前。

這展覽在原身的爭議性下空前成功,亦成為了博物館服裝學院部最大規模的展覽,吸引到超過八十萬來賓,比起 McQueen 展覽還多。它包含了一百五十多件服裝和數多月的審慎商議,更有博物館內部對時裝展的憂慮。大都會博物館的亞洲藝術收藏是西方國家中數一數二的,包括了多於三萬五千件來自不同時代的展品,由公元前三年至廿一世紀不等。為減低難以避免的文化抵觸,Bolton 邀請了香港名導演王家衞為此展覽的藝術總監。一個聰明的決定。

當王導演察覺到這位前瞻的策展人把毛澤東繡了名字的套裝和佛教雕像放於同一間展覽室時,王導及時提醒 Bolton 這樣的安排可能會冒犯西藏的佛教徒和北京政府。這一幕絕對是電影中較深刻的一幕。

Bolton 迅間接納了王家衛的意見。對展覽要一絲不苟。在另一廂,Vogue 的總編安娜·溫特 (Anna Wintour) 事無大小的為晚宴進行打點,由枱布至座位的花卉襯托都一一檢視。Wintour 說:「我認為,可以打動人心的時尚,是需要我們表揚的」。