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POLITICS: The Met Gala is a Ballardian nightmare

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The post The Met Gala is a Ballardian nightmare first appeared on USSA News | The Tea Party’s Front Page.. Visit USSANews.com.

For weeks now, a timer on the Vogue website has been ticking off the seconds, the anticipation within the fashion world bursting at the seams. But finally: the 2024 Met Gala is here.

There is, however, something different about this evening’s show. The Costume Institute’s spring exhibition, “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion”, focuses on 50 historical pieces from its collection that are too fragile to be worn again. So far, so haute couture. But while the dress code for the Gala follows the same logic, it also takes inspiration from an unlikely source: guests are invited to take their lead from “The Garden of Time”, a 1962 short story by J. G. Ballard.

It is impossible as a Ballard fan not to be excited by this unexpected turn of events. One imagines that it would have delighted such a close student of contemporary culture and keen analyst of celebrity. And, though hardly a style icon (he dressed generally like the Surrey dad he was), Ballard took fashion seriously. In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, Ballard praised the social revolution of the Sixties for, among other things, “the use of fashion as a political weapon” (as well as for “the youth cults and drug culture”).

Nor is this the first time the fashion world has taken an interest in Jimmy’s work. In fact, he contributed to British Vogue himself twice in the late Seventies. During that period, Vogue employed a literary editor, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, and Ballard, seen as something of a provocateur following his “urban disaster” trilogy of novels (Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise), was well-connected in literary circles. The resulting collaborations, “The Future of the Future” and “The Diary of a Mad Space Wife”, were speculative futurological pieces, containing the vivid insights for which he continues to be renowned, alongside some predictive misses.

So, the recreation of Ballard in the unlikely guise of a fashion guru is a cause for considerable celebration. But how might those lucky enough to attend the Gala respond to the theme? If you’re on the list and need some last-minute inspiration, read on. You’ll want to be fully Ballard-conversant, so scroll down for the deep-cut style tips. (A shortcut for anyone wanting to pay tribute to the man himself: think gin o’clock vibes — cream linen suit and striped shirt — and you won’t go far wrong.)

The obvious place to start is the story itself. “The Garden of Time” imagines an aristocratic couple, Count Axel and his wife the Countess, living a life of luxurious leisure in a beautiful villa with terraced gardens nearby a lake. While they spend their days in the library, or drawing room, reading rare volumes and playing Bach on the harpsichord, a mob approaches across the plain beyond the low garden walls: “a vast throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide”. By picking the time flowers in their garden, the Count and Countess can turn back the clock for the period of time it takes for a bloom to shed its petals. The time flowers, though, are running out, and the mob draws ever closer. On the night the Countess picks the final bloom the mob flood over the wall to discover two stone statues in the garden.

As a parable for the times in which we live, it’s hard to beat. As parts of the planet become uninhabitable, and the movement of people across the globe breeds new conflicts, the super-rich are noticeably retreating to islands, gated communities, and the bunkers on their New Zealand estates. But in the context of the elite Met Gala, the choice of this story is ambiguous at best: is the fashion world trolling those of us too poor to buy Stella McCartney? The 99% of us excluded from the A-list events?

Those who want to show they’ve done their homework can take pointers from the Count and Countess. Axel is “a tall, imperious figure in a black velvet jacket, a gold tie-pin glinting below his George V beard, cane held stiffly in a white-gloved hand”. The Countess, meanwhile, wears a brocade dress. “Her face was serene and intelligent, her hair swept back behind her head into a jewelled clasp, touched with silver. She wore her dress low across her breast, revealing a long slender neck and high chin.” It’s easy to imagine Ms Wintour’s attention caught by these details as she leafed through Ballard’s Collected Short Stories.

But in the context of Ballard’s larger oeuvre, “The Garden of Time” isn’t actually the obvious choice for inspiration. Intriguingly, there is a much more fashion-focused option from Ballard’s short fiction, concerned almost entirely with futuristic speculation. The Seventies story “Say Goodbye to the Wind” is set within Ballard’s imagined Vermillion Sands resort, whose “spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach”, and which was Ballard’s “guess at what the future will actually be like” when “work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work”.

The story is centred on a boutique that sells bio-fabric fashions: “Clothes are no longer made from dead fibres of fixed colour and texture that can approximate only crudely to the vagrant human figure, but from living tissues that adapt themselves to the contours and personality of the wearer.” Many of the beach designs sold at the boutique are in op-art styles, so vintage Quant might be one way to go. And while we haven’t yet quite cracked bio-fabrics, any panicked and underdressed celebs might try a call to Polish fashion designer Iga Węglińska, who made two tops in 2021 designed to change colour or flash with lights in response to feelings of stress or anxiety.

All this is well and good, but seasoned Ballard watchers will be wanting his waspish attitude to pierce the apparently sophisticated veneer of style. In the second of his novels to fictionalise elements of his own life, The Kindness of Women, a sequel to Empire of the Sun, Ballard commented wryly on the tendency within fashion to épater les bourgeois. It was a tendency he recognised well: “One of Cleo’s fashion magazines showed some models prancing about in front of a blow-up from the Zapruder film – the Kennedy assassination as a fashion accessory?”

“Seasoned Ballard watchers will be wanting his waspish attitude to pierce the apparently sophisticated veneer of style”

His later-period work further satirised this inclination towards fashion edginess. In the novel Millennium People (2003), a middle-class terrorist militia movement based in south-west London becomes a fashion inspiration: people wear “camouflage fatigues and military webbing, part of the new guerrilla chic inspired by Chelsea Marina that had already featured in an Evening Standard fashion spread”. A bit too street for such a glitzy event? Perhaps. In which case, the statement offering suggested in the short “The Object of the Attack” (1984) might be a bit more to your taste: “Already the disguised fashion-accessory holster worn by Princess Diana has inspired a substantial copycat industry, and London is filled with young women wearing stylised codpieces (none of them realise why).”

These deadpan satirical flourishes do pose a number of questions: what are we to make of the fact that the work of a writer who so surgically anatomised contemporary culture’s celebrity obsessions from his suburban home has now become fodder for the ultimate red-carpet event? Do the notoriously enervated and excessive doyennes of the fashion world see themselves in Ballard’s visions of hyper-aristocracy? Do they “feel seen”? There is something delicious and ambiguous about the Ballardian Met. The author who began playing with his own fictional representation as early as Crash and who took great delight in a walk-on part as John Bull in Spielberg’s adaptation of Empire of the Sun would surely have watched with great relish to see how the current crop of Liz Taylors and Jayne Mansfields interpret his early work. “Nothing is real, everything is fake.” He has strolled into the heart of the gated community.

One of the holy sacraments of Ballardian mythology surrounds his notorious story “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, a Crash-era story in the style of a scientific report acutely describing psychosexual responses to the then California governor’s subliminal appeal. It is rumoured — possibly apocryphally — to have been circulated under a Republican Party letterhead at a Republican conference in 1980, where it was taken for what it appeared to be: “a position paper by a renegade think tank”. Ballard always aimed for ambiguity and this has always entailed the possibility of, shall we say, distinct readings. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that tonight’s attendees who have read it will be likely to empathise with the Count and Countess in “The Garden of Time”. But for how long can they keep the hordes at the other side of the garden wall by pulling on just one more fragile frock?

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Author: Mark Blacklock


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