The ‘delicious irony’ of the 2024 Met Gala theme

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Painting of flowers

In JG Ballard’s dystopian story The Garden of Time – which has inspired this year’s dress code – the super-rich hide themselves in Arcadian splendour while the “great unwashed” riot. It seems an unlikely choice of theme for fashion’s event of the year.

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The title of JG Ballard’s 1962 short story The Garden of Time has an elegiac romanticism to it. Images immediately stir, visions of flowers and vines springing forth. Depending on the bent of your imagination, those visions may err towards tidy blooms or overgrown thickets, perpetual splendour or the endless cycles of death and growth so necessary for even the smallest pocket of paradise. After all, a garden is time incarnate, bound by the slow march of the seasons. But what kind of garden is this? Do the normal rules of chronology apply?

This year, fashion’s annual extravaganza the Met Gala has taken Ballard’s title as its dress code. The theme has been chosen to complement The Costume Institute’s exhibition Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion, an exploration of the many items held within the Met’s archives that are now too fragile to be worn. Reanimated using technologies including X-rays, AI and soundscapes, these artefacts are interspersed with iconography related to the natural world, the combination promising to “serve as a metaphor for the fragility and ephemerality of fashion and a vehicle to examine the cyclical themes of rebirth and renewal.”

The Met Gala's theme has been chosen to complement the exhibition Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion (Credit: Nick Knight/ Courtesy
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Met Gala’s theme has been chosen to complement the exhibition Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion (Credit: Nick Knight/ Courtesy
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s an odd pairing. Perhaps asking the Gala’s attendees to embark on further reading before they attend is setting them up to fail (see the various interpretations of “camp” in 2019 that would have had Susan Sontag smashing her Tiffany lamps in protest), but for anyone who does choose to dig deeper, the choice of Ballard’s short story may prove puzzling. It relays the tale of Count Axel and his Countess wife who live in a magnificent hilltop villa, surrounded by their gardens. These gardens, where “the air seemed brighter, the sun seemed warmer” hold a series of “time flowers” – translucent growths with crystal hearts. When plucked, that crystal core dissolves, emitting the light trapped within. “Strange shifts momentarily transformed the evening, subtly altering its dimensions of time and space,” Ballard writes. “The darkened portico of the house, its patina of age stripped away, loomed with a curious spectral whiteness as if suddenly remembered in a dream.”

The flowers can slow the clock, but they cannot stop it. So far, so fitting for an exhibition concerned with historical clothing that embodies time without being immune to it. After all, garments are vulnerable, affected by heat, sweat, pressure, stains, moths, storage methods and so on. The job of the archivist is to attempt as much preservation as possible, suspending the usual process of decay even if it cannot be staunched entirely – conserving history so that future generations can maintain some connection with the products of the past.

However, Count Axel is not picking his precious flowers for the thrill of it. On the horizon, an army advances, “a vast confused throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide”. While the Countess plays Mozart on her harpsichord, and the Count tends to his library, this crowd draws ever closer, threatening destruction on their arrival. Each flower delays the inevitable, pushing the crowd back slightly. But there are only so many flowers, and no more are growing. The villa’s days are numbered, husband and wife living in an exquisite glass prison.

J G Ballard's dystopian short story The Garden of Time is the inspiration for the Met Gala's dress code this year (Credit: Fourth Estate)

J G Ballard’s dystopian short story The Garden of Time is the inspiration for the Met Gala’s dress code this year (Credit: Fourth Estate)

To briefly spoil the ending, when the mob finally reaches the edge of the gardens, they find only crumbling relics: the lawns overrun with weeds, the house full of rotting doors and caved-in floors. On the terrace there stand two statues protected by belladonna-laced thorn bushes. The stone woman clutches a rose; an Ovidian vision of protected permanence sprung forth from the land, saved from the ravages of time.

Nightmarish vision

Commentators writing breezy accounts of this year’s costume theme have focused on the metaphorical significance of Ballard’s story, pointing to its exploration of humanity’s tendency towards cycles of creation and destruction (the fact that one of the top-ranked explainers on Google from 2016 uses that exact wording is, I’m sure, complete coincidence.) Although this holds some truth, it does seem to deliberately ignore a more obvious point. This is a short story in which the last bastion of rich, refined beauty – with its classical music, rare books, and its lovely clothing – is overrun by a working-class mob. “Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks; others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes,” Ballard writes.  The mob is variously described as a tide, a nightmare, and a minor detail from a Goya painting.

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It’s a jarring image in the context of an event that is a celebration of affluence, excess and rarefied beauty, where a table for the evening sells for $300,000, and an invite bestows an exclusive glitter of Vogue-approved importance on the attendee; perhaps acutely so, when set against the backdrop of global volatility and economic uncertainty, the divisions between safety and danger, wealth and poverty feeling ever starker. Under those circumstances, what on Earth are we to make of this theme based on a story that, regardless of where its loyalties lie, features the destruction of high culture by an undifferentiated mass of humanity? In its evocation of beauty on the brink of ruin, who does it disdain?

The stylish 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis is a favourite in the fashion world – like Ballard's tale, it is about inequality (Credit: Alamy)

The stylish 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis is a favourite in the fashion world – like Ballard’s tale, it is about inequality (Credit: Alamy)

Any discussion of wealth and exclusivity in the context of the Met Gala is a little plus ça change. Events like this have always been for the privileged few. Similarly, given the consistency of world inequality, contrasting celebrities parading in expensive gowns with images of abject poverty is nothing new (and it is worth pointing out that these expensive gowns do generate a lot of jobs). That said, it is rare to have a dress code that manages to touch on that inequality quite so explicitly before immediately burying it again beneath predictions of attendees wearing “melancholic florals”.

Those contrasting images often rub shoulders in an age where they might pop up one after the other on an Instagram story: the same tools that have made the Met Gala so phenomenally popular also enhance our proximity to suffering the world over. In 2023, the Met Gala generated 12.3 billion impressions for Vogue’s channels under the hashtag #metgala, while the event’s livestream generated 53 million views across Vogue’s various social platforms and global markets. We live in an age of visual saturation, where tragedy and beautiful distractions crowd in on all sides, clamouring for our attention.

The Gala itself has been around since 1948, when fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert (a busy woman who was also responsible for the inception of New York Fashion Week) put on a midnight fundraising dinner costing $50 a head. In the 1970s, shrewd Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland introduced costume themes, cementing the event as a crucial part of the socialite calendar, and ensuring a steady stream of funding for the Costume Institute. However, although it’s gone from strength to strength under Anna Wintour’s gaze, it’s really only been in the past decade or so that the Met Gala has played a pivotal role in popularising the idea of fashion as mass entertainment – aided, of course, by enormous advances in social media.

In Ballard's story, the rioting mob are likened to figures in the art of Spanish painter Goya, whose work became increasingly pessimistic (Credit: Alamy)

In Ballard’s story, the rioting mob are likened to figures in the art of Spanish painter Goya, whose work became increasingly pessimistic (Credit: Alamy)

It has become the red carpet to end all red carpets, a chance for the whole world not invited to the costume party to enjoy judging its attendees on how gorgeous, inventive and fitting (in all senses of the word) their outfits are. And just with other forms of mass entertainment, it is both extremely enjoyableand extraordinarily lucrative. According to LaunchMetrics, last year the Gala accrued nearly $1 billion in media-impact value for the various brands involved – and a nice packet of publicity for everyone in attendance.

It would be interesting to know how the Ballard short story first came to the table. Was it just a neat title? Or is someone in the committee’s midst trying to foment class rebellion? Perhaps the dystopian premise is part of a fiendish plan to get people talking – after all, no publicity is bad publicity for the Met Gala. It welcomes controversy, whether it’s Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” dress or Doja Cat attending dressed as Karl Lagerfeld’s beloved cat Choupette, speaking only in meows.

This may be too generous a reading though, given that the fashion world loves a reference shorn of complexity. There are some interesting parallels with the 1927 silent film Metropolis, another fashion favourite that has inspired designers including Thierry Mugler, which features a paradisical garden quite literally built above the working masses. At the very least, we can hope that Iris van Herpen brings a thoughtful interpretation.   

Whatever the reasoning, there’s a certain, delicious irony found in invoking Ballard at the Met Gala. The Garden of Time belongs to the earlier, most science fiction-oriented part of his career, which sprawled in all sorts of directions over the decades but retained a consistently bleak interest in the apocalyptic atmosphere of modernity and its uncertain future: frequently invoking urban hellscapes, wide-scale global destruction, mass media, the cult of celebrity, the thin line between spectacle and violence, and identities configured through consumerism.

The Garden of Time as a title summons a "melancholic florals" mood – previously evoked in the 17th Century by the Dutch artist Jan Davidsz de Heem (Credit: Getty Images)

The Garden of Time as a title summons a “melancholic florals” mood – previously evoked in the 17th Century by the Dutch artist Jan Davidsz de Heem (Credit: Getty Images)

In an essay written for Vogue in the 1970s, he even predicted the rise of social media: “Every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day.” One wonders what he would have made of his own work being amplified and distorted in such a context, his words becoming the backdrop to a fluttering cornucopia of florals, each outfit paraded on the first Monday in May a blooming display of finery hiding a complex network of roots – sponsorship deals, brand calculations, dedicated craftsmanship, exposure opportunities – beneath its pretty skirts.

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