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The Met Gala is a Ballardian nightmare The fashion aristocracy have made their own dystopia

'What will the showbiz demi-gods all wear?' (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'What will the showbiz demi-gods all wear?' (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)


May 6, 2024   5 mins

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 piece 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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John Riordan
John Riordan
17 days ago

“As parts of the planet become uninhabitable…”

Do we have a link for this claim? And if so, does it take account of the fact that large parts of the planet have always been uninhabitable but that this trend is actually reversing in many places?

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
17 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

That completely derailed me as well. I couldn’t stop thinking about how you can measure in satellite imagery how an amount of land equivalent to the size of the US has greened thanks to climate conditions in recent past.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
17 days ago

A nostalgic piece for when dystopian thoughts were acts of imagination that were often intriguing and playful. When, despite major differences on how to get there, there was a consensus of sorts on the values a community should aspire to and frequently a desire to balance the two sides – the aspiration to explore individuality and its impact on the well-being of others. Can we please go back to such times?

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
17 days ago

The images from the Met Gala have always left me thinking ‘it’s like pre-revolution Versailles, they’re asking for it’. Maybe this year they have lost their heads and have dropped the subtleties!

Richard 0
Richard 0
17 days ago

Ballard was an extraordinary writer. Described as a Surrealist by some, his ability to get under one’s skin is unique. As this piece says, his ambiguity is what sets him apart. No statements, ideology – he’s far too clever for that. Read him a lot in my 20s and have dipped into occasionally since. Time for a re-read.

RM Parker
RM Parker
16 days ago
Reply to  Richard 0

True. I have a copy of his collected short stories – I think it needs to be pushed to the top of my “to read” pile! So much great writing, so little time.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
17 days ago

In the future they going do crash theme party.driving each other crazy .in the met.cronenberg did fantastic job

Claire D
Claire D
17 days ago

How about some leather bomber jackets like the street thugs in Super Cannes? like Woodrow Wilson’s own Blue Eagle SA Left wing enforcers.

That would be apposite

Dominic English
Dominic English
17 days ago

‘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.’

Hilarious. Who exactly is ‘noticing’ this Mark? I think it might just be you mate. Have you tried St John Wort?

William Miller
William Miller
17 days ago

The article is unreadable

Alan B
Alan B
16 days ago
Reply to  William Miller

Perhaps it’s because you have not read much Ballard?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
15 days ago
Reply to  Alan B

Thank goodness…

David Morley
David Morley
17 days ago

And next year, presumably, William Burroughs Naked Lunch.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
16 days ago

When I was an SF fan (30 years ago), Ballard was an amazing phenom. His stories had the air of the end of time, similar to some of Jack Vance’s stories (Last Castle). Ballard had the added element of weird perverse sex.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
15 days ago

The nominally Irish-American writer of Hunger Games predicted the Democrat aristocracy of the future. Sure enough, they quickly became transhuman on the gender medical complex and state euthanasia. I think of her as the polite embodiment of the forces that would congeal in Republican populism and so a mirror of the paranoid liberalism of Margaret Atwood. Both presented literary simulacrum that challenge the simulation that is American culture to hit the accelerator further in realising dystopia in real-time.