The Met Gala’s Strange but Fitting Literary Inspiration

In an Instagram post on Feb. 15, Vogue rather cryptically announced the dress code for this year’s Met Gala: “The Garden of Time.”

An article published that same day on the Vogue website cleared things up a little, noting that “The Garden of Time” was the title of a short story by J.G. Ballard, a British author who specialized in dystopian works of fiction.

“The Garden of Time” appeared in the February 1962 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was included in the “The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard,” a collection published not long after the author’s death in 2009. The story describes the last days of Count Axel and his wife, known only as the Countess, who reside in a Palladian villa surrounded by a garden.

They pass the days in seclusion. The count busies himself by attending to rare manuscripts. The countess plays Bach and Mozart on a harpsichord.

The threat to their peaceful existence arrives in the form of an army on the horizon. As it moves closer, Count Axel develops a clearer view of this “vast throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers.” In an effort to turn back the advance of this “immense rabble,” he reverses time by plucking blooms from the garden’s most exquisite plant, the time flowers.

Soon enough, the last flower is plucked, and the mob overruns the property. The villa lies in ruins, and all that remains of the count and countess is a pair of statues “gazing out over the grounds” from behind a stand of thorn bushes.

“The Garden of Time” is a fitting but ironic choice as a theme for the year’s most lavish celebration. It’s fitting because the Met Gala celebrates the contemporary equivalents of aristocrats at a time of widespread social anger toward elites; it’s ironic because the reference suggests that the guests and hosts may be doomed.

The same Ballard story inspired a 2021 fashion collection by the designer Thom Browne. The clothing was understated and classic, and the clay-like makeup worn by some of Mr. Browne’s models suggested creatures halfway between statue and human.

The sympathies of “The Garden of Time” seem to lie with the count and countess. And yet the author slips in hints that their lovely existence may be empty. When Count Axel puts his arm around his wife’s waist, he realizes that “he had not embraced her for several years.”

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