Garden of time met gala looks
Artwork by Rhea Brar

The Garden of Time: the sci-fi short story behind this year’s Met Gala

In an unnamed place and time, a majestic villa overlooks a garden of delicate, glass-stemmed flowers. Home to Count Axel and the Countess, the otherwise elegant landscape is unsettled by a dark blot on the horizon. It is an army of furious workers, drawing nearer day by day. To slow its approach, Axel plucks the time flowers from his garden; each one dissolves in a burst of light which rewinds time itself, and so the threatening horde shifts back on the skyline. This solution, however, is only temporary. The garden of time is faltering, the flowers are almost all gone, and the masses will soon arrive to take their long-awaited revenge.

This is the premise of The Garden of Time, a 1962 short story by J.G. Ballard. Previously lesser-known, the work of science fiction has recently been propelled into the limelight due to its nomination as the theme for the 2024 Met Gala. So why was this tale chosen? How might it influence celebrity fashion? And what can they – and we – learn from it?

The theme in context

An annual fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Met Gala celebrates fashion in famous circles. This year, the Costume Institute will stage an exhibition entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ to showcase a number of clothing items. The label ‘sleeping beauties’ refers to the dormant nature of the pieces on display, often so fragile that they will never be worn again. 

Going hand-in-hand with the exhibition and its themes of fantasy and fragility, The Garden of Time is the inspiration behind the guest dress code. The story is certainly a springboard for creativity; Ballard’s garden is a space of ambiguities and contradictions, at once mesmerising and doomed. It’s easy to see how costumes could range from dainty florals all the way to futuristic dystopian looks, perhaps imitating the style of the recent Dune: Part Two premieres (including that vintage Mugler robot suit worn by Zendaya).

An ecocritical reading

‘The flower in Axel’s hand had shrunk to the size of a glass thimble, the petals contracting around the vanishing core. A faint sparkle flickered from the centre and extinguished itself, and Axel felt the flower melt like an ice-cold bead of dew in his hand.’

For a modern reader, the environmental implications of Ballard’s story are unmistakable. The Garden of Time is frail; hence the time flowers are likened texturally to glass – translucent, brittle and ghostly. Who or what is threatening this ecosystem? On one hand, the army is the force which eventually raids the landscape. Yet, the garden is already exploited by the count and countess, as they tear the flowers apart one by one to buy themselves time and protection from the workers’ wrath. This dual threat can be viewed as a metaphor for how both mass industry and aristocratic greed drive environmental destruction. 

What Ballard makes overt is that our own decline is inherent in the decimation of nature; when the last flower is plucked, the count and countess are not only left vulnerable to the army, but they also literally turn to stone. This message remains deeply relevant today, marking The Garden of Time out as a work ahead of its time.

Already, though, there seems to be a paradox at the core of the Met Gala theme. After all, it is (fast) fashion which is a leading cause of the very environmental crisis that is uncovered by Ballard. We might question how a fashion event will respond to this tension. Designers may, for instance, endeavour to use sustainable materials or to make eco-political statements through clothing. And what about the jet-setting ways of many of the celebrities in attendance? It will be interesting to see whether celebs channel the theme into a reflection on their environmental impact or whether it is all just about the aesthetic. 

A Marxist reading

the army was composed of a vast throng of people, men and women […] Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around necks, others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes,’

The Garden of Time is arguably as much about the clash between social groups as it is about the decline of nature. In the army, we can see the revenge of the proletariat as shown in other literary works like Émile Zola’s Germinal. But is Ballard championing or criticising this force?

In his presentation of the unequal conflict between the isolated count and countess on one side and “the ceaseless tide of humanity” on the other, Ballard may be commenting on the collapse of so-called refined society in the face of mass consumeristic forces. The people are depicted as a brutish and chaotic crowd that will destroy the idyll of polite society, where the countess whiles the days away romantically playing Mozart and Bach. Despite the futuristic nature of the story, then, there initially seems to be something conservative about its message.

Conversely, the tale may point to the inevitable fall of the aristocracy. The count and countess appear as the last remaining figureheads of a bygone age, one which can only suspend its downfall for so long. Tellingly, the story ends with the victory of the working class over the precious few – perhaps a slightly bitter pill to swallow for some of the millionaire celebs in attendance. 

There may be a hint of pretentiousness underlying the need for an obscure, intellectual theme for this event. It is as if the celebs are aligning themselves with the sophisticated count and countess, the emblems of ‘high society’. Will they pick up on the ironies at work here, and how might this be reflected in their costume choices?

Thinking fashion

The Garden of Time abounds in symbols and motifs which could weave their way into Met Gala fashion on 6 May. Designers could emphasise the romantic overtones of the story, inspired by the count and countess’ love, or their picturesque garden. However, there is something apocalyptic about the narrative too, arising from its darker themes of transience, death and decay. For all we know, the count and countess could be the last two people on Earth, their garden an inverse Eden at the end of time. Costumes may tease out the clash between these two facets of the tale, such as through contrasting natural and industrial textures, or sinister florals like belladonna and thorns – both specifically mentioned in the original story.

Beyond nature and industry, time is a central theme which could be expressed stylistically. Outfits may feature clock motifs, but there could also be more creative interpretations of both the reversal of time and our powerlessness in the face of it. Subtler aspects may be fleshed out too, like the musical motifs from the countess’ playing of Mozart and Bach. Alternatively, since Ballard’s landscape represents the relics of a lost age of elegance, with the property and garden in ruins by the end of the story, costumes could take up the idea of dilapidation, using textures like faded velvets and rusted metals to express ruined opulence.

Lastly, the science fiction or fantasy categorisation of this work lends itself to a fairy tale style – the flowers dwindling in the time garden recall the petals falling from the rose in Beauty and the Beast. This take would work well in connection with the ‘Sleeping Beauties’ exhibition. Whether celebs go down the Disney route or put the grim in Grimm’s Fairy Tales is up to them.

Final thoughts

Short though it may be, The Garden of Time provides abundant material for fashion concepts at this year’s Met Gala, while its broader social, political and environmental commentaries continue to provoke debate, even six decades on from its initial publication. 

Image Credit: Rhea Brar