Two-and-a-half times larger than any previous Institute exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass will honour the enigmatic inspiration that has drawn the West to China and its enchanting culture for hundreds of years. Curated by Andrew Bolton, the theme is intended to open discourse and provoke thought on the way Westerners have interpreted Chinese culture: an exchange Bolton likens to a complicated game of Telephone.
While the art exhibited within the museum will be on perfect and appropriate display, the interpretation of theme on the red carpet is an inherent challenge. There is rampant speculation as to whether celebrities will get the choice of attire right, or veer off course and turn the Met gala into a parade of worn-out appropriation and cultural insensitivity.
Attendees will have the opportunity to eye over 140 haute couture and avant-garde pieces, from Chinese masterpieces, costumes, paintings and a variety of other art types. Each piece tells a different story of how China has influenced the fashion world for centuries: juxtaposing high fashion to art forms dating as far back as the 1700s, the exhibition reveals enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery throughout the ages.
Cinematic representations of Chinese culture will also be incorporated throughout the exhibition, intended to reveal how our vision of the country is framed by narratives that draw upon popular culture, as well as recognising the importance of cinema as a “medium through which to understand the richness of Chinese history,” according to Bolton.
Mirrored walls will reflect projections of several award-winning films by Oscar-nominated director Wong Kar-wai, designed to “take visitors on a cinematic journey through our galleries, where high fashion will be shown alongside masterworks of Chinese art,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Met.
Enriching China’s importance to fashion history will be the vignettes on “Women of Style.” The Anna Wintour Costume Center will profile several famed Chinese women, from Hu Die (known as Butterfly Wu), Oei Huilan (the former Madame Wellington Koo), and Soong May-Ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek). The reflections explore the shifting nature of China’s history from Imperial China, the Republic of China to the modern-day People’s Republic of China.
Directly above the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the Chinese Galleries on the second floor will showcase fashion from the 1700s to the present, juxtaposed with decorative arts from Imperial China: jade, bronze, lacquer, and blue-and-white porcelain – most of which will be drawn from the Met’s collection. The Astor Court will feature a thematic vignette dedicated to Chinese opera, focusing on John Galliano’s spring 2003 Christian Dior Haute Couture Collection.
In celebration of the exhibition opening, the Museum’s Costume Institute Benefit will take place on Monday, May 4, 2015. This event is the Costume Institute’s main source of annual funding for exhibitions, publications, acquisitions, and capital improvements and features some of the biggest names in the fashion world. This year, Silas Chou will serve as Honorary Chair and the evening’s co-chairs will be Jennifer Lawrence, Gong Li, Marissa Mayer, Wendi Murdoch, and Anna Wintour.
The exhibition features some of fashions biggest names; Cristobal Balenciaga, Travis Banton, Bulgari, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Callot Soeurs, Cartier, Roberto Cavalli, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano for Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino Garavani, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Picciolo for Valentino, Craig Green, Guo Pei, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Ralph Lauren, Christian Louboutin, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Edward Molyneux, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Dries van Noten, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret, Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Smith, Van Cleef & Arpels, Vivienne Tam, Giambattista Valli, Vivienne Westwood, Jason Wu, and Laurence Xu.
Each of the brands involved in the exhibition have been influenced by China’s rich culture throughout their many years in design:
Yves Saint Laurent, Fall 2004:
“Yves did a ‘Chinese’ collection in 1977 that was really the point of departure for me when I began designing my ‘Chinese’ collection. The yellow sequin evening dress that is in the exhibit was in fact inspired by one of the last emperor Puyi’s robes.”
Vivienne Westwood, Spring 2012:
“I have one or two treasures. They are my Chinese vases, which I bought in Hong Kong.”
— Vivienne Westwood
Jason Wu, Fall 2012:
“As designers, we look to visuals for inspiration. And China is a very visual culture. There are so many subjects, from the different dynasties to the textiles to the different techniques. It’s a subject that’s intriguing for people, especially for Western designers that haven’t grown up seeing it. You want to look outside of your box sometimes.”
— Jason Wu
Giambattista Valli, Fall 2013 Haute Couture:
“China is an inspiration that I like traveling through the threads of my clothes.”
Anna Sui, Fall 2014:
“One room in my apartment is filled with my collections of Chinese bric-a-brac, displayed on antique mother-of-pearl inlay furniture, surrounded by hand-painted peony tree wallpaper on silver foil.”
Emilio Pucci, Spring 2013:
“I think fashion’s continuous exploration of China is due to the extreme richness in culture it represents. It looks sensational seen both through a minimalistic eye, as well as from a Baroque point of view.”
Valentino, Shanghai Collection 2013:
“History, culture, and solid traditions have always been important for us. We are always looking and researching for contaminations from different backgrounds, and China has such a significant heritage that we continuously fish from this treasure.”
—Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli
To give a holistic understanding of what the exhibition is truly about, Bolton differentiated between appropriation and inspiration. He discussed how “many designers tend to look to other cultures, even their own cultures really on a very surface level. It’s about aesthetics really, and they often don’t engage with the cultural context.”
Thus, Bolton’s vision through the multi-sensory show is meant to encourage Costume Institute and Asian Art fans to explore areas of the museum they may not normally gravitate toward. According to the curator:
“We wanted to try to give greater access to the East and West, and to try to minimize the gap between East and West.”
Risk of Cultural Misinterpretation
Revered as ‘fashion’s biggest night,’ critics will be ready to interpret and judge the many outfits that will parade the carpet on the 4th May. It’s being anticipated as a night where guests will interpret or misinterpret the theme.
Many have written with concern that celebrities will miss the mark while intending to celebrate the culture and people of China. Maxine Builder added to the concern, writing that “to be culturally sensitive and to do this theme justice requires an ability to take the time to understand the culture, and I’m concerned that no one will do that kind of research.” Dhani Mau reminded us of past failures when it comes to adhering to theme:
“Almost no one followed 2014’s white tie dress code and the fashion crowd’s interpretation of ‘punk’ was very, very loose in 2013.”
The risk doesn’t just extend to celebrities in attendance: designers, too, have been put on notice. “The Met itself is acknowledging that these (representations) have often been inaccurate or even based on problematic racial stereotypes such as the ‘dragon lady’ or ‘China doll’ tropes. If a designer draws inspiration from these tired stereotypes, they won’t just look racially insensitive, they’ll also come across as incredibly uncreative,” says Liz Flora, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily.
Are celebs being set up for a fail, or are there ways to avoid the crevasse of insensitivity that looms before them?
The smartest, most culturally adept in attendance will likely honour the theme by wearing Chinese designers while simultaneously resisting the trap to put chopsticks in their hair. Anticipation is already being roused on social media with Irina Shayk revealing that Donatella Versace will be the mastermind behind her Met Gala look:
I guess we will have to wait until tonight to be sure. The exhibition itself opens on the 7th of May and runs until August the 16th.