Well, the party’s over. All that’s left are the red carpet pics, the illegal celebrity selfies and this exhibit at the newly christened, Anna Wintour Costume Center. This show is designed explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the imagination for centuries in high fashion juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, film and other art. When Europe made contact with China in the 16th century, the West became fascinated with the objects and imagery from the Far East and in the 20th century it provided exotic inspiration for designers to go “through the looking glass” of fashion to connect disparate references into a modern Chinese aesthetic. There have been calls lately for designers to “stay in their own cultural lanes” and that has many asking in the PC world we live in, what is appropriate for people to be inspired by? Whatever you think of this idea, the world would be a lot less glam without Galliano‘s Asian-inspired dresses for Dior, or YSL‘s safari dresses. What honors or celebrates a culture and what is appropriating it? With big fashion brands lending major pieces, there’s probably some hesitance to link those designs with overtly critical commentary, so there’s little editorializing in the show and the viewer is left to decide for themselves if what they are looking at is a tribute to beautiful workmanship or is there another layer to the culture onion? Here you get a Paul Poiret design with more recent offerings like a Ralph Lauren gown with a dragon motif scrolling up the back, a Roberto Cavalli dress with a porcelain pattern, and a yellow Galliano gown for Dior with sequined embroidery featuring Chinese characters. Many of the mannequins have amazing headdresses by Stephen Jones — who made Sarah Jessica Parker‘s amazing “flaming hat” to go with her H&M gown. A Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen hat in the shape of a pagoda, that was worn by the late, style icon Isabella Blow featured is somewhat of a tribute here.
For this wide-ranging exhibit — almost triple the size of the Charles James show last year — the Costume Institute worked with Maxwell Hearn, the head of the museum’s Department of Asian Art on this wide-ranging exhibit incorporating fashion, historical objects, as well as film overseen by the great filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. As Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton told New York magazine:
“I think that when it comes to China, at least with fashion designers, their first entry is really through film. A lot of their impressions of China are actually formed through filmic references. It was important for us to use them as a bridge, in a way.
“There are very direct references between the [art] objects and the fashion. Having them side by side [a dress next to the porcelain vase, that inspired it] opens up the debate more, and talks about this dialogue between the two cultures that has always existed.”
Often early Orientalist depictions by Westerners often jumbled together cultures:
“You have pashas in turbans mixed up with Chinese [people] in pagodas. In the West, there’s still a tendency to blend these Asian cultures together… artists take what they want and leave the rest. They don’t have to understand China in order to make use of these motifs and touchstones for inspiration.”
But there’s just where the cultural insensitivity can come in… (the reverse of which is akin to a clueless hipster getting a Chinese symbol as a tattoo that they think means “peace” but actually says “white whore”!)
Whatever angle you take while looking at the exhibit, it features over 100 examples of haute couture and fashion-forward ready-to-wear alongside with Chinese and modern art. Here’s a little dim sum of what’s on offer at the Met in China: Through the Looking Glass. It opens tomorrow and runs through August 16. For more info, go here.
(Photo, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; via New York magazine)