Nestled inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, alongside Chinese Buddhist sculptures from the seventh to 18th centuries, sits a stunning haute couture gold lamé gown by designer Guo Pei.
The resplendent strapless gown barely calls to mind the compassion and spiritual wisdom anchoring Buddhist enlightenment, but clearly portrays the complicated political and cultural position the museum’s Costume Institute has put itself in ahead of one of New York City’s premiere fashion events: the Met Gala, the annual high-fashion event that funds the institute in its entirety.
When the museum announced that the exhibition informing the Gala’s theme is China: Through the Looking Glass, questions were immediately raised about how the fashion and celebrity worlds – that are not always the most culturally sensitive – would take on the theme.
“The show is not about China, per se,” said Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, at a preview of the exhibition ahead of Monday night’s gala.
He said that it is instead about the “collective fantasy of China” and how it is represented in western culture – primarily fashion and cinema. Presenting an ancient culture’s depiction by the west as fantasy has invoked concerns that the exhibit, and the outfits it inspires on Monday evening, will reek of Orientalism – when western entities take on a patronising attitude toward the east.
On one gallery wall, the exhibit acknowledges the potential for such criticism.
“Their clothes – like those depicted in 18th and 19th-century Orientalist paintings – allow the wearer to fabricate an alternative identity through cultural displacement,” a sign reads. “While some may perceive an implicit power imbalance in such costuming, designers are driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typically more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.”
Whether or not that is true, the cultural and political context of the event was charged at the Monday preview by the presence of former president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. During Nixon’s tenure, Kissinger worked with the president to formalise relations between the US and China after more than two decades of strained diplomatic relations in the wake of the second world war.
And one of the Chinese politicians they worked with, communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, is featured in the exhibit – his face is used as a print on a dress from Vivienne Tam’s SS 1995 collection, which is itself backed by Andy Warhol’s famous prints of the chairman.
Maxwell Hearn, the museum’s Douglas Dillon chairman for the department of Asian art, said the exhibition is meant to “contextualise the impact of Chinese art and culture on Western fashion”.
That goal is clear on the lower level, where Chinese films blare on wall-sized screens, across from elaborate mirrored displays that include traditional robes from the 18th century, many which belong to the Palace Museum in Beijing, alongside Western designs like Yves Saint Laurent haute couture crafted under Tom Ford’s early 2000s reign.
Thomas Campbell, the director and CEO of the Met, said it is “probably one of the biggest exhibitions we’ve ever undertaken”.
He emphasised that the exhibition was meant to be a “cinematic journey”. Bolton noted that the design was meant to evoke different scenes from a movie. That is clear from the trippy, multi-story, maze-like design which is meant to bring to mind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – hence the “looking glass” element of the exhibition title.
“It is an important time in human history for cross-cultural dialogue,” said renowned director Wong Kar-Wai, the exhibition’s artistic director.
He noted that Chinese culture was not always depicted with respect in early Hollywood. “In this exhibition we did not shy away from these images because they are historic fact,” Wong said.
The collection of more than 140 pieces of designer fashion is displayed alongside the museum’s collection of Chinese art. In one room, ancient Chinese earthenware sits alongside a 1924 Jeanne Lanvin silk taffeta dress.
The exhibition marks the first time the Costume Institute has partnered with another museum curatorial department since 2006, for its British fashion-themed exhibition, AngloMania.
China: Through the Looking Glass runs from 7 May to 16 August at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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