The Fashion Fiend's review of China: Through the Looking Glass

I have been taking the month of August off and enjoying summer, so the fact that Labor Day is already sneaking up on us is a real bummer. That also means an end to the blockbuster China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. If you have an opportunity to squeeze in a visit before next Monday, you really must go - it is truly phenomenal! The exhibit explores the "collective fantasy" of China; in other words the appropriation and appreciation of Chinese art, culture, and costume by Western filmakers and fashion designers. The visual beauty of the show is underlined with a more political tone in the exhibition's accompanying book, which delves into how the West's fascination with chinoiserie or "Orientalist" exoticism has also been fraught with exploitation and cultural misunderstanding. The exhibit notes here explain the thesis in more detail: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/china-through-the-looking-glass/exhibition-galleries

The show's artistic director was none other than the legendary film director Wong Kar-Wai, whose vision has transformed several galleries in the Asian Art section of the museum into a multimedia dreamscape. It is the first time I have seen a Costume Institute show at the Met employ the richness of the art surrounding it to such effect. The exhibit begins with a room embued with the glamour of The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertulucci's 1987 film about Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. This room also juxtaposes historical Chinese garments with modern interpretations by designers as different as Tom Ford and Dries Van Noten, which nicely serves to highlight the wide-ranging influence that Chinese culture has had on the Western imagination. Next is a survey of the cheongsam - or qipao - as placed in the context of couture pieces from Western designers and film clips highlighting the particular allure of this style of dress. 

  Modern couture from Jean Paul Gaulthier inspired by the cheongsam

 Modern couture from Jean Paul Gaulthier inspired by the cheongsam

Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's 1991 drama,   Raise the Red Lantern , the story of a teenage concubine.

Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's 1991 drama, Raise the Red Lantern, the story of a teenage concubine.

The real stunners come on the second floor, where I heard audible gasps as people entered the blue-and-white gallery. There awaits an exquisite gown by Chinese couturier Guo Pei (she designed Rihanna's dramatic golden silk dress for the Met party this year) that mimics the shards of a blue-and-white porcelain plate in the folds of the fabric. 

 

A second gown by Guo Pei in the Buddha gallery is a work of art in its own right, the shape inspired by a lotus flower and intricately embroidered entirely over its entire surface. If the previous gallery evoked gasps, this one inspired silent awe.

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Alexander McQueen was often inspired by different cultures and historical dress to create something almost futuristic. The influence of the robe-like garments worn in ancient China was evident in this piece, embroidered with the nature motifs so prevalent in Chinese art.

The distinctive millinery by Stephen Jones unifies the pieces in the exhibit.

The distinctive millinery by Stephen Jones unifies the pieces in the exhibit.