There's been a lot of chatter around our office (and the industry at large) about the the Metropolitan Museum of Art's spring 2015 Costume Institute exhibition, "China: Through the Looking Glass," especially in regards to what may be perceived by some as a racially insensitive approach to Asian culture. On Monday evening, dozens of celebrities and fashion insiders will walk the red carpet at the Met Gala, dressed in Chinese-inspired garb to celebrate the exhibit's opening, and chances are that at least a few of them will take just enough liberties with the theme to offend people, even if purely by accident. But, according to the exhibition's curators, the West's often distorted, fanciful representation of Asian influences in fashion over the last two centuries is precisely the point of it all.
At a press conference at the museum on Monday morning, Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Costume Institute, said that Western designers have embraced Chinese influences from art and film for centuries, though they don't always fully understand them. These designers have adopted inspiration from Chinese calligraphy, textiles, crafts and more, while taking plenty of liberties with them, imbuing them new layers of meaning. It's this creative process and the interplay between East and West, art and fashion, and the old and new that are at the core of the exhibition, which is intrinsically aware of its cultural appropriation throughout.
The exhibit begins with an exploration of China in the mid-18th century, when Chinoiserie was at its height — a fitting start, given the style itself is based on a romanticized, even dreamlike idea of China. Each room of the exhibit is meant to be like a scene in a movie — there are even film clips on loop as part of the display in each gallery — and viewers are taken on a trip that incorporates influences from the Zhongshan suit (more commonly known as the Mao suit) to the silk trade to Chinese-American film, namely the actress Anna May Wong and her role as a muse to the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren.
Surprisingly, there are very few garments by Chinese designers on display, but the impact that the country's culture and the "vision" of China has had on world-famous Western designers is vast. Chinese export silks and wallpapers were a source of inspiration for Cristóbal Balenciaga throughout the '50s and 60s, and traditional blue and white porcelain pieces have served as the starting points for many designers' collections through the years, including Rodarte, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and Roberto Cavalli — all of which are on display. As a prime example of a designer taking creative liberties with a Chinese tradition, calligraphy from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu — in which he complains about a stomachache — was turned into a print by Christian Dior and used to decorate a cocktail dress.
Over the years, many designers have based entire collections on Chinese culture, including Yves Saint Laurent’s fall/winter 1977 couture collection (which coincided with the launch of the brand's Opium fragrance) and the all-red Valentino Shanghai collection from 2013, both of which are partly on display at the Met. One of the most impressive rooms in the exhibit is located inside the Astor Garden Chinese Court — the gallery's name “Moon in the Water” alludes to both Buddhism and the name of the exhibit — and includes intricate, Bejing opera and Kabuki-inspired pieces by Maison Martin Margiela and John Galliano for Dior on display in a pool of water, allowing for beautiful reflections — and a palpable feeling of zen.
Upon exit, it's impossible to deny — and impressive to imagine — how truly vast the influence of Chinese culture is on Western fashion. While designers use Asian art and film as inspiration season after season — there are items from as recently as 2013 included in the exhibit — I'd never realized its true scope until I saw it all in one place. From politics to perfume to traditional pottery, Chinese history has touched Western design for centuries, even if its interpretation is more based on imagination than fact.
The Costume Institute's "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibition opens to the public on May 7, and is on view through Aug. 16.