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Can Celebrities Dress for the Chinese-Themed Met Gala Without Being Culturally Insensitive?

This year's Met Gala theme is one of the most challenging yet, but there are ways to honor China's heritage and its present culture on the red carpet.
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Katy Perry at the 2013 American Music Awards. Photo: Kevin Mazur/AMA2013/WireImage

Katy Perry at the 2013 American Music Awards. Photo: Kevin Mazur/AMA2013/WireImage

On Monday, dozens upon dozens of celebrities and the designers who dress them will walk the red carpet into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to fete the opening of the Costume Institute's next exhibit, "China: Through the Looking Glass." The event — which this year counts Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Blake Lively, Anne Hathaway and Kim Kardashian among its hosts — is often referred to as “fashion’s biggest night," but many observers are wary to see how guests will interpret — or misinterpret — that theme.

In a Jezebel article headlined “2015 Met Gala Will Probably Be an Asian-Themed Shitshow,” Kara Brown writes, “The fact that the core idea behind the theme is how Chinese aesthetics have influenced other designers is troubling because that influence is often culturally insensitive or downright racist." She adds, “I simply do not trust the majority of Met Gala attendees to handle this theme with tact and respect." Over at Bustle, Maxine Builder echoed her concerns, writing, "To be culturally sensitive and to do this theme justice require an ability to take the time to understand the culture, and I’m concerned that no one will do that kind of research.”

When it comes to cultural appropriation and accidental racism, the fashion industry doesn’t have the best track record. Despite public backlash, Native American headdresses continue to be casually incorporated into runway shows and magazine editorials. Ditto the incorrect use of “Navajo print,” and impoverished black people as props in fashion shoots. Celebrities, such as those likely to attend Monday’s soiree, aren’t so good with this stuff either. See: Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” video, Katy Perry’s 2013 American Music Awards costume, and many of Miley Cyrus’s artistic decisions.

Oftentimes, those at fault defend such instances by saying they intended to celebrate the culture or class of people they imitated, an excuse we could easily see those involved with the Met Gala using. Add to that the fact that Met Gala attendees, while happy to take risks, often miss the mark when it comes to adhering to the 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 — and you can see why there's general concern.

Are guests being set up for failure with this theme, or are there ways to attend this red carpet event, look amazing, and safely avoid offending anyone?

In some ways, it's the former. A Vogue article explaining the theme says the exhibit will look at “how eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture in an exchange that [Curator Andrew] Bolton likens to a complicated game of telephone.” While there are ways to convey that exchange respectfully in the context of a museum exhibition, interpreting that on the red carpet is inherently challenging. “The Met itself is acknowledging that these 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, who notes in a recent op-ed that luxury brands also risk alienating the Chinese shoppers who make up a significant portion of their customer bases.

“The gala is potentially more of a minefield because it doesn’t come with notes on each outfit, no card explaining what the designer’s intention was,” says Susan Scafidi, Fordham Law professor and author of “Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.”

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As for what to avoid? In short, anything too obvious that perhaps feels appropriate for Halloween. “They shouldn’t wear something that’s just based on an Orientalist Western fantasy about China,” says Flora. “It’s important for the attendees to avoid anything that looks too much like a costume — heavy 'Oriental'-looking makeup and tired tropes will come across as unoriginal and culturally tone-deaf.”

“The concern is people will come wearing their best Orientalia, chopsticks in their hair, and that would be horrible. We can imagine that because that’s happened in the past,” adds Minh-Ha T. Pham, a Media Studies professor at Pratt and author of "Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging."

Also, don’t wear something inspired by an Asian country that isn’t China. “If a big enough celebrity shows up looking like a geisha, it’s not just the U.S. media that will tear them to pieces,” says Flora. “They’re going to be trending on Weibo within hours — and not in a good way.” A word of advice: "The main thing people need to ask is, 'Is this design something a Chinese person would actually buy?' They should probably be asking their Chinese friends this question rather than just asking themselves."

Vogue Social Editor Chloe Malle, who is directly involved with the gala and will cover it for a Vogue special issue, wrote in an email to Fashionista that the official dress code is "Chinese white tie." She says she's not sure "anyone really knows what that means, so it will be interesting to see how guests interpret it." While Malle says there are "extra brownie points involved" when one dresses on-theme, it's not a requirement for entry. She suggests playing with prints and colors from the Ming Dynasty in China, incorporating jade jewelry or wearing colors like red and yellow. (Red symbolizes joy and good luck in Chinese culture, she says, while yellow is historically the imperial color and represents royalty and heroism.) "Basically, as long as no one dresses like Fred Astaire in the 'Ziegfeld Follies,' I’ll be relieved."

Jennifer Lawrence and Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2013 punk-themed Met Gala. Photo: Imothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Jennifer Lawrence and Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2013 punk-themed Met Gala. Photo: Imothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The rest of the people I spoke with pretty much all agreed that the best and most productive way to approach the event would be to wear the designs of modern Chinese and Chinese-American designers. “It would be interesting for attendees to actually wear something by a Chinese designer who’s working right now, as a nod to the fact that China’s not just in the past," Pham says. While our current ideas about China might involve traditional tropes like cheongsams dresses, vases and porcelains, that could serve as a reminder “that China exists today and is a modern luxury design center," she argues.

With Chinese and Chinese-American designers being among the most talented working today — Derek Lam, Phillip Lim, Peter Som, Anna Sui, Alexander Wang, Masha Ma and Huishan Zhang (who was tapped to create a limited-edition capsule collection for Barneys tied to the exhibit) among them — that shouldn't be too difficult.

Update: This article was updated to include quotes from Chloe Malle.