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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

20th century China through the looking glass of Western fashion designers

An exhibition of costumes and accessories at the Metropolitan Museum in New York focuses on distorted perceptions of Chinesedress to highlight the idea of cultural misrepresentation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 6:23am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 July, 2015, 1:56pm

The West's view of China has been distorted by inaccurate representations of the country and its culture in the Western media and fashions of the 20th century - that's the idea behind "China Through the Looking Glass", a new exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The show, which runs until August 16, focuses on the interplay between Chinese clothing and Western fashion designers, and features more than 140 costumes and accessories.

The idea of cultural misappropriation is further highlighted by a series of video installations featuring clips of films set in China, edited by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, who served as the exhibition's artistic director. The clips are shown as installations in a complex and intriguing exhibition that presents the clothes in The Met's China galleries among furniture and statues from the collection, as well as in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre.

"One of the most fascinating parts of this journey was having the opportunity to revisit the Western perspective on China through the lens of early Hollywood," says Wong. "Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a fan-dancing Chinese man or Anna May Wong in one of her signature 'dragon lady' roles, it is safe to say that most of the depictions of China were far from authentic."

The fashion designers who are the focus of the show fared little better, adds Wong, noting their misinformed attempts to create Chinese styles presented a fantastical view of the country: "The fashion designers and tastemakers of that period took these distorted images as their inspiration and went on to create a Western aesthetic with new layers of meaning that was unique," he says.

To put a name to it, the show is dealing with the concept of "orientalism" - a negative term that describes a false, exoticised view of China - and its imagistic counterpart, "chinoiserie".

The show's title, "China Through The Looking Glass", a direct reference to Lewis Carroll's novel, was chosen to reflect the theme of misrepresentation, according to Andrew Bolton, the curator of The Met's Costume Institute: "We took our cue from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There - which was an imaginary alternative universe.

"In this world, everything is topsy-turvy and back to front. Like Alice's make-believe world, the China reflected in the fashions in the exhibition is a fiction, a fabulous invention offering an alternative reality with a dreamlike nature. The show is not about China per se, but about a reflected fantasy of China," Bolton says.

The layout of the show is labyrinthine, something that contrasts with The Met's usual meticulous and clear approach to an exhibition. Rooms and corridors are small, and crammed with dresses and accessories, and the lighting is dim; each turning reveals a surprise. Giant video screens are set on the floor and the walls, furnishing light as well as hosting the film clips. Mirrors abound, an element that the curators say was included to emphasise the theme of Western designers trying to mirror Chinese creations.

The upstairs portion of the show is set in the China galleries, and uses the museum's historical artefacts and scenic recreations as the background for mysterious dioramas featuring the dresses. The section set in the Ming Scholar's Retreat, a life-size model recreation, is impressive, with the mannequins appearing to float on an artificial lake. Behind, in a room exhibiting Ming dynasty furniture, the image of Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's film Raise the Red Lantern, shows on a screen.

A gallery devoted to wuxia - the mystical underworld inhabited by the martial arts masters of legend - features a towering perspex bamboo grove concealing outfits designed by Craig Green. A clip of King Hu's classic A Touch of Zen, noted for its bamboo grove sequence, plays in the background, followed by the energetic drum dance sequence from Zhang Yimou's Hero.

"Wending your way through the galleries, you pass through 200 years of Western fashion and several millennia of Chinese art history," says curator Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon chairman of the department of Asian art. "In showcasing the sources of inspiration that lie behind these Western fashions, an underlying premise became clear. It was a creative process of artists making connections: that's what they do. They are not inhibited by time or space or culture. They use influences even if they don't fully understand them. Or rather, they understand these things in their own way to solve creative challenges."

The clothes are a mix of Chinese costumes and modern designs from the West. In what looks like a monumental task, every mannequin is topped by an individual metallic design by British milliner Stephen Jones - the exhibition's "mad hatter", according to Bolton.

Designers include many of the greats from the West, including Yves St Laurent, Roberto Cavalli, Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld. Chinese costumes run the gamut from a dragon robe that belonged to the "last emperor" Pu Yi, on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing, to Mao suits.

The downstairs section, in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre, which is dominated by a giant video screen showing a clip of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, is arranged to show the mirroring effect of the process. It shows traditional Chinese clothes next to modern interpretations such as a digitally printed dragon dress by Tom Ford.

Down here, a section devoted to Asian American screen icon Anna May Wong, a movie star of the 1920s and 1930s, effortlessly describes the show's main theme. Wong, a well-known actress, was always cast as an exotic and evil dragon lady in movies such as Daughter of the Dragon, in which she played the wicked daughter of the stereotypically villainous Fu Manchu. She fought to play a Chinese person who was not villainous but rarely succeeded.

The dresses on show in the section about her, including a dazzling black dragon-themed dress by costume designer Travis Banton, are gorgeous and sumptuous, but reflect the stereotypical exoticised view of China that was a feature of literature and films in the early 20th century.

The danger of presenting an imaginary view of China is that the viewer may miss the point. This is manifest in a short exhibition relating to the Cultural Revolution, which features Mao suits, Red Guard uniforms and Vivienne Tam's Pop art-style Mao print dresses.

Stripped of any historical context, the scenes from the mainland propaganda film The Red Detachment of Women, which play in the background, make the Cultural Revolution seem like a merry song-and-dance party.

Wong Kar-wai says the point of the exhibition is to show the inaccurate Western fashion images as facts in their own right, no matter how misinformed they were.

"We do not shy away from these images, as they are historical facts and they have their own reality," he says. "We look for the areas of communality and appreciate the beauty that abounds. With 'China Through the Looking Glass', we have tried our best to encapsulate almost a century of cultural interplay between the East and the West. It is a celebration of fashion, cinema and human creativity." Bolton, who worked on the show for two years, adds: "These dialogues encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understanding. The distance between East and West diminishes. What emerges is a dynamic, active two-way conversation - a liberating force of cross-cultural communication and presentation."