The fantasy of China: why new Met exhibition is a big, beautiful lie
The first thing to accept about "China: Through The Looking Glass", the spring exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is that it is not meant to be a critical assessment of the fashion industry’s non-fiction, politically correct relationship with China’s culture, history or its people.
The displayed ballgowns, evening robes and cocktail dresses - which are dazzling - are not treated as historical documents stitched out of silk and cotton, embroidered and beaded. The designers, more often than not, never intended their garments to be commentaries on politics, human rights or the complexity of East-West trade negotiations. They wanted them to make people dream.
But still, the exhibition, which sprawls across three floors, from the Chinese Galleries to the subterranean Anna Wintour Costume Centre, offers a thoughtful, expressive and - at times - utterly breathtaking exploration of China as part of the broader cultural landscape.
This is not an exhibition that offers a plodding treatise on cultural tourism and appropriation. There are no "right" ways to be inspired by Chinese history. The exhibition gives full-throated consideration to "Orientalism" - a word that continues to live among the temples of academia but, according to the exhibition notes, has become secularly defamed as an expression of "Western supremacy and segregation".
"What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism," said curator Andrew Bolton in an interview. "When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had."
"China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making," Bolton noted. The country itself has added to the "misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas".
Bolton, along with curators from the Department of Asian Art, celebrates China as an exotic fantasy that has inspired the fashion industry for centuries. The silk trade, blue and white porcelain, calligraphy, ancient warriors and mysticism have all beguiled and amazed Western designers and driven them to create some of their most breathtaking works. It is as though once freed from the constraints of their own borders they were able to craft glamor and eroticism in a manner that was both visceral and unbound.
For designers such as Paul Poiret in 1912 and later Cristobal Balenciaga in 1960, Orientalism blew into the rarified haute couture ateliers like a perfumed breeze. It offered a kind of lush and forbidden sensuality that made their work more intellectually daring.
For Yves Saint Laurent, China offered the majesty of colour and opulence, as well as the dangerous intoxication of opium - which became the name of his successful fragrance. Saint Laurent’s autumn 1977 haute couture collection, "a polyglot bazaar", was filled with gilded odes to chinoiserie. One can’t help but be mesmerised by the sheer extravagance of the work; the pleasure is in his lack of restraint. Taken outside of his familiar realm, Saint Laurent makes full use of colour, texture and every embellishment that the imagination might conceive.
By the time designer Tom Ford takes the reins at Saint Laurent in the 2000s, the fantasy of China is even more removed from the source. On the runway, audiences see Ford’s interpretation of Saint Laurent’s Orient. The collision of colours remains hypnotic, but more intense and shadowy. The pagoda shoulders, with their sharp, angular lines, are not as exaggerated as Saint Laurent’s but they are strong and aggressive. If China itself evoked mystery and Saint Laurent conjured sensuality, Ford offered sexuality. The fantasy of China is forever evolving and providing each generation with the magic it desires - perhaps even needs.
For designers, the mythology of China is not limited to its aesthetics, but also its politics. Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano have both been inspired by the profound plainness of the Mao jacket. And Vivienne Tam was inspired by Mao Zedong himself.
For Tam, the face of Mao Zedong becomes a kind of meditation on structure, homogeneity and absurdity. She repeated artist Zhang Hongtu’s image of Mao over and over in her memorable spring 1995 collection, turning the communist leader’s face into a childish print. His unsmiling visage becomes little more than a series of polka dots or yards of plaid.
The Mao jacket is "the last sartorial symbol of China", Bolton said. "Subsequently, no other item of clothing screams China to the West."
Westwood took the bland polyester uniform and declared it a fashion basic in 2012. She constructed hers from crisp cotton poplin and what was created to strip a population of individuality, becomes, in Westwood’s hands, a foundation upon which individual aesthetics are meant to be built.
Galliano elevates the Mao jacket, stitching it out of green silk and trimming it in red satin ribbon. In his spring 1999 collection for Dior, Galliano turns the Mao jacket into a mark of exclusivity.
While several design houses are celebrated with individual vignettes — including Saint Laurent and Valentino — it’s Galliano whose work has been most consistently informed by China. During his time at Dior, he found his inspiration first through Chinese films. He finally visited the country of his fascination in 2002, after which "the influence became amplified," Bolton said. Galliano’s use of chinoiserie was woven throughout his work, but it was processed - alongside British history, French haute couture tradition and street-wise attitude - through his own Cuisinart of an imagination.
Galliano is a designer known not just for the bold aesthetic stroke but also for crafting characters that his clothes brought to life. He was enlivened by the actresses he saw in China’s films and in some respects was enraptured by two recurring clichés. The Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong is a strong presence in "Through the Looking Glass". The actress, born in Los Angeles, struggled against two archetypes - dragon lady and lotus flower. And one sees both of those stereotypes in the work of Galliano, as well as Ralph Lauren, Ford and others.
There’s no intent to malign those designers by suggesting they are insensitive to cultural stereotypes. The exhibition simply underscores the complicated nature of cultural representation, communication and understanding.
Artists are crucial in that equation. The reality is that film, and ultimately, fashion speak more powerfully to the average Westerner than any number of speeches delivered by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the 1970s when diplomatic doors were opened to China, or any sound bites from subsequent American diplomats.
The question of cultural appropriation hums like white noise throughout the exhibition. Some of the most beautiful garments in the exhibition are by the Chinese designer Guo Pei, born in 1967. He takes liberties with his own culture. His is one of several gowns that have been inspired by blue and white porcelain. His dress, with its fan-like pleats, is displayed alongside work from Roberto Cavalli, Chanel and Rodarte. But a style of porcelain that has a home in China is also produced in Europe. So who owns it? China? Britain? The Netherlands?
Guo exploits Buddhist iconography in an evening dress design but does so using Western silhouettes. So whose culture is being appropriated? "Once a sign is exposed to the world, it’s free to merge with any other sign," Bolton remarked, referencing the work of the French philosopher Roland Barthes. The result is "a China that purely exists in the imagination".
The most dramatic and inspiring portions of the exhibition are those that inhabit the second floor Chinese Galleries. There, the Dior gowns and Maison Martin Margiela embroidered robes are draped on abstract mannequins that wade in a mirrored faux pond against the backdrop of a wooden pagoda and under a giant, glowing moon.
Western-style sportswear hides within a sea of illuminated columns surrounded by carvings from Chinese antiquity. A massive Buddha looms over golden ballgowns. Blood-red Valentino gowns stitched from fragile lace are all the more provocative in a crimson-walled gallery lit with glowing lanterns.
There is a sense of truly having tumbled through a looking glass and into a wonderland where milliner Stephen Jones has formed magical headdresses that are like glorious free-form sculptures.
Those garments displayed in the basement, in the official Costume Centre, where there are glass vitrines and modestly sized galleries simply can’t compete with the spectacle upstairs. The organisers would do visitors a favour by advising them to tour the lower level first before venturing to the jaw-dropping upper floor.
Often, fashion exhibitions force the viewer to dig deep to find something that resonates beyond the pleasure of pretty dresses. With the Met’s 2011 record-breaking "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" exhibition, there was a current of personal emotion and unique intellectual curiosity beneath the beauty that spoke to the profound power of fashion.
This exhibition, which takes up more than twice the floor space of "Savage Beauty", combines beauty and artistry with thought-provoking questions that ask viewers to look outward — to look beyond themselves to a broader world. The exhibition isn’t seeking some deep truth. It only asks that we consider the exquisite lies.