It’s fashionable, but does Met Gala’s China theme make a fantasy of the far east?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 9:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 9:46am


As the most fashionable people in New York filed into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its annual gala, they were walking into a potential controversy over how the west views China.

The theme of this year’s gala, and the exhibition that accompanies it, as determined by Vogue editor Anna Wintour? China: Through the Looking Glass

When the museum announced that the theme, questions were immediately raised about how the fashion and celebrity worlds - that are not always the most culturally sensitive - would take on the theme.

“The show is not about China, per se,” said Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, the branch of the Met for which the gala is an annual fundraiser.

He said that it is instead about the “collective fantasy of China” and how it is represented in western culture - primarily fashion and cinema.

Presenting an ancient culture’s depiction by the west as fantasy has invoked concerns that the exhibit reeks of Orientalism - when western entities take on a patronising attitude toward the east.

On one gallery wall, the exhibit acknowledges the potential for such criticism.

“Their clothes - like those depicted in 18th and 19th-century Orientalist paintings - allow the wearer to fabricate an alternative identity through cultural displacement,” a sign reads. “While some may perceive an implicit power imbalance in such costuming, designers are driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typical more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.”

Cultural context may not have been weighing on the minds of the various celebrities as they filed in on Monday.

Wintour, the Vogue chief and doyenne of the fashion industry, wore poppy ruffles at the shoulders. She was followed on the red carpet by actress Gong Li, who offered a girlish tilt of her head as she waved in a deep red velvet gown with black lace and a fan design.

Kim Kardashian most certainly embraced the theme — in a revealing, low-cut gown with an East motif done by Peter Dundas for Roberto Cavalli.

Sarah Jessica Parker donned a fiery head piece with long side tassels that towered high above her black, one-shoulder gown with a long flower-adorned train. There was quilting down one side that separated into a high slit. Justin Bieber showed up in a black jacket slithering with gold dragons.

The cultural and political context of the event were more on show a preview on Monday with the presence of former president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. During Nixon’s tenure, Kissinger worked with the president to formalise relations between the US and China after more than two decades of strained diplomatic relations in the wake of the second world war.

And there was Mao Zedong - his face is used as a print on a dress from Vivienne Tam ’s SS 1995 collection, which is itself backed by Andy Warhol’s famous prints of the chairman.

Maxwell Hearn , the museum’s Douglas Dillon chairman for the department of Asian art, said the exhibition is meant to “contextualise the impact of Chinese art and culture on Western fashion”.

That goal is clear on the show’s lower level, where Chinese films blare on wall-sized screens, across from elaborate mirrored displays that include traditional robes from the 18th century, many which belong to the Palace Museum in Beijing, alongside Western designs like Yves Saint Laurent haute couture crafted under Tom Ford’s early 2000s reign.

Thomas Campbell, the director and CEO of the Met, said it is “probably one of the biggest exhibitions we’ve ever undertaken”.

He emphasised that the exhibition was meant to be a “cinematic journey”. Bolton noted that the design was meant to evoke different scenes from a movie. That is clear from the trippy, multi-story, maze-like design which is meant to bring to mind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland - hence the “looking glass” element of the exhibition title.

“It is an important time in human history for cross cultural dialogue,” said renowned director Wong Kar-wai , the exhibition’s artistic director.

He noted that Chinese culture was not always depicted with respect in early Hollywood. “In this exhibition we did not shy away from these images because they are historic fact,” Wong said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press