China Through the Looking Glass: celebrating cultural interplay at the Met
’The Met is only closed four times a year: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and the first Monday in May,’ shouts a security guard patiently as tourists repeatedly approach a side entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, trying to get in. That holiday-worthy first May Monday is reserved for what must be the museum’s most glamorous event: the unveiling of the Costume Institute’s annual spring exhibition, followed by a celebrity-studded gala to boot.
This year, the Costume Institute and the museum’s Department of Asian Art have banded together to stage ’China Through the Looking Glass’, an epic survey of Chinese fashion, film and culture and its lasting influence on the Western fashion world. It also coincides with the centenary of the museum’s Asian Art department. Installed in the museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center and its Chinese art galleries directly above, the exhibition decodes iconic Chinese motifs, like chinoiserie, blue and white porcelain and embroidered silk robes, that Western designers have enthusiastically embraced from the 1920s to the present day.
Set against a cinematic backdrop of music and film clips, all selected and edited by the show’s artistic director Wong Kar Wai, the exhibition presents over 140 ready-to-wear and haute couture creations alongside ancient Chinese artefacts and art pieces. Covering around 30,000 square feet (three times the size of the usual spring show), it unravels like a fantasy-like maze, taking visitors to Imperial China in one moment, then to the Maoist 1970s in the next.
The size of the exhibition is commensurate with its narrative arc, which explores the history of the influence of Chinese aesthetics on the Western imagination,’ says the Institute’s curator Andrew Bolton. ’The China reflected in the fashions of the exhibition is a fictional, fabulous dimension, offering an alternate reality with a dream-like, almost hallucinatory quality. The show is not about China per se, but the collective fantasy of China.’
In the Astor Court Garden, an indoor re-creation of a 17th-century Suzhou courtyard, the space has been cleverly transformed into a perspex lake that reflects a giant moon, while mannequins wearing heavy brocade gowns from John Galliano’s Spring/Summer 2003 collection for Dior stand serenely in its midst.
In another gallery, qipaos (traditional Mandarin dresses) from the 1930s and more modern iterations by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton are displayed as scenes featuring the dress in motion. Clips from Wong’s In the Mood for Love and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, are projected closeby. Throughout the show, mannequins wear specially designed headpieces and hats by the British milliner Stephen Jones.
In his address to the press, Wong shared, ’One of the most fascinating parts of this journey for myself was having the opportunity to revisit the Western perspective of the East through the lens of early Hollywood. It is safe to say that most of the depictions were far from authentic. In this exhibition, we do not shy away from these images because they are historical fact and their own reality. Instead, we looked for areas of commonality and appreciated beauty in a balance. We have tried our best to encapsulate over a century of cultural interplay between the East and the West.’