China Through the Looking Glass at the Met
(All photos courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
If Alice went through the Looking Glass into a startling new world, this month thousands of museum-goers have turned Alice – and zapped through a disorienting world of mirrors into China!
A China right in the middle of New York.
Over 30,000 square feet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been transformed into a fantastic China of the imagination through the magic of fashion, art, cinema and film. It was heralded by the big Costume Institute Gala where countless Hollywood celebrities from Beyonce to Rihanna to Lady GaGa showed up on the red carpet, each dressed in designer garb, each a love-poem to China.
Cristobal Balenciaga, Roberto Cavalli, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Edward Molyneux, Dries van Noten, and Jean Patou are just some of the international fashion icons whose China-inspired couture is the love story behind ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ which can be seen at the Met through August 2015.
China – Fashion, Art and Cinema
Now this epic exhibit brings east and west together in a stunning embrace. This is one of the largest and most ambitious exhibits at the Costume Institute and gives you the full flavor of this centuries-old exploration not only through fashion but also through art and cinema. To wander into these galleries of light and darkness, mirrors and reflections is to be sucked into several centuries of China, real and imagined.
From the sixteenth century, the West has been enthralled with the Chinese culture and style. The exhibition features over one hundred pieces of haute couture and ready-to-wear alongside the authentic Chinese antiquities which inspired these designs.
A Hall of Mirrors
To enter the Anna Wintour Costume Center is to enter a fascinating hall of mirrors bringing alive Imperial China as well as the Republic of China in the 30’s and 40’s, and finally the People’s Republic of China. In this play of mirrors with film scenes being splashed on the dark walls, one is captive in a fascinating new space.
There is probably no stronger medium than cinema and to see scenes from iconic films of Zhang Zimou, Chen Kiage , Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai is to enter a beautiful time warp. There are also vignettes showcasing powerful stylish women from Hu Die (Butterfly Wu) to Soong May-Ling (Madame Chiang Kai-Shek).
You next enter the Chinese Galleries which showcase fashion from the 1700s to the present, juxtaposed with decorative arts from Imperial China, including jade, bronze, and the famous blue-and-white porcelain. In the Astor Court you see fabulous antique robes as well as iconic designers’ contemporary fashions with Chinese opera playing in the background. It is a world of lush colors, style and music which dominate all the senses.
Many noted jewelers are also part of this grand exhibition including Cartier, Van Cleef& Arpels and Bulgari. Walk through the rooms and you are bound to see your favorite designers from Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton to Tom Ford for Yves St. Laurent to Vivienne Tam, all represented here with their avant-garde translations of the Chinese aesthetic.
So what has fascinated Western designers the most about Chinese style and design?
China’s Fashion Inspiration
Be it the blue and white porcelain aesthetic or the calligraphy idiom – you can be sure Western designers have been smitten by it. Without doubt, the Manchu Robe worn by royalty has always been the scene-stealer. Many of the robes in this exhibit belong to the Palace Museum in Beijing and were worn by Chinese emperors. The glamorous quipao worn by Chinese actresses as well as the embroidered shawls have had Westerners lusting for these in their wardrobe. The Zhongshan suit, or Mao suit remains a powerful influencer for as the curators note, ” For many Western designers, the appeal of the Mao suit rests in its principled practicality and functionalism.”
Each of these Chinese cultural artifacts have been re-interpreted by Western designers.
When one talks of chinoiserie, Yves Saint Laurent’s extravagant fall/winter 1977 haute-couture collection re-imagined Western ideas of Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors and the imperial splendor of the Qing court under Dowager Empress Cixi. To walk the halls and see the fashion translations of designers from Dior to Valentino is to understand China’s strong hold on the imagination; China is a synonym for power, mystery, luxury and glamour, and transforms these designer clothes into objects of desire. Who can forget Yves Saint Laurent’s perfume ‘Opium’ and the influences it was created from?
As the curators of China Through the Looking Glass observe, “For the designers in this exhibition, China represents a land of free-floating symbols, a land where post modernity finds its natural expression. Like Marco Polo or Gulliver, they are itinerant travelers to another country, reflecting on its artistic and cultural traditions as an eroticized extension of their own, Mythical, fictional, and fantastical, their China exists only in their imaginations.”
(C) Lavina Melwani
( This article was first published in The Hong Kong Tatler )