Guest Review of “China: Through the Looking Glass” Ends Sept. 7 #ChinaLookingGlass

Once again, Nadine Stewart was gracious enough to write this review of the Met’s current fashion exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass (through Sept 7). I’m happy to be able to share it with you, given the recent controversy faced by the MFA Boston over their Kimono exhibit:

The latest exhibit by the Costume Institute is like a sumptuous banquet with many, many rich dishes, so many it’s difficult to choose. The purpose is to show the many, many ways Chinese themes have fascinated and inspired Western fashion. This is tricky territory. The imaginary East is a construction of the West and is under attack as a product of colonialism. The exhibit acknowledges this objection voiced most notably by Edward Said, but states that the purpose of the exhibit is “driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typically more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.” The exhibit sprawls over 30,000 square feet and includes the 140 haute couture pieces from the 18th century to the present day displayed in the museum’s Chinese galleries and the Anna Wintour Costume Center downstairs.

The experience (and it can only be called an “experience”) is amplified by the art direction of filmmaker Wei-Kar Wei, who has selected a range of films that have dramatized China in the Western mind. They range from the “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 movie about opium smoking, to “The World of Susie Wong,” a 1950s romance about prostitution and redemption. In the background on the Chinese galleries is the art that inspired this fantasy. It’s a lot to take in.

Moon in the Water gallery

Curator Andrew Bolton has described the arrangement of the exhibit as “film stills.” Label copy is minimal. This is to encourage one to absorb the total experience in each gallery, not focus on small details. There is a great deal of Yves St Laurent, who staged a famous China show in the 1970s and devised the signature perfume Opium. John Galliano seems to appear everywhere too, most notably, in the gallery titled “Moon in the Water” where his fantastical gowns seem to float above a small “lake.” But, there are many other treats to look for—a gorgeous red velvet jumpsuit by Paul Poiret covered with a shawl embroidered with alternating rows of embroidery and fringe, a gown by Alexander McQueen inspired by Chinese painted wallpaper displayed across from elegant gowns from the 18th Century with intricate painted Chinese motifs, and exquisite robe a la franchise with the strip after strip of Chinese florals accented with gold thread, and a 1924 robe de style by Jeanne Lanvin.

The possibilities are endless. The themes in each gallery could be the nucleus of a smaller exhibit.

The Asian galleries upstairs create a dreamlike background for the parade of gowns, perfume bottles, and, even a tiny, delicate Philip Tracey headpiece of a Chinese cityscape. Transition comes in the hallways. One is a tribute to Chinese-American Film star Anna May Wong who was stereotyped as the villainous “Dragon Lady” and the docile “Lotus Flower” till she quit Hollywood and decamped to Paris. According to Bolton, Wong’s screen persona fed the fantasies of Western viewers and cemented their visions of the inscrutable East.

People’s Republic of China gallery

“Dreamy” is not what one would call the themes of the other transitional gallery, which deals with the influence of Communist China and the utilitarian “Mao Suit,” a drab unisex garment that still inspired Western fashion. “The Red Detachment of Women,” a ballet from the Cultural Revolution plays high on the wall. The gallery also features Vivienne Tam’s famous suits and dresses printed with multiple images of Mao as interpreted by Andy Warhol.

Downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume galleries the pace seems to quicken, partly due to the enormous projections of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” on two central walls. One gallery is dedicated to the cheongsam or qipao, a development of the 1930s, which evolved from the loose robes of the Manchu court to the form-fitting gown of the film stars of Shanghai. They are displayed opposite the fashions they inspired. I felt this gallery was too full and crowded. It was hard to see the pieces and movement in that space was limited by the fact that there was a film playing on the back wall. People tended to stand and watch the film, so I had to maneuver around them to get a closer view of the garments on display. I should add that I did not have this feeling in the rest of the exhibit. Even though there were plenty of people in the galleries upstairs, I did not feel like I had to strain to see the pieces.

Manchu Robe gallery

 

Out in larger space downstairs, those Manchu robes are displayed, each with a haute couture gown. The embroidery on the Manchu robes is fabulous. I wished I could get closer to see it. The Western couture glitters. It occurred to me that sequins are the gold thread of our time. The music in this gallery is thundering and relentless. Here some more detail would have been helpful. The symbols on the Chinese robes have great meaning even down to the number of claws on a dragon. It would have helped understand the tremendous transition over the centuries from court robes to high-end fashion if there had been a bit more explanation here.

Special mention must be made of the gorgeous headpieces by milliner extraordinaire Stephen Jones. They are elegant, often whimsical, and witty. They always add the perfect grace not to each mannequin.

I had two wishes as I went through this massive exhibit. The Museum at FIT did an exhibit on “China Chic” in 1999. I found myself wondering how it would compare with this one. Also, the Met did a fine exhibit earlier this year on the art of the Plains Indians, which contained many garments that showed how the Native American and European cultures influenced each other. Since this is another culture that is often appropriated by fashion, it would have been wonderful to have them both on view at the same time.

In the end, the exhibit is gorgeous. It’s been extended through Labor Day Weekend, so you still have plenty of time to see it. Put on your most comfortable shoes and enjoy the dream.”

 

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