Criticism, Fashion Studies

“China: Through The Looking Glass” at the Met Museum

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend the Preview of the current exhibition at the Met Museum Costume Institute: China: Through The Looking Glass, and I’m completely obsessed with it. Although I’ve only attended a few exhibitions at the Costume Institute and my opinion is probably not the most educated one, this one – though quite long and exhausting – is my favourite so far and I can’t wait to see it again.

I am not really sure if the exhibition was meant to have a precise order or not—and this is a problem I’ve found common in many of the fashion exhibitions I’ve attended—so I decided to follow my instinct and make my way through it using the order that seemed most logical through me. I started on the Anna Wintour Costume Center Galleries and then made my way up to the Chinese Galleries in the second floor. Although it did make sense most of the time, sometimes the way I transitioned from one gallery to the next was not very smooth. But it was all beautiful, despite the order/disorder, and magical.

The moment I entered the principal gallery of the Costume Institute I felt immersed in an atmosphere of mysticism, a land unknown to me, but somehow familiar, from all the images I’ve seen from it throughout my life. The music was intense and the film clips from The Last Emperor helped create this atmosphere, where a time long gone in China was recreated through the art of dress. In the movie, it is possible to see the wonderful dresses worn by men and women alike, where red—probably the most powerful colour in China, according to what I’ve learned from my Chinese friends—and rich, colourful, even golden, embroideries were the main protagonists. The costumes from the film clip create a perfect conversation with the garments being exposed in this part of the exhibition, as contemporary creations from Western fashion designers are juxtaposed to historical garments that were actually worn by the Emperors back in the time. From the beginning of the exhibition, the interaction between East and West is more than clear, reflecting the main intention of Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibition.

The smaller gallery of the Costume Institute provides a short escape from the intensity of dynastic life in China. Transporting me to a later, post-dynastic period, I saw the beauty of the Qipao, both in a variety of film clips and the designs inspired by this classic, yet sensual shape of dress. The film clips emphasise the love stories of the women wearing the Qipao, and the music is more than perfect to create a nostalgic atmosphere of the love gone. Eros (2004), for example, shows not only the story of the woman, but also the making of the beautiful dress she wears. In The Mood for Love (2000) the dress hugs the woman’s body, perfectly highlighting her natural curves, and the camera angle, which focuses on this lover’s body, definitely shows a sexualised perception of the Qipao—and the Chinese woman as well—showing a perfect example of what Laura Mulvey calls the cinematic “male gaze.” The film clips and the music accompanying them builds up the perfect mood for the gallery, where love—or the absence of it—is definitely the main theme. There is also a sense of multiculturalism, again, of the interaction between China and the West in the music. I particularly adored hearing the song Quizás, quizás, quizás as part of the soundtrack, as it reminded me of my childhood and clearly raised all types of emotions in me. And because exhibitions are particularly successful when they manage to make the audience emotional, this was definitely the point when I fell for this one. I was beaten!

Right next to the wonderful atmosphere of love in the film clips, there were several dresses, all arranged next to the other, showing more contemporary, Western interpretations of the Qipao. Designers included Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, John Galliano for Dior, and even Jean Paul Gaultier. The Qipao is definitely one of the greatest symbols of China in the west, it is simple and versatile, and can be adapted to a large variety of colours, textures, and maybe even fabrics. No doubt it has been a great inspiration for many Western designers, and I’m really glad it got its own little gallery in the exhibition.

On another note, despite the curator’s idea of showing the interactions between China and the West, the fact that the exhibition is actually called “China: Through the Looking Glass” inherently implies that it shows a vision of China through the Western eye. There is a question of stereotyping and colonialism that definitely needs to be addressed, and the exhibition itself managed to include it. In the first floor, a tiny lobby that separates the first part of the exhibition with the next, explores some of the cultural appropriations of China in the West. We see the Mao suit used by Tseng Kwong Chi as a vehicle to explore Eastern stereotypes in the US in the 1980s, part of his “East Meets West” series, and how Vivienne Westwood later used the suit as part of one of her collections in 2012. We also see red guard uniforms appropriated by Galliano for Dior in spring/summer 1999, and even how Andy Warhol used Mao’ face in his art, which was also included in Westwood’s dresses. This cultural revolution, which took place in the late 70s and the 80s, which influenced the American and European avant garde, is said to be inspired by President Nixon’s visit to China in 1973.


The exhibition continues on the second floor, where we enter a Hollywood, Twenties-inspired era, once more animated with music and film clips. The presence of the iconic figure of Anna May Wong, who took such an important part in shaping the fantasies of China in the 1920s, taking the roles of both the “submissive Lotus Flower” and the “wily, predatory, calculating Dragon Lady,” was definitely a must in this part. The gallery entraps her in the Western allusions and associations of China, showing perfectly what this Looking Glass means and how it has shaped fashion in the West for centuries.

After this entrance to the second floor, there is a collection of smaller galleries that explore the different ways China has interacted with the West through history. From the export of silk, which started during the golden age of the Roman Empire and has inspired the creation of beautifully embroidered Spanish shawls and Balenciaga dresses, among other treasures to Yves Saint-Laurent’s controversial “Opium” collection, which was strongly criticised for reducing China exclusively to the well-known Opium wars with Britain in the Imperialist race, China is presented through a variety of themes. Calligraphy and blue-and-white porcelain—my favourite!—, and even perfume and the performing arts, are also part of the themes that shape a full idea of the chinoiseries, which have been reflected in fashion for centuries as a “fictional, fabulous invention, offering an alternate reality with a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory illogic.”

Of this second floor, I want to highlight the use of the Garden in the exhibition. This has been one of my favourite places in the museum since I discovered it last year, and I often go there to read and live a sort of magical alternate reality. But seeing it play its magic as part of the exhibition, with the Buddhist red moon reflected in the water, and the beautiful dresses floating like godlike figures, made me more than happy. I loved it!

Finally, before exiting the exhibition—all overwhelmed and full of emotions and still not believing what I had just seen—I walked past the last galleries of Ancient China. One of them had the most beautiful jewels and accessories, made with Jade, diamonds and rubies—basically all of my favourites together in the same place, unbelievable! And then came the last dress, designed by Guo Pei—who also designed Rihanna’s dress for the gala—and which, surrounded by all kinds of enormous Ancient Chinese sculptures, stood in the gallery giving light and brightness, like the most important of all deities, leaving me both breathless and in awe—mouth open and everything, probably!

**Words cited from exhibition labels.

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