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Monday, May 4, 2015

Met Gala Preview: China Through The Looking Glass

The fashion industry's greatest night will happen in a few hours. I was treated to an early preview of the Metropolian Museum of Art's costume institute exhibit that will be the star of the 2015 Met Gala. China: Through The Looking Glass was one of the most spectacular fashion exhibitions I have ever seen.

The morning started with remarks by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute's curator and film director Wong Kar Wai, who also served as the exhibit's artistic director while reigning queen of Vogue Anna Wintour presided over the ceremony.

wong kar wai anna wintour
The displays were stunning. Many of the museum's antique archive pieces of Chinese garb were presented alongside contemporary couturier pieces that were clearly influenced by them. Groupings included looks that took traditional motifs and embroideries as its muse. There was a beautiful room of pottery inspired gowns.

"Through the looking glass" is actually a paraphrased translation of a Chinese idiom referring to the reflection of the moon. There was a room set up to look like a garden with a reflecting pool. The ceiling was a digitally animated moon progressing through its different phases while water droplets fell. The mirrored surface was the perfect stage to show all sides of the sculptured silhouettes of this gallery.

metball 2015

As a fashion fan, couture fan, Met museum fan, I loved this beautiful exhibit. However, as an Asian-American, I wondered where all the actual Chinese contributions were? Of course, director Wong Kar Wai's vision of the exhibit was tremendous and very heavily promoted. Within the exhibit itself, I found that 90% of the "fashion" looks were by Western designers. They were paired with Chinese antiques, but there was no discussion of how much China contributes to modern fashion. How many of the Western design labels who were celebrated here are produced in China.

Of course, no exhibition on Chinese designers could be without Vivienne Tam who is the most prominent brand to bridge traditional and modern pop culture with Chinese motifs. A few exceptions included dramatic pieces by Guo Pei and Laurence Hu. Otherwise, there were endless looks from Yves Saint-Laurent, Givenchy and John Galliano for Dior. While I can't argue with the beauty of the gowns themselves, John Galliano lost his position at Dior due to the embarrassment of his verbal attack using racist Asian slurs.  Design notes from Yves Saint-Laurent demonstrated how the brand loved the exoticism of oppressed classes like coolie and slant-eyed sketches that would be very offensive today.

There was an entire gallery of how Yves-Saint Laurent's Opium fragrance influenced the popularity of the Asian aesthetic and a small gallery of Paul Poiret using Orientalism as his signature trend. The percentage of European and American designers appropriating Chinese culture was presented in a way that seemed to convey that the Chinese culture was only validated as a design force only after Western designers chose to appropriate it. This was in line with Hollywood's prevalent "Great White Hope" approach to movies featuring any other ethnicity as a theme (think The Last Samurai).

Actress Gong Li, has also been heavily promoted in all the press releases leading up to tonight's Met Gala as co-host. No doubt there will be more Chinese nationals at this gala than ever before. However, how many Chinese guests has Anna Wintour invited before or will invite after this year?

Many of the most important designers of today's fashion scene are Chinese, like Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, Philip Lim, Anna Sui. I saw a hat by Jason Wu, but otherwise, I did not see any other pieces representing these designers. How about the technology, the innovations, or current trends from Chinese designers that don't fall neatly into the cliche idea of "Chinoiserie"? One stunning exception was a room dedicated to a gigantic gold ballgown by Guo Pei. This designer should soon be a household name for her mix of technology and old-school couturier practices. The dress took over 50 000 hours of manual labor to make.

There was a gallery of Anna May Wong, one of the very few Asian movie stars of any prominence from the early part of the 20th century. If one is looking for a gorgeous Asian Hollywood star to be inspired by, she would be the one. There was a costume worn by her and similar gowns inspired by that era. While it looked beautiful, the thought that came to mind was how little progress we have seen for Asian actresses considering how many years have passed.

I'm looking forward to seeing the red carpet from tonight's Met Gala for China Through the Looking Glass. I'm hoping that there will be a contemporary representation of the history shown at the exhibit today. While artistic and fashionable, this exhibition was breathtaking, culturally, there is still a long journey ahead.
All photos by Mariana Leung

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