Looking at “China”: Met Gala 2015

From the Met Museum’s website:

This exhibition, organized by The Costume Institute in collaboration with the Department of Asian Art, will explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries. High fashion will be juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery.

From the earliest period of European contact with China in the sixteenth century, the West has been enchanted with enigmatic objects and imagery from the East, providing inspiration for fashion designers from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent, whose fashions are infused at every turn with romance, nostalgia, and make-believe. Through the looking glass of fashion, designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions.


The theme of this year’s Met Gala, “China Through the Looking Glass” offers fashion’s big names an opportunity to spotlight Chinese designers, celebrities, and aesthetic influence. Unfortunately, “China Through the Looking Glass” uses a myopic lens more often than not. The bolded words above are, obviously, my emphasis. They highlight moments where, even in the official copy, the exhibit and the Gala’s theme treat many centuries of Chinese aesthetic development as a sort of treasure hoard lying in wait for Western designers to discover and pastiche at will.

The exhibit itself does boast undeniably beautiful highlights. Here, Fei Fei Sun is photographed for Vogue in a John Galliano gown from Spring 2009.

The exhibit itself does boast undeniably beautiful highlights. Here, Fei Fei Sun is photographed for Vogue in a John Galliano gown from Spring 2009. The inside of the skirt recalls the blue Chinese porcelain that fascinated Europe for centuries.

The root of the problem is the way in which this year’s Met Gala theme collapses all of China into a simple “theme.” The themes of past years have been pretty contained and more specific (“punk,” “superheroes,” “Schiaparelli and Prada,” etc.). Here, all of Chinese fashion history gets flattened into one image repository. This is the classic move of Orientalism (and various kinds of cultural Othering): to convert a vast, diverse culture into a string of marketable motifs. In China’s case, this has meant: dragons, phoenixes, and other visual markers that come to stand for an exotic, “timeless” China that is both outside of history’s flow and always available for Western use as aesthetic inspiration. The use of Chinese motifs as inspiration in European and American design is an interesting consideration, but hardly the whole story.

There were plenty of terribad looks from the Met Gala—Sarah Jessica Parker’s atrocious Philip Treacy headpiece comes to mind, in particular. So does Anna Wintour wearing fucking poppies, the symbol of Britain’s violent exploitation of China through the Opium Wars. Those looks don’t deserve more attention. Instead, below we highlight some of our favorite looks from the night, from those who either actually pulled it off, or wisely chose to eschew a theme that could so easily stray into appropriative territory.

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