A blue-and-white porcelain vase, a stunning silk court robe, a snippet of celluloid — all of them have their place in the Costume Institute’s upcoming exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The show, which opens May 7, purports to explore how China has inspired both natives and outsiders through the years. With artistic-direction by Wong Kar Wai, who was present at this morning’s press preview, the Costume Institute staff worked in concert with Maxwell Hearn, who heads the museum’s Department of Asian Art — an atypically multidisciplinary approach. Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton told the Cut, “It’s been really exciting — challenging, in parts, because we have different approaches to our subject matter, but I’ve learned so much working with him. We have one dress — I’m embarrassed to say this — in our department by Dior, which I always thought had Japanese script. Not only did he verify it was Chinese, but he actually found the original source of the calligraphy, which is actually a poem from a ninth-century scholar.” (And that happens, by the way, to be about a stomachache, of all things.) The show’s filmic components include a section on Old Hollywood star Anna May Wong, focusing on what Bolton called “the stereotyping of Asian women as being either dragon ladies or lotus blossoms.”
Visitors were able to see a selection of the 130 total pieces that will be in this spring’s exhibit. Along with an 18th-century festival robe and a 19th-century court robe from China, there are plenty of Eastern-inspired fashion pieces in the exhibit: a sequined yellow column gown from Tom Ford’s years at Yves Saint Laurent, a satin gown that John Galliano designed for Dior, and an embroidered Gaultier shawl. Given that there’s been such a dialogue around the fine line between inspiration and appropriation in fashion recently, the show promises to confront some examples of Western cultural appropriation. Said Bolton, “I think there is genuine inspiration, and genuine respect, and genuine honesty, with [Western] designers’ approach to China. But, at the same time, they often approach it on the surface of aesthetics, as opposed to the essence. So that’s something we try and tease out in the exhibition.” Click through the slideshow for a taste of what you’ll be able to see at the museum come May.