The Met’s China Show Is Beautiful, But Elusive

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A tableau from China Through the Looking Glass. Photo: Wilson Santiago/Metropolitan Museum of Art 2015

Whether it’s meant to or not, the Met Costume Institute’s latest exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” has a timely theme. Appropriation is in the air: baby hairs and nose rings at Givenchy, Native American headdresses everywhere from Chanel to Coachella, and Katy Perry’s Egyptian- and geisha-themed performances. At the same time, the question of inspiration arises: Amid calls for designers to stay in their cultural lanes, what is appropriate for people to be inspired by? Certainly the world of fashion would be a lot emptier without Galliano’s stunning Asian-inspired dresses for Dior, or YSL’s safari dresses. But what constitutes honoring or celebrating a culture, as opposed to appropriating it? It’s thorny territory, worthy of discussion, and one that I wish the exhibit had tackled more directly at times.

On the question of appropriation, I find myself thinking of the handy definition given by 16-year-old Amandla Stenberg, the Hunger Games actress whose video for a school project went viral. “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist stereotypes or generalizations,” she says, adding later, “The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred.”And the exhibit is a testament to that delicate balance, as well as that blurring.

For this wide-ranging exhibit — nearly three times the size, Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton noted, of the Charles James show last year — the Costume Institute worked in concert with Maxwell Hearn, the head of the museum’s Department of Asian Art, and enlisted the great filmmaker Wong Kar-wai as artistic director on a wide-ranging exhibit incorporating fashion, historical objects, and film. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but one that often meanders. The show bills itself as a celebration of Chinese design, and a wealth of beautiful things are indeed on display, but the larger cultural implications are often stripped away. The objects are grouped by their visual affinity and labeled simply. There’s no attempt made to tie in, for example, the Western use of dragon motifs with the harmful “dragon lady” stereotype, or to point out the ways in which the chinoiserie craze co-opted and mis-translated traditional Chinese motifs. With so many brands stepping in to lend marquee pieces, there may have been reluctance to associate those designs with overtly critical commentary. The viewer is left to decide: Is this just a tribute to beautiful craftsmanship, or is something more at stake?

So there is Balenciaga (as in Cristóbal) chinoiserie from 1955, and a Paul Poiret design. More recent offerings include a Ralph Lauren gown with a dragon motif scrolling up the back, a Roberto Cavalli dress with a porcelain pattern, and a yellow Galliano gown for Dior with sequined embroidery featuring Chinese characters. Many of the mannequins wore fanciful headdresses by Stephen Jones — who Bolton calls the” Mad Hatter” of the exhibit — some shaped like bamboo. A Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen hat, famously worn by Isabella Blow and in the shape of a pagoda, commands awe up close — it is made with a miniature shipbuilder’s precision. In its loving detail, it reads, to me at least, as a tribute.

The film clips include footage of Anna May Wong, the great misunderstood Chinese actress too often reduced to “dragon lady” roles in Hollywood cinema, and of Maggie Cheung in her fabulous cheongsams in Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. And Kar-wai lends a cinematic eye to the proceedings — the lighting and music drawing one into the show’s contemplative mood. As Bolton told the Cut, “I think that when it comes to China, at least with fashion designers, their first entry is really through film. A lot of their impressions of China are actually formed through filmic references. It was important for us to use them as a bridge, in a way.”

Hearn noted that early Orientalist depictions by Westerners often jumbled together cultures: “You have pashas in turbans mixed up with Chinese [people] in pagodas. In the West, there’s still a tendency to blend these Asian cultures together.” However, he argued, “artists take what they want and leave the rest. They don’t have to understand China in order to make use of these motifs and touchstones for inspiration.” But a lack of understanding is often the downfall of intended tributes.

“There are very direct references between the [art] objects and the fashion,” added Bolton. “Having them side by side” — for example, a dress next to the porcelain vase, that inspired it — “opens up the debate more, and talks about this dialogue between the two cultures that has always existed.” There’s something to be said for addressing these issues head-on — bringing cultural misunderstandings and mistranslations to light. And understandably, the curators wanted to avoid preaching or hand-holding in their approach. As such, the exhibit almost comes in two versions. Those who come to the exhibit to grapple with these issues will find ample material; those who come simply to take in the aesthetic beauty will find what they’re looking for, but they’ll be missing some crucial context.

The Met’s China Show Is Beautiful, But Elusive