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China: Through the Looking Glass - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute

  Gallery View, Gallery 132, People’s Republic of China, Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 

China: Through the Looking Glass

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Costume Institute: May 7 – September 7, 2015

 

By ELGA WIMMER, AUG. 2015

 

The exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass,” curated by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda from the Met’s Costume Department, represents a collaboration by the latter with the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. It highlights 140 examples of  haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear alongside masterpieces of Chinese art. The film clips accompanying this exhibition, depicting Chinese fashion in works like “The Last Emperor” and “In the Mood for Love,“ were edited by director Wong Kar Wai, and the exquisite lighting was installed by Philippe Le Sourd.

 

Having lived in Asia for many years, I pictured myself wearing my Qipao, the elegant formal national Chinese women’s fashion -- the dress empresses of past dynasties wore. The modern version was worn in the early 20th Century by socialites and the upper class elite. My Qipao was given to me by composer Ms. Lucia Hwong Gordon, a distant relative of the stylish and fashion-influencing Mme Chiang Kai-Shek.

 

My delight with this exhibition of Chinese inspired fashion and art, which mixes the fictional, fantastical, and imaginary dating all the way back to “Chinoiserie” from the 17th and 18th centuries, was overwhelming. So much so that it was one of the rare occasions that I thought of the Stendhal Syndrome: absorption in the contemplation of sublime beauty, when cerebral areas are overwhelmed by emotional reactions activated during exposure to artworks or nature.

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Astor Forecourt, Anna May Wong, Evening dress, John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947), autumn/winter 1998–99 haute couture; Courtesy of, Christian Dior Couture
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“China: Through the Looking Glass” reflects three distinct periods of influence: the Qing Dynasty 1499 –1911, the Republic of China 1911—1949, and the People’s Republic, 1949 to the present.

 

MaoTse Tung’s “Red Guard Uniform” from 1966/76 is displayed in front of Warhol’s multiple images of Mao, 1973, and Vivienne Tam’s Mao Suit from 1995. In the section from “Emperor to Citizen,” an evening dress, 2004/5, by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent is splendidly juxtaposed with a Chinese Semiformal Robe for the Qianlong Emperor, 1736-95, and Laurence Xu’s Dragon Robe Dress, 2011. We can admire a Chinese Theatrical Costume from the Reign of the Qianlong Emperor and tiny Chinese boots made for bound feet from 1736, next to contemporary high fashion wedges by Christian Lacroix.

 

In the early days of Hollywood, Chinese American actress Anna May Wong was a sensation, wearing slinky Chinese inspired dresses and creating a whole new look in fashion of the early 20th century, from Coco Chanel to Paul Poiret (who also created a perfume name “L’Orient”). Chinese fashion in movies inspired many designers and fashionable women. One of the most exquisite films is “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar Wai, celebrating the colors and elegant shapes of the traditional Chinese dress, enhancing and underlining the wearer’s emotions at every moment, characterizing Chinese women’s personality and beauty. It is simply a symphony of design in silk following the body shape.

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Astor Court, Moon in the Water
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  

The room with Chinese blue and white porcelain from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368)  is echoed in the exquisite and outrageous design of an Alexander McQueen Evening Dress, 2011/12. On the same note and equally outstanding is a Roberto Cavalli Evening Dress, 2005-6, and a Chinese Evening Gown by Guo Pei, 2010. Chinese artist Li Xiaofeng created a dress as sculpture with blue and white porcelain shards, “The Weight of the Millennium,” 2015. The “exchange” of porcelain with Europe in the 16th century had a huge impact, with porcelain factories in Holland,  Germany and England creating their versions of Chinese porcelain, and Chinese producers in turn copying these European version of their traditional art.

 

The “piece de resistance” in “China:Through the Looking Glass”  is the installation “Moon in the Water” in the Astor Court’s Chinese garden.

It is a combination of a mirage and Chinese opera. An artificial moon overlooks a pond featuring, like exotic blossoms, historic Chinese Theatrical Costumes, and exquisite designs by Galliano and Maison Martin Margiela.

 

The room with martial arts inspired fashion installed in between what looks like hundreds of white translucent swords, reflecting Qi (life force), and the magnificent collection of Buddha sculptures form the crowning end of an exhibition to be remembered! WM

  Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Douglas Dillon Galleries, Export Silk
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Frances Young Tang Gallery, Blue and White Porcelain
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  

 Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Frances Young Tang Gallery, Blue and White Porcelain
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Douglas Dillon Galleries, Chinoiserie
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Douglas Dillon Galleries, Chinoiserie, Dress, 1760s; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Fédération de la Soirie,
1950 (50.168.2a,b), Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Gallery 208, Guo Pei, Evening gown, Guo Pei (Chinese, born 1967), spring/summer 2007 haute couture; Courtesy of Guo Pei, Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Wuxia, Ensemble, Jean Paul Gaultier (French, born 1952), autumn/winter, 2001-2; Courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier, Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 China: Through the Looking Glass Exhibition Catalogue Cover
Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

Elga Wimmer

Elga Wimmer is a writer and the owner of Elga Wimmer Gallery, based in New York City. 

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