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.
“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.
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
Elga Wimmer is a writer and the owner of Elga Wimmer Gallery, based in New York City.view all articles from this author