As the red carpet kicks into gear at my personal favorite of all the red-carpet galas — it’s the best mix of A-listers from every industry — let’s take a look at the preview pictures released through Getty for the exhibit itself. (Style.com has a lot more, though, courtesy of the Met itself.) It’s a controversial theme, because I think people are — rightly — nervous about the way it will be interpreted. It would be very easy to trip and fall into tastelessness, or simply barrel right on over to it and set up camp.
The Guardian quotes the curator of the exhibit — the opening of which included Henry Kissinger on its guest list — as saying it’s not meant to be about China, per se:
He said that it is instead about the “collective fantasy of China” and how it is represented in western culture – primarily fashion and cinema. Presenting an ancient culture’s depiction by the west as fantasy has invoked concerns that the exhibit, and the outfits it inspires on Monday evening, will reek of Orientalism – when western entities take on a patronising attitude toward the east.
On one gallery wall, the exhibit acknowledges the potential for such criticism.
“Their clothes – like those depicted in 18th and 19th-century Orientalist paintings – allow the wearer to fabricate an alternative identity through cultural displacement,” a sign reads. “While some may perceive an implicit power imbalance in such costuming, designers are driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typically more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.”
Further, and all punctuation outside quotation marks is theirs:
Maxwell Hearn, the museum’s Douglas Dillon chairman for the department of Asian art, said the exhibition is meant to “contextualise the impact of Chinese art and culture on Western fashion”.
[Thomas Campbell, the director and CEO of the Met] emphasised that the exhibition was meant to be a “cinematic journey”. […] That is clear from the trippy, multi-story, maze-like design which is meant to bring to mind Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – hence the “looking glass” element of the exhibition title.
“It is an important time in human history for cross-cultural dialogue,” said renowned director Wong Kar-Wai, the exhibition’s artistic director.
He noted that Chinese culture was not always depicted with respect in early Hollywood. “In this exhibition we did not shy away from these images because they are historic fact,” Wong said.
All of which is interesting, yet to me suggests a bit of a defensiveness as to how the exhibit will be perceived — almost like they have anticipated all the criticisms and arguments and tried to address them preemptively. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because at least that means it WAS discussed, repeatedly, and with apparent care. I wish I lived in New York; I’ve never seen one of these costume exhibits at the Met and I’m so, so curious.
Anyway, here are the images to discuss, and also to keep in mind as we see the ways in which they may have influenced tonight’s attendees’ dresses.