China: Through the Looking Glass—Gallery Views

Gallery views of The Costume Institute's spring 2015 exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, narrated by exhibition curator Andrew Bolton.

The exhibition is made possible by Yahoo.
Additional support is provided by Condé Nast and several Chinese donors.

Andrew Bolton: I'm Andrew Bolton, curator in The Costume Institute and also the curator of the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, a collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Asian Art Department, as a celebration for their centennial.

The show really isn't about China per se, it's about an image of China that exists in the Western imagination. The exhibition looks at the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion. With all of our exhibitions we try to tell a story. Through the Looking Glass, which is based on Lewis Carroll's novel, Alice entered this world that was fictional. The designers in the exhibition approach China in a very similar way.

Designers tend to be inspired by two overarching themes that we're focusing on in the exhibition: Chinese history and cinema. Cinema plays an important role in the exhibition as this mediator between the original Chinese garments, or artifacts, and Western fashion. The three periods of Chinese history we focus on are Imperial China, Nationalist China, and the People's Republic of China.

When you walk into our Costume Institute galleries, there's a video tunnel showing Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, a broad and sweeping journey of Chinese history, and at the end of the tunnel is a festival robe worn by the last emperor, Pu Yi, when he was four years old. Designers tend to gravitate towards the Imperial robe, which is recognizable by twelve Imperial signs—symbols of the virtues of the Emperor. When they're woven or embroidered onto the robes, they're very subtle, so they're very difficult to see. So we've collaborated with the milliner Stephen Jones and created headpieces out of them. It's another portal into the Chinese garments on display.

The Apfel gallery is really focusing on the chipao, a dress form that was introduced in China in the twenties. It evolved from the Imperial robe but it also incorporated Western tailoring techniques. The chipao was really a symbol of modernity. Part of it was the freedom of movement; in a way you can make an association with the chemise dress and the flapper as being this symbol of emancipation.

As you leave The Costume Institute galleries, there is a small gallery that focuses on the Mao suit. And I think Western designers gravitate towards the Mao suit because it conveys a sort of utopianism. It's less interesting from a point of view of aesthetics, but very interesting from a point of view of its political underpinnings. It really was the last garment that said "China."

Upstairs is presented as a series of dialogues between Chinese objects and Western fashions that have been inspired by them. Part of the exhibition tries to disentangle different layers of meanings and different layers of exchanges that have always occurred between the East and the West, and every gallery you enter has its own story.

Anna May Wong was a figure who acted as a bridge between the East and the West, but was neither embraced by either culture, who was fated to play one-dimensional stereotypes. A dress she wore in the film Limehouse Blues screamed "dragon lady." It conflates the sexiness of the chipao with early twentieth-century silhouettes.

The Astor Court focuses on Chinese opera. A series of dresses that Jon Galliano created for Dior conflate images and ideas of the Peking opera with Japanese Kabuki and also the Queen Mother of England. Two other garments by Maison Martin Margiela are recycled opera costumes from the 1930s that have been repurposed as haute couture, an extraordinarily East-meets-West display of technical virtuosity.

The Douglas Dillon galleries are focused on Chinese objects that have inspired Western designers. We wanted to collaborate with the Asian Art Department. It provided a context that's often missing from the runway. When it comes to Chinese export art, it's often subsumed within the history of Western decorative arts, but there was always a dialogue between the East and West when it came to export wares—in particular the blue and white porcelain that originated in China and exported to the West in the sixteenth century. The willow pattern became so successful that it was readapted by Chinese craftsman; they reorientalized a design already about orientalism.

This gallery looks at calligraphy. Language can be both a wall but also a gateway. A dress by Dior, from the fifties, in which he's looked to a poem that we have in the Museum's collection as a rubbing, it looks so beautiful and very poetic but the actual content is about the author having a stomach ache. Language can be about communication, but it's also about miscommunication.

The gallery that focuses on Chinese silk. Often, the motifs that appeared in Chinese silk also appeared in Chinese wallpaper, so we have a room that is entirely covered in de Gournay wallpaper. There's an extraordinary robe à la polonaise juxtaposed next to a painted silk that was used in a dress by Balenciaga. And on the opposite side is a dress by Alexander McQueen, directly inspired by a design that de Gournay produced based on an eighteenth-century prototype.

One gallery looks at the idea of perfume. Probably the most famous perfume inspired by China was Saint Laurent's Opium. Opium was a highly contested scent because of the seeming trivialization of the Opium Wars, but unfortunately the opium den is one of those cites that have become another filmic trope in a way, a romanticized and deeply exoticized aspect of Chinese culture.

This particular gallery focuses on the different types of symbols and motifs that were embraced by high chinoiserie from the mid-eighteenth century and primarily focused on Chinese figures, fantastical landscapes, Chinese botany, as well as the pagoda. This Coromandel screen, from the Met's collection, is juxtaposed with a series of garments by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, directly inspired by the Coromandel screens in Chanel's apartment.

Designers have also looked further back into Chinese history, and the Weber galleries have a series of conversations between Western fashion and Chinese decorative art that dates back even to the Neolithic period. Western fashions juxtaposed next to Han figurines, Tang dynasty mirrors, Neolithic pottery.

The small Buddha gallery is devoted to a Chinese designer called Guo Pei, and this particular dress has conflated both Eastern and Western signifiers. The bodice is an abstracted version of the lotus flower, one of the eight Buddhist symbols. The actual dress itself is inspired by high-style fashions of the 1850s. The attraction of the East and West is less about appropriation and more about assimilation.

The exhibition concludes with an installation of a bamboo forest, and the garments on display are inspired by wuxia—a literary genre that focuses on the martial-arts hero existing in an underworld governed by rules such as honesty, a rejection of wealth, and desire. This has often led many readers to look to wuxian novels as an expression of Buddhism.

The power of clothing is its accessibility. We all wear it. Designers engage with an aesthetics of surface rather than the specifics of cultural contexts that frees one up to think about it in different ways—a way of conveying very subtle ideas that may or may not be easily accessible. And I think that's what's so lovely about the Met is that you're able to use the richness of the collection to create the visual dialogues to give you different ways of understanding both cultures.

Director and Producer: Christopher Noey
Video Editor: Kate Farrell 
Audio Editor: Stephanie Wuertz
Jib and Camera Operator: Kelly Richardson
Second Camera: Alex Rappoport
Lighting Designer: Ned Hallick
Gaffers: Foster McLaughlin, Julio Yurnet
Production Assistant: Lisa Rifkind

© 2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artwork credit: Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Mao, 1973. Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas; 12 x 10 1/8 in. (30.5 x 25.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Halston, 1983 (1983.606.8). © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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