If the mark of a great fashion exhibition is its appeal to a broader audience than fashion insiders, then “China: Through the Looking Glass,” an extravagant Costume Institute spectacular that opens on Thursday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is destined to become – and they will hate me for saying this – the museum’s next blockbuster.
Visually stunning at every turn, and spread over three floors of the museum, including dresses and jewelry mounted throughout the sprawling galleries of Chinese art and antiquities, the exhibition is the most ambitious undertaking mounted by its curators in years.
In fact, the show has been years in the making, a joint venture between curators of the Costume Institute and the department of Asian art, and seems to have been designed to create both maximum populist appeal and minimal political fallout. With such a simple thesis, to underline just how thoroughly Western designers have been influenced by Eastern art, it was hard to imagine what the curators had in mind when they announced this exhibition, besides stating the obvious, with a display of more than 100 couture and ready-to-wear Mao dresses, kimono styles, dragon embroideries, and porcelain prints, all appropriated for the sake of Western fashion. And they took pains to avoid any hint of cultural insensitivity, going so far as to change the title from an earlier name, “Chinese Whispers,” which to many ears had a negative connotation.
But the results, unveiled at a press preview on Monday, are a gee-whiz, eye-popping, in-your-face production that owes an enormous debt to the visual brilliance of the film director Wong Kar-wai, who served as artistic director of exhibition. Within the Asian galleries, dresses are displayed within elaborate sculptural cages, alongside color-coordinated antiquities, and juxtaposed with modern films, including his own In the Mood for Love. And the basement-level Costume Institute galleries have been transformed into a futuristic theme park, where viewers pass through a hallway of wall-sized video monitors and into a labyrinth of fashions that speak to the quest among designers for Asian exoticism.
The displays are organized thematically by influence, with groupings of dresses inspired, for example, by Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star (pictured, above), with examples as disparate as Travis Banton and Ralph Lauren, whose dragon-embroidered dresses were created some 70 years apart. In the next gallery, a Paul Poiret ensemble from 1911, topped with a stunning floral embroidered shawl, is displayed between actual Chinese shawls from the same period, demonstrating the taste for orientalism among European society at the turn of the century. In yet another, Chinese vases from the 17th century sit face-to-face with gowns by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel (a 1984 couture dress bathed in blue and white Lesage embroidery) and Roberto Cavalli (a blue and white printed dress from 2005).
The exhibition is so vast, and filled with such curious combinations of contemporary fashion with ancient art, that at times the associations may come across as slightly over the top. While it is undeniable, for instance, that 20th-century couturiers like Jeanne Lanvin would have been influenced by orientalism of the period, as well as imported textiles and art, the translation was probably not so literal as an 8th-century Tang dynasty silver plate that is shown next to a Lanvin dress with circular embroidery of roughly the same dimension. They sure look pretty together, though. And if Tang dynasty representations of Buddha are not engaging enough for you, surely you will admire a Buddha pendant from Bulgari.
The rooms that are most exceptionally striking in their beauty are also perhaps the most questionable in terms of political correctness and intellectual rigor, which is both an attribute and the biggest quibble of this exhibition. One of the largest displays, at the main entrance to the exhibition, is overtaken by a breathtaking display of luminous glass bamboo, like a scene from one of Wong’s films, interspersed with several mannequins dressed as ancient warriors. They are wearing looks from the spring men’s wear collection of the relatively unknown London designer Craig Green, who might have had China in mind, or possibly Japan (pictured, below).
Quite a few guests who entered the museum’s “Ming Scholar’s retreat,” a garden and reception hall conceived by Brooke Astor and that is also known as the Met’s “secret garden,” also noted that it is filled entirely with the works of the controversial designer John Galliano, for Dior (pictured, below), before he was fired for making anti-Semitic remarks, and Maison Martin Margiela, where he now works. Did they really need this much Galliano? He’s also featured in a Q&A in the museum catalog, with no mention of the controversy. But the museum gives reasonable scholarly explanation, citing his longstanding references to Chinese opera, Japanese kabuki, and in contradictory touch, the Queen Mother of England, in his work.
To the layman, however, what will astound is the complete transformation of the space, in which the garden has been enclosed and covered with a projection of the moon that reflects from the ceiling to the mirrored floor, giving the effect of watching moonlight on water. And the dresses are among the most delightful in the show, including one that looks like a koi fish.