New York Fashion Week may be happening in the West, but the fashion cognoscenti was firmly looking East earlier this morning (Feb. 16).
Mounted on a podium in the Arthur B. Sackler Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a remarkable juxtaposition of fashions by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Roberto Cavalli, and Ralph Lauren, next to Chinese ceremonial robes from the 18th and 19th century and a porcelain jar from the 15th century. Encountering this temporary display, for a press preview of an upcoming exhibition, you might have wondered how Emperor Qianlong would have felt about his 200-year-old yellow silk satin festival attire winding up as a backdrop for a 2004 dress designed by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, with a dragon depicted in plastic sequins.
The exhibition, called “China: Through the Looking Glass,” is one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of the Met’s popular Costume Institute displays, a joint effort between curators of the fashion collection and the department of Asian art. When it opens May 7, several galleries will be transformed with displays of fashion and films alongside Chinese antiquities to demonstrate how Western aesthetics have long been influenced by Eastern art. It is an association that dates back at least 2,000 years, since the first silk trade was developed between Asia and the Roman Empire, noted Maxwell K. Hearn, the chairman of the Met’s department of Asian art, though the exhibition will focus more specifically on trans-orientalism and Eastern taste for Chinoiserie over the last two centuries.
The results are sometimes exquisite tributes to Chinese art, as were those on display at the New York Fashion Week preview, such as a stunning Jean Paul Gaultier shawl from 2010 that features a lavish embroidery of flowers and a trim of mink and fox. But they can also include moments of cultural insensitivity or misunderstanding – cases of being “lost in translation,” as the director Wong Kar-wai described them, both in film and fashion. The incredibly rich palette of Wong’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love has been a frequent source of inspiration to designers over the last decade, including as recently as the fall collection of Diane von Furstenberg shown on Sunday night.
Wong, who will serve as artistic director of the exhibition and spoke at the preview, cited both Buddhist scripture and the designer Coco Chanel in his poetic remarks, comparing their not entirely dissimilar viewpoints.
From Buddhist scripture, Wong remarked, “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west.”
And from Chanel, he paraphrased: “Fashion does not only exist in dresses. Fashion is in the sky, in the streets. It is about ideas, the way we live, and also about what is happening.”
It was at least clear from the enormous lengths curators took to present the exhibition in a positive light that they are sensitive to concerns of how China will be reflected in its displays. Even its title was changed from an earlier name, “Chinese Whispers,” which to many ears has a negative connotation.
As Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute curator said, in an almost cautionary tone, the appropriation of Mao collars and dragon motifs by Eastern designers represents “a China that only exists in their imaginations.” Placing these examples next to Chinese antiquities, he hopes, will create a new opportunity for audiences to see each object in a different context.
Wong added: “Instead of reinforcing the differences, I hope this show will be the event to bring us and our two cultures together.”