At the Met, a Sweeping Look at China’s Influence on Western Fashion

Chiu-Ti Jansen
May 12, 2015 2:37PM

Having a China-focused show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is both exciting and unnerving. Exciting because the New York institution has the gravitas and audience to give mainstream visibility to “Chinese aesthetics.” Unnerving because China does not need another corny “East meets West” representation.

Gallery view of Anna Wintour Costume Center, Imperial China, courtesy of Guan Liming ©

Organized in collaboration with the Met’s department of Asian Art to “explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries,” the show, titled “China: Through the Looking Glass,” has plenty of current materials to draw from. The rising spending power of Chinese luxury shoppers has fueled a regular stream of chinoiserie-inspired designs from major fashion houses in recent years.


As if to preempt the time-honored dichotomy of China as ancient and the West as modern, “Through the Looking Glass” opens with relatively recent sartorial elements hailing from the era of Chairman Mao. Accompanying the expected “Mao suits” and Red Guard uniforms are Andy Warhol’s Mao portraits in acrylic and silkscreen, Vivienne Tam’s polychrome dress and suit printed with Mao icons, House of Chanel’s reinterpretation of the Mao suit, and House of Dior’s Mao-meets-feudal-mandarin aesthetics (an unlikely marriage).

The exhibition’s encyclopedic undertaking brilliantly weaves together fashion, film, and art in a fully integrated presentation that draws upon wide-ranging cultural influences from China: costumes, lacquer, porcelain, accessories, jade, calligraphy, literature, film, and other art forms. Its artistic director Wong Kar Wai—a filmmaker known for his nostalgic, often haunting period films featuring sumptuously costumed characters—structured his narrative for the show’s layout with a cinematic grandeur but without traversing into sentimentalism.

Gallery view of Astor Forecourt, image of Anna May Wong, and ensemble by Paul Smith, autumn/winter 2011-12, photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art ©

Taking the titular metaphor of a mirror as its point of departure, “Through the Looking Glass” tells a story about how Western reinterpretations of Chinese motifs have entailed a dialectic process of repeating reflections. For instance, overhanging a 1998-99 Dior haute couture pink-silk-jacquard-and-black-silk-satin embroidery is a 1931 publicity photo of Anna May Wong by Nickolas Murray, portraying the first Chinese American movie star to achieve international acclaim despite her limited, often stereotypical casting. Movie clips featuring Wong in the background further round out the story.

Installation view of Astor Court, featuring John Galliano’s Beijing opera-inspired creations, photo: Guan Liming ©

My favorite setting here is Astor Court, a Ming dynasty-style courtyard transformed by mirrored flooring to illustrate the Buddhist expression “Moon in the Water,” with seven flamboyant couture concoctions by John Galliano (for Dior) inspired by Beijing opera costumes. They are theatrical, fantastical, and (almost) out of this world.

Another standout is the exhibition’s blue-and-white porcelain room. Although the references seem trite, the diverse designs by Alexander McQueen, Giambattista Valli, Galliano, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Rodarte, and Chinese designer Guo Pei parade a full gamut of possibilities enabled by this very simple color combination and aesthetic. Some of the outfits are restrained, while others are extravagant. As Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibition, observes, although a certain pattern of blue-and-white porcelain has become associated with a typical Chinese style, it was the product of multiple cultural exchanges between the East and West.

One should resist the temptation to dwell on the usual suspects of imperial Chinese symbols such as dragons, mandarin hats, and Manchu robes. Instead, in the section captioned “Ancient China,” myriad other sources of inspiration reveal how earlier forms have exerted their influence. The Valentino label’s 2013 red-purple silk satin dress is a nuanced take on a bronze ceremonial bell from the early 5th century B.C. And Jeanne Lanvin’s 1924 black taffeta robe de style, embroidered with green silk and silver metallic thread, echoes a 2nd century B.C. earthenware piece adorned with a female dancer.

Gallery view of Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Wuxia ensemble, Craig Green, spring/summer 2015, photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art ©

In a gallery that features Chinese martial-arts films, several austere monochrome menswear designs, in wood and cotton muslin, by up-and-comer Craig Green are ensconced amid a forest of bamboo-like Plexiglass sticks. Instead of imposing a “Western gaze,” Maxwell K. Hearn, chair of the Met’s department of Asian art, wants the show to expose an underlying truth that “China’s immensely long and varied cultural traditions continue to serve as a rich source of invention and renewal for artists in China and beyond.”

Guo Pei, gold lamé haute couture gown inspired by Chinese Buddhist iconography, courtesy of Guo Pei Rose Studio ©

While wandering the galleries, you start to wonder “how might China look through a Chinese looking glass?” And then, reigning among the Buddhist sculptures in one room is a spectacular 2007 haute couture gold lamé gown by Beijing-based designer Guo Pei, who never studied or worked in the West (and who famously dressed Rihanna for this year’s Costume Institute Gala). Integrating lotus flowers from Buddhist iconography and an inflated crinoline skirt drawn from Victorian silhouettes, Guo Pei has created a fantasy that carries the message delivered by the Met show as a whole: the delicious process of cross-cultural pollination is far more interesting than originality and authenticity.

China: Through the Looking Glass” is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 7–Aug. 16, 2015.

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Chiu-Ti Jansen