After touring the exhibit, I can tell you that it’s thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough. But, "China: Through the Looking-Glass" (its vastly improved title) is not about China, Chinese fashion, or Chinese fashion designers, and the Met makes that point very clear. Rather, it’s about how the West has borrowed from China throughout history: “The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism.” That concept was reiterated by Costume Institute Director Andrew Bolton and Wong Kar Wai, acclaimed filmmaker and the exhibition's artistic director. (“Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.”)
The new Met Costume Institute exhibition is really about how Western designers have used, sometimes haphazardly, Chinese design elements. Basically, it's about Orientalism. For example, this Dior dress is a screen print of a letter by Zhang Xu and picked because the characters looked beautiful...but it's about a stomachache. Bravo to The Met for being transparent about the long history of appropriation ("it's a fictional reflection of China"), but not sure if its goal to bring the East and the West together is achieved when one has all the power and one is totally made-up.
However, the Met awkwardly proposes that Orientalism can be positive: “[We present] a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. As if by magic, the distance between East and West, spanning perspectives that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes. What emerges is an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross-cultural combination, and representation.” Yeah. Magic.
In a time when information sharing is quicker and easier than ever, a conversation about misinterpretation is incredibly relevant. Walking through the exhibit with fellow journalists, I had some truly powerful conversations about history and context that were enlightening in ways you always hope a museum exhibit can be. But, that whole bit about it being a two-way street? About how it can be cross-cultural and encourage creativity? When the entire exhibit only featured a small handful of actual Chinese designers, two Chinese-American designers, and one Chinese-American fashion muse who spent her whole life trying to break out of the Oriental box Hollywood placed her in, it seems like an inflated statement to make. A conversation only works between two equal, mutually respectful entities — so what is it called when one of them is a work of fiction made up by the other?
Sure — there were plenty of Chinese people who attended the Met ball, which is in and of itself a significant thing that I feel great about. Wong Kar Wai helped curate the exhibit. Chinese actresses like Gong Li, editors like Vogue China’s Angelica Cheung, and designers like Jason Wu and Vivienne Tam were all in attendance. But, it’s important to acknowledge that just because Chinese people were there doesn’t mean that all Chinese people automatically give tacit approval to Orientalism.
It’s something that I have a difficult time parsing, and I’ve been asking myself this question in some form or another every single day of my life. But, to expect that an event attended by people who, by and large, represent Western artists, are the Western elite, and — to be perfectly honest — have not shown the ability to have a thoughtful dialogue about this complicated subject, is asking a lot, especially when it comes in the form of a sound bite and a red carpet photo.