The Met Gala red carpet's only been in full swing for an hour now, but along with the color red, poppies are already emerging as a major motif. Anna Wintour's Chanel gown features them in wide bands at the neckline, hips, and hem. Model Poppy Delevingne's Marchesa and Jennifer Lawrence's Dior dresses are liberally festooned with them, while Sarah Jessica Parker gave a nod to her Carrie fabric-flower days with a big, red poppy brooch. But, poppies have had a complicated relationship with Chinese culture, which makes them a strange choice for this event.
For Chinese people, the poppy carries a strong historical symbolism of the 19th Century Opium Wars, waged by the British in retaliation for Chinese resistance to trade. The wars devastated China. There were over 20,000 deaths and injuries, and the conflict led to the "Century of Humiliation," in which China became subject to Western imperialism. In 2010, the poppy was the focus of controversy when Chinese officials asked David Cameron and other visiting members of a British delegation not to wear their Remembrance Day flowers out of respect — proving that this centuries-old hurt still stings.
So, why the poppy, tonight, at a gala honoring the exhibition "China: Through The Looking Glass?" We assume most attendees are not aware of the flower's negative associations and historical significance. A slightly less charitable interpretation would be that celebs are misguidedly evoking the opium dens that were closely (and offensively) associated with Chinese people in the late 1800s. Still others may have confused the poppy with the peony, a motif celebrated in Chinese art for centuries. No matter how we got here, this particular kind of cultural misinterpretation is especially fitting given the exhibition's theme of appropriation and Orientalism. To be sure, funny things happen when Chinese culture gets refracted though a Western lens. Just a pretty flower, the poppy is not.