The dresses that graced the Met Gala's red carpet earlier this month are old news, but the exhibit that inspired this year's gala is still in full swing. Walking into the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the text on the wall introduces China: Through the Looking Glass as something that "attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity." Through this breathtaking exhibit there is no denying Orientalism's aesthetic influence, amongst others, on the West, while often managing to disconnect the designs from its cultural 'otherness.'
The Costume Institute at the Met, which underwent a floor to ceiling transformation of black lacquered floors, red lights, and bright LED screens, places traditional Chinese robes dating back to the 1700s in conversation with modern designs from the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, and Ralph Lauren in Gallery 980. The traditional pieces can be seen 'through the looking glass,' guarded by circular glass plates, while the modern pieces are displayed on shapely mannequins, highlighting how the two pieces are simultaneously similar, yet still worlds apart.
Other galleries are filled with pieces that draw inspiration not from oriental design or textiles, but from cultural signifiers like Chinese calligraphy (e.g. Chanel dress circa 1956) and white and blue porcelain (e.g. Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen circa 2012), delving even deeper into the complicated relationship between the East and the West. Still other galleries bring the garments to life by elaborately setting them in scenic gardens or showcasing the cinematic relationship between garments and films.
Though traditional, Western high fashion designers are abounding in this exhibit, Chinese designers and the West's influence on their designs are also represented.
Time traveling through China's Imperial, Nationalist, and People's Republic periods through fashion, we are again reminded of how influential our trans-pacific neighbor really is in some many realms.
If you're in New York, this exhibit is a must-see both if you just want to appreciate its craftsmanship and beauty and if you're interested in thinking more deeply about the relationship between fashion and culture. And while you're there be sure to stop by Gallery 208 to see Guo Pei's jaw-dropping gold lame gown!