Go See “China: Through the Looking Glass”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibit “China: Through the Looking Glass” examines China’s influence on Western fashion.

The exhibit gained widespread media attention when pictures of Western celebrities MET Gala outfits flooded the internet. There was Rihanna in a Guo Pei haute couture yellow robe, Miley Cyrus in Alexander Wang, then Sarah Jessica Parker in a “phoenix crown,” and Lady Gaga in a kimono. (See: The Most Questionable Interpretations of the MET Gala’s Chinese Theme)

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One would likely jump to the same conclusion that the exhibit, like some aspects of gala, is just another example of cultural appropriation.

After my visit to the exhibit on College Group at the MET night, I am writing to tell you that it’s not as offensive as perhaps depicted in the news. Yes, at first glance, themes of opium, calligraphy, Chinoiserie, and even the Cultural Revolution seem borderline stereotypical, but once you see the gowns on display, you just see a beautiful gown. Yes, there’s Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Versace, etc., but all are expensive gowns with delicate embroideries and fine attention to detail. There are no slanted eyes, no yellow skin tones, or exaggerated Chinese accented English (the films used are Chinese classic films). The recurring question is always what is the line between art and appropriation. I asked my Asian friends if they thought it was offensive for a non-Asian to wear Asian inspired clothes. Many of them agreed that they appreciated the effort to understand their Asian culture through fashion and, as long as the design is respectable, more sharing of and exposure of their culture is a good thing.

Anna May Wong

I was glad to see that a significant section of the exhibit was dedicated to attire worn by 3rd generation Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

"Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? We are not like that."

"It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts."

Roles were limited to Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom in the 1920s for an Asian female actress. Wong grew tired of alternating between the two choices of  supporting character, she even moved to Europe briefly to escape typecasting. Perhaps one of the few benefits of playing stereotypical Asian characters was the opportunity to wear some nice designer dresses. One literally had an embroidery of a dragon on the back of a dress. I would have liked to see more than just Anna May Wong’s costumes (maybe a Flower Drum Song section?), but an exhibit can only include so much and the emphasis of this exhibit was high fashion, not film.
I encourage you to see the exhibit yourself at the MET and remind you to read all the signs throughout the exhibit. A lot can be misinterpreted if you go through the exhibit without reading them. As one sign in the exhibit states,
“This exhibit is not about China per se but about a collective fantasy of China. … As opposed to censoring or disregarding depictions of other cultures that are not entirely accurate, it advocates studying these representations on their own terms.”
Chances are, in a couple more decades, the outfits we saw worn by celebrities at the 2015 MET Gala will end up in a museum exhibit too.