China: Through The Looking Glass

View of the exhibition: Chinese Export Vase (early 15th century, The Metropolitan Museum of art, Gift of Robert E Tod); evening dress by Roberto Cavalli, fall/winter 2005-6, courtesy of Roberto Cavalli; and evening dress by Alexander McQueen. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

CHINA HAS BEEN fuelling the fashionable imagination for centuries. Ever since the Silk route opened up trade between China and the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago and began transporting precious cargoes of decorative arts and silk textiles to the West there has been fascination with Chinese aesthetic traditions amongst Western artists and designers.

Art, interior design, graphics and fashion are some of the areas inspired by China’s wealthy cultural heritage, and one of its most visible spheres of influence has for centuries been on fashion. This year’s major exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute at the Anna Wintour Costume Centre in New York is China: Through the Looking Glass (7 May to 16 August), which looks at the impact China has had on fashion.

The exhibition draws together exquisitely embroidered Imperial Chinese costumes and decorative objects displayed alongside the creations of some of the West’s foremost fashion designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Roberto Cavalli. It also includes montages of Chinese films including Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood or Love, illustrating the influence of Chinese cinema on the design world. The renowned filmmaker is also the artistic director of the exhibition. Juxtaposing Chinese art and historic costumes with high fashion drawn from the Costume Institute’s world-class collection has been the work of Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator, and marks the first collaboration with another curatorial department at the museum since 2006. The Chinese artefacts are from the museum’s Asian Art Department. There also has been research collaboration with the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Andrew Bolton is very clear in pointing out that the title ‘Through the Looking Glass’, which draws parallels with Alice’s make-believe world, ‘presents an image of China that is a fabulous invention, a fictional universe that embraces an alternate reality with a dream-like illogic’. This is fashion drawing its inspiration from a China that exists in their imaginations, like film that hovers between fact and fiction. By placing two richly decorated Chinese dragon robes alongside a yellow embroidered gown by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent and an embroidered red tuxedo from Ralph Lauren, and freeing them from their cultural and historic contexts, the curator hopes the artefacts and fashions begin to speak for themselves. ‘As if by magic the physical distance and psychological dichotomy between East and West diminishes,’ he says.
He sparks another ‘conversation’ between an early 15th-century Chinese export vase and two dramatic evening gowns from Roberto Cavalli and Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, whose designs pay homage to the colours and motifs of the iconic Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. This particular story has its roots in the European craze for this style of porcelain making its way to Europe in the 16th century, creating a extraordinary influence on interiors and fashion that lasted for decades.

‘Usually, when designers are inspired by China’s long and rich history, they invariably gravitate towards three epochs,’ explains Andrew Bolton. They include the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China (especially Shanghai 1920s-1940s) and the People’s Republic of China, which is shorthand for the Manchu imperial robe, the qipao and the Mao suit. The choice of costumes illustrates not just the shifting politics of those eras, but the gradual introduction of Western tailoring techniques within Chinese dressmaking traditions.

The exhibition is filled with masterpieces of Chinese costume such as the 19th-century Qing- dynasty court robe and a robe worn by Emperor Qianlong, or the detail of a Festival robe also from the Qing dynasty. There is also an elegant turquoise Chinese qipao from 1932 and film clips from Wong Kar Wai’s atmospheric In the Mood for Love (2000), showing the star Maggie Cheung glamorously dressed in a qipao. The qipao is a particular favourite in the romantic eyes of contemporary designers for the evocative images of Chinese exoticism that it suggests.
There are also examples of the exchange of ideas between East and West such as Andy Warhol’s iconic Mao portrait being reproduced as a print on a dress from Hong Kong-born New-York designer Vivienne Tam. There are several contemporary Chinese fashion designers included in the exhibition like Beijing-based Laurence Xu and New Yorkers Alexander Wang and Jason Wu, who have at some point been inspired by their heritage. There will also be vignettes of ‘Women of Style’ notably Empress Dowager Cixi, Soong May-Ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) and Oei Huilan (the former Mrs Wellington Koo who cut a stylish swathe in society as the wife of the diplomat, who was one of the founding members of the United Nations).

China: Through the Looking Glass is focused on fashion and ‘China has long been an intriguing source of inspiration for Western artists,’ says Maxwell K Hearn, the curator in charge of the Metropolitan’s Asian Art Department ‘This collaboration between two curatorial departments will demonstrate how Western designers have responded creatively to those traditions in ways that are both provocative and insightful.’

The Asian Art Department is in the midst of its centenary year and their permanent collection continues to celebrate the genius of China’s ancient traditions in a series of displays some of which can be viewed in parallel with the exhibition in the Costume Institute. Painting with Thread: Chinese Tapestry and Embroidery, 12th-19th Century (until 16 August) reveals techniques that have inspired designers for decades. Later in the year the department will display an exhibition of Chinese Textiles: Eight Centuries of Masterpieces from the Met Collection (12 September to 19 June, 2016). Painting (re-interpreted as textile prints), tapestry and embroidery have all had an influence on Western design.

There are other displays around the Museum that connect with the exhibition in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre including the Chinese costumes in the Chinese Galleries. There is also a vignette dedicated to Chinese Opera in the Astor Court celebrating the performer Mei Lanfang, who inspired John Galliano’s spring 2003 Christian Dior haute-couture collection of voluminous and vibrant ensembles showcased along side Mei Lanfang’s original opera costumes. It illustrates so well, as Andrew Bolton puts it that designers ‘are travellers to another country, reflecting on its artistic and cultural traditions as an exoticised extension of their own’.

BY FRANCESCA FEARON

China Through the Looking Glass from 7 May to 16 August at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org