China: Through The Looking Glass
You know, for a person who loves fashion I do not really care about the Met Ball (I don't voice this indifference very much because OMIGODITISABIGDEAL. I mean, sure, whatevs.) For one, if I can't see it up close or put it on me, my interests in gowns only goes so far. Plus, I already know Kim Kardashian will class up the joint with some skin-tight-see-through number, Rihanna will arrive dressed like she is the queen of the world, and we are going to talk about what Sarah Jessica Parker put on her head. The usual.
BUT. The Costume Institute exhibit of the year at the Metropolitan Museum - exhibits that have been following the Met Ball theme for the past two years - is a totally different matter. I mean, if the only thing standing between me and those gorgeous dresses is a ticket to the Met, and trampling some innocent museum-goers, I am all for gowns and 30-foot trains. Totally.
In 2015, the theme of the Met Ball and the fashion exhibit was the influence of China and Chinese imagery (or "fantasy") on Western designers, (somewhat confusingly) titled "China: Through the Looking Glass." It has been the biggest fashion exhibit The Met has had so far with over 150 costumes and accessories, and was curated by Andrew Bolton, the Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. What's more, the director of your beautiful Chinese movie dreams Wong Kar Wai was the artistic director. If "In The Mood for Love" doesn't ring a bell, I'd rent it right now on Amazon. (Such sadness! Such beauty! Such beautiful music! Which were also the exact words I said right before my best friend told me she hated me for bringing her to see this boring movie. Once I had also ditched her and her mom at a very explicit movie that *I had talked them into going* twenty minutes in - which rightfully resulted in her deciding never to go to the movies with me again. And I still feel embarrassed about this specific matter when I see her mom. I heard she didn't like the movie very much.)
Aaaanyway. What was most captivating for me about The Met's China exhibit was how majestic and engrossing the whole thing was. Almost in every hall there were small and big screens showing beautiful scenes from Chinese movies with grandiose music, and different lighting effects to accompany the costumes. But despite being a conscious creation, the captivating ambiance created by bringing fashion together with art was not just to leave the visitors completely stupefied. On the contrary, the central point of the exhibit was to show how the Chinese "fantasy" through art, music, and cinema had influenced Western designers - which they did through creating the mood that inspired fashion design through visuals, sounds, and clothing. (Wong Kar Wai is a wizard of moods y'all.)
The first hall you see above was INTENSE. I was so overwhelmed by the dresses, the lighting, the music, and The Last Emperor playing in a big screen, I didn't even realize the real Manchu robes displayed next to the gowns they had inspired for a good 15 minutes. But yes, they are robes worn by real Emperors. While I was not noticing that fact, I was kind of wondering why Turkish TV LOVED to air the Last Emperor on Sunday nights when I was a kid, and why I had such a familiarity to it despite never having sat through the whole thing - which I decided I should.
The second part of the exhibit was more romantic and sophisticated, probably because people could not have been able to take that much stimuli in without having heart attacks towards the end of their tour. It housed costumes worn between the two wars by the Chinese actress Hu Die (Butterfly Hu) - who was the symbol of elegance at the time. There is also Gaultier (from 2001 couture collection inspired by China), YSL (especially pieces from St Laurent's 1972 "Chinese Collection"), Balenciaga sprinkled in between for fun and giggles. (That black dress in the 4th photo down? I want that. Possibly four sizes up though.)
I don't have anything to say about the garden you see below other than it was cuckoo bananas. Or to be even more eloquent, WHOA. Walking through this section, I was also happy to finally understand why the title of the exhibit was "Through the Looking Glass" - again, a reference to the exhibit being a fictional, fantastical take on China rather than reflecting the reality. It translates as "Moon in the Water" in Chinese, and you can read about it below without me slaughtering the elegance with which this idea is supposed to be explained. (Plus, the concept "Moon in the Water" is like catnip for romantic types. At the time I was very, very taken with it. Then in 2016 my heart grew cold and turned to stone.)
Silk trade, and Chinese calligraphy is the inspiration for some of the gowns below. Made with silk exported from China, and adorned with chinoiserie motifs, these are probably some of my favorites. The Chinese calligraphy dresses below are very beautiful too, but FYI, Dior was not aware what the writing they transferred to the fabric said when they designed the dress (on the right)... Aaaand it turned out to be an old writing on an especially bad stomachache. As you see, tattooing "sesame chicken" on your body while you are going for "courageous warrior" is not a new phenomenon.
The last hall below is where I completely lost it.
I am not especially fond of Chinese porcelain vases. Do I think they're pretty? Yes. Would I put one in my house? When I grow up and finally become the Lucille Bluth I was always destined to be, why not. Hell, I am not even very fond of the color blue unless I am by the beach. That all being said, the Ming porcelain vase-inspired blue gowns below were just beautiful. The last two images with the blue fan-like gown, and the golden armor gown is by the Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, who has been gaining fame in couture world as of late. She is a designer who mixes traditional Chinese aesthetic with modern design, and who also created the ginormous yellow gown Rihanna wore to the Met Ball that year. (This is a great piece on her on this year's New Yorker Style Issue.)
Obviously, this was not the whole thing. There were galleries in the exhibit I did not photograph, and way more information on everything from costumes to the historical developments that inspired designers. You can find way more information on the exhibit on the Met website, and I would highly recommend watching "The First Monday in May" - the documentary about the exhibit that is available on Netflix and Amazon. There is also a whole discussion about appropriation and stereotyping in this exhibit (which I think is very legitimate, and something the exhibit itself addressed in a couple of the galleries), but that's something for another day.