Lia Chang takes us behind the scene at The Costume Institute’s spring 2015 exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and created this pictorial. This is part one of a two-part series.
By LIA CHANG
The Costume Institute’s spring 2015 exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, a collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Asian Art Department, as a celebration for their centennial, is currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 16, 2015.
Filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, who served as artistic director for China: Through the Looking Glass and his wife Esther, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Metropolitan Museum of Art Director and CEO Thomas Campbell, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Oscar Tang and his wife Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang, Emily K. Rafferty, the recently retired president of The Met, Veronica Chou and her father financier Silas Chou, Wendi Murdoch, Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art Maxwell K. Hearn, Joe Zee, Editor in Chief of Yahoo Style, Harold Koda, curator in charge at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and fashion designers Vivienne Tam, Laurence Xu and Guo Pei were among those in attendance at the press conference in The Temple of Dendur on Monday, May 4th.
Below are excerpts from Wong Kar-Wai’s speech.
Putting together this show has been a truly remarkable journey for myself and everyone involved. Our creative team was comprised of experts across various disciplines including fine arts, fashion and cinema.Together we hope to offer you a collective perspective that is both compelling and provocative.
I would like to thank personally several important individuals who make this all possible- Anna Wintour, my gracious collaborators Andrew Bolton, Nathan Crowley, William Chang, as well as my team in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Paris and here in New York.
One of the most fascinating parts of this journey for myself was having the opportunity to revisit the Western perspective of the East through the lens of early Hollywood. Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a fan dancing Chinese man or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that most of the depictions were far from authentic.
Unlike their filmmaking contemporaries, the fashion designers and tastemakers of that period take those distortions as their inspiration and went on to create a Western aesthetic with new layers of meanings that was uniquely their own.
In this exhibition, we did not shy away from these images because they are historical fact in their own reality. Instead, we look for the areas of commonality and appreciate the beauty that abounds.
With China: Through the Looking Glass, we have tried our best to encapsulate over a century of cultural interplay between the East and West that has equally inspired and informed. It is a celebration of fashion, cinema and creative liberty. It is an important time in the human history for cross cultural dialogue and I’m proud and delighted to contribute to the conversation.”
This is The Costume Institute’s first collaboration with another curatorial department since AngloMania:Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion in 2006, a partnership with the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. This year the exhibit is three times larger than those in the past, spanning 30,000 square feet and spread out over three floors. China: Through the Looking Glass features more than 140 designs of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear alongside masterpieces of Chinese art.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the heroine enters an imaginary, alternative universe by climbing through a mirror in her house. In this world, a reflected version of her home, everything is topsy-turvy and back-to-front. Like Alice’s make-believe world, the China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination.
“From the earliest period of European contact with China in the 16th century, the West has been enchanted with enigmatic objects and imagery from the East, providing inspiration for fashion designers from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent, whose fashions are infused at every turn with romance, nostalgia, and make believe,” said Andrew Bolton, Curator in The Costume Institute. “Through the looking glass of fashion, designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a fantastic pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions.”
Designers featured in China: Through the Looking Glass include Cristobal Balenciaga, Bulgari, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Callot Soeurs, Cartier, Roberto Cavalli, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano for Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino Garavani, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Picciolo for Valentino, Craig Green, Guo Pei, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, Charles James, Mary Katrantzou, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Ralph Lauren, Judith Leiber, Christian Louboutin, Ma Ke, Mainbocher, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Edward Molyneux, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Dries van Noten, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret, Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Smith, Vivienne Tam, Isabel Toledo, Giambattista Valli, Vivienne Westwood, Jason Wu, and Laurence Xu.
The Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery
Emperor to Citizen
There are a series of “mirrored reflections” through time and space, focusing on the Qing dynasty of Imperial China (1644-1911); the Republic of China, especially Shanghai in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s; and the People’s Republic of China (1949-present) in The Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery. These reflections, as well as others in the exhibition, have been illustrated with scenes from films by such groundbreaking Chinese directors as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar-Wai, artistic director of the exhibition. Several of the galleries also feature original compositions by internationally acclaimed musician Wu Tong.
Upon entering the Costume Institute galleries, there’s a video tunnel showing Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, a broad and sweeping journey of Chinese history, and at the end of the tunnel is a festival robe worn by the last emperor, Pu Yi, when he was four years old.
Western designers have been inspired by China’s long and rich history, with the Manchu robe, the modern qipao, and the Zhongshan suit (after Sun Yat-sen, but more commonly known in the West as the Mao suit, after Mao Zedong), serving as a kind of shorthand for China and the shifting social and political identities of its peoples, and also as sartorial symbols that allow Western designers to contemplate the idea of a radically different society from their own.
In terms of the Manchu robe, Western designers usually focus their creative impulses toward the formal (official) and semiformal (festive) costumes of the imperial court in all of their imagistic splendor and richness. Bats, clouds, ocean waves, mountain peaks, and in particular, dragons are presented as meditations on the spectacle of imperial authority. Most of the robes in this gallery—several of which belong to the Palace Museum in Beijing—were worn by Chinese emperors, a fact indicated by the twelve imperial symbols woven into or embroidered onto their designs to highlight the rulers’ virtues and abilities: sun with three-legged bird; moon with a ”jade hare” grinding medicine; constellation of three stars, which, like the sun and moon, signify enlightenment; mountains to signify grace and stability; axe to signify determination; Fu symbol (two bow-shaped signs) to signify collaboration; pair of ascending and descending dragons to signify adaptability; pheasant to symbolize literary elegance; pair of sacrificial vessels painted with a tiger and a long-tailed monkey to signify courage and wisdom; waterweed to signify flexibility; flame to signify righteousness; and grain to signify fertility and prosperity.
The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery
Traditional and haute couture qipaos as interpreted by Western designers are on display in The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery along with film clips from Wong Kar Wai’s The Hand from Eros, 2004 and In the Mood for Love, 2000; The Goddess, a 1934 film directed by Wu Yonggang; Lust, Caution, 2007 directed by Ang Lee; The World of Suzie Wong, 1960 directed by Richard Quine.
In the period between the two world wars, film actresses in Shanghai, known as the Hollywood of the East, were in the vanguard of fashion. Through their images on screen as well as in lifestyle magazines, they led new trends in the modern qipao. In the 1930s, the most eminent actress was Hu Die (Butterfly Wu), whose qipaos are on view.
Elected the Queen of Cinema after a nationwide poll by the Star Daily newspaper in 1933, she won favor with her on-screen depictions of virtuous women and her off-screen persona of ladylike sophistication. In the West, Hu Die became an embodiment of Chinese femininity. Her photograph appeared in a 1929 issue of American Vogue as the example of modern “Chinese elegance.”
Over time, the silhouette of the qipao evolved, quoting Western, specifically Parisian and Hollywood, aesthetics. Its columnar, body-skimming silhouette of the 1920s, a narrower expression of the flapper’s chemise, became a contour-cleaving fit in the 1930s, similar to the haut monde’s and screen sirens’ glamorous bias-cut gowns.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, the modern qipao was considered a form of national dress in China. An aristocratic version was promoted during this period by images of Oei Hui- Ian, the third wife of the Chinese diplomat and politician Vi Kuiyuin Wellington Koo, and Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, a military and political leader and eventual president of the Republic of China. While the qipao became the signature style of both women, who were known in the West for their sophistication, Oei Hui-Ian was also a couture client and would often mix her qipaos with jackets by Chanel and Schiaparelli. A 1943 issue of American Voguefeatures a Horst photograph of Oei Hui-Ian wearing the version on view here, which is embroidered with the traditional motif of one hundred children. The article in the same issue describes her as “a Chinese citizen of the world, an international beauty.”
The modern qipao is a favorite of Western designers, not only because of its allure and glamour but also because of its mutability and malleability, and it can be rendered in any print, fabric, or texture, conveying whatever desires and associations they stimulate in the minds of designers.
Egyptian Art Landing
In the Egyptian Art Landing, film clips of Chung Kuo: Cina (1972) directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, In the Heat of the Sun (1994) directed by Jiang Wen, and The Red Detachment of Women (1970) directed by Fu Jie and Pan Wenzhan play on the screens above the garments on display. The Zhongshan suit, or Mao suit as it is more commonly known in the West, remains a powerful sartorial signifier of China, despite the fact that it began disappearing from the wardrobes of most Chinese men and women, aside from government officials, in the early 1990s. For many Western designers, the appeal of the Mao suit rests in its principled practicality and functionalism.
Its uniformity implies an idealism and utopianism reflected in its seemingly liberating obfuscation of class and gender distinctions. During the late 1960s, a time of international political and cultural upheaval, the Mao suit in the West became a symbol of an anti- capitalist proletariat. In Europe, it was embraced enthusiastically by the left-leaning intelligentsia specifically for a countercultural and antiestablishment effect.
For Tseng Kwong Chi, who was born in Hong Kong and active in the East Village in the 1980s, the Mao suit was a vehicle to explore Western stereotypes of China. From his self- portrait series East Meets West (also known as the Expeditionary Series, 1979-90), he masqueraded as a visiting Chinese dignitary wearing mirrored sunglasses and a Mao suit, and stood in front of various cultural and architectural landmarks and natural landscapes. Exploiting the fact that people treated him differently based on his dress, the artist used his adopted persona, which he described as an “ambiguous ambassador,” to illustrate the West’s naïveté and ignorance of the East. The catalyst for East Meets Westwas President Richard M. Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, an event that the artist defined as “a real exchange [that] was supposed to take place between the East and West. However, the relations remained official and superficial.
The art of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) profoundly influenced the American and European avant-garde. Andy Warhol created his first screen-printed paintings of Mao Zedong in 1973, immediately following President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and over time made nearly two thousand portraits in various sizes and styles. Both model and multiple, Warhol’s Mao is undeniably of the masses, like the original 1964 portrait that was reproduced in the millions as the frontispiece to the Little Red Book.
In his Chairman Mao series (1989), Zhang Hongtu, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, extended a Warholian sensibility to his own mode of Political Pop, lending a satirical eye to the 1964 portrait. For her spring/ summer 1995 collection, designer Vivienne Tam, who was born in Guangzhou, collaborated with Zhang to create a dress printed with images from the Chairman Mao series. The same collection also included a silk jacquard suit of the 1964 portrait.
Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. All text and photographs are the property of Lia Chang Multimedia. She blogs at email@example.com where this piece first appeared. It is republished here with permission from the author and photographer.