Currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 16, 2015, The Costume Institute’s spring 2015 exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, is a collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Asian Art Department, as a celebration for their centennial. 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 China: Through the Looking Glass, the Astor Forecourt gallery has been devoted to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Haute Couture designs by Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren and John Galliano for the House of Dior inspired by Ms. Wong, are displayed alongside a Travis Banton gown she wore in Limehouse Blues (1934). Ms. Wong can be seen in a montage of rare film clips edited by Wong Kar-Wai, vintage film stills and photographs by Edward Sheriff Curtis and Nickolas Muray.
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.”
In terms of shaping Western fantasies of China, no figure has had a greater impact on fashion than Ms. Wong. Born in Los Angeles in 1905 as Huang Liushuang (”yellow willow frost”), she was fated to play opposing stereotypes of the Enigmatic Oriental, namely the docile, obedient, submissive Lotus Flower and the wily, predatory, calculating Dragon Lady.
Acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai served as artistic director for China: Though the Looking Glass. Below are excerpts of his speech from the press preview on May 4, 2015.
“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.
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.”
Film clips, edited by Wong Kar-Wai featuring Anna May Wong include Daughter of the Dragon, 1931 directed by Lloyd Corrigan (Paramount Pictures, Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC); Limehouse Blues (1934) directed by Alexander Hall (Paramount Pictures UCLA Film & Television Archive); Piccadilly (1929) directed by E. A. Dupont (British International Pictures, Courtesy of Milestone Film & Video and British Film Institute); Shanghai Express, (1932) directed by Josef von Sternberg (Paramount Pictures, Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC); and The Toll of the Sea (1922) directed by Chester M. Franklin (Metro Pictures Corporation, UCLA Film & Television Archive), run on overhead screens in The Astor Forecourt.
Limited by race and social norms in America and constrained by one- dimensional caricatures in Hollywood, she moved to Europe, where the artistic avant-garde embraced her as a symbol of modernity.
The artists Marianne Brandt and Edward Steichen found a muse in Anna May Wong, as did the theorist Walter Benjamin, who in a 1928 essay describes her in a richly evocative manner: “May Wong the name sounds colorfully margined, packed like marrow-bone yet light like tiny sticks that unfold to become a moon-filled, fragranceless blossom in a cup of tea,” Benjamin, like the designers in this gallery, enwraps Anna May Wong in Western allusions and associations, In so doing, he unearths latent empathies between the two cultures, which the fashions on display here extend through their creative liberties.
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.
Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington, Roscoe Orman. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.
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