The fashion, art, and Hollywood spheres collided Monday night, as they do every year, at the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala. This year’s theme, China: Through the Looking Glass, was designed to “explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries. High fashion will be juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery.”
However, many celebrities’ efforts to pay homage to China and Chinese culture fell flat or raised questions.
Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker’s red headdress earned criticism from commentators on both the red carpet and social media; but some have pushed back against accusations of cultural insensitivity. The Refinery29’s Connie Wang defended Parker saying, “[she] might have found the most clever way to pay homage to Chinese culture and its Western interpretations—all while still looking like a top-notch queen. . . . Some Chinese commentators on Weibo are also calling out [sic] a possible tribute being made made to Buddhism’s Four Heavenly Kings, and the commentary has been largely positive.”
On the other end of the spectrum was Rihanna wearing Guo Pei. This spectacular gown was one of the few designs on the red carpet by a Chinese couturier. As the artist herself told Vanity Fair, “It’s handmade by one Chinese [designer] and it took her two years to make. I was researching Chinese couture on the Internet and I found it.”
Perhaps the hit-or-miss nature of Gala attendee attire was an intentional component of this whole exercise (whether or not the stars themselves were aware). Or, at the very least, a happy accident from which the rest of us can learn.
During the fall 2014 press blitz announcing this year’s theme, Vogue described how the evening “will primarily examine how eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture.” Judging by the next-day coverage of the gala, those understandings and misunderstandings were made clear by many of the attendees and even by those commenting elsewhere.
The exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, expanded on the exhibit’s goals, explaining, “The basic idea is the influence of Chinese aesthetics on designers, but I also wanted to convey how costumes and decorative arts crystallize centuries of cultural interchanges between the East and the West. They speak to an ongoing fascination of [sic] enigmatic objects and motifs. They are infused with fantasy and nostalgia and romance, and what often is created is a virtual China, a mixing of these anachronistic styles, which results in this pastiche.”
Bolton closed on perhaps his most intriguing point of all: “What is interesting is how complicit China has been in forming those fantasies.” While the Met Costume Institute’s exhibition looks at Chinese culture through a Western lens, cultural reflection, appreciation, and appropriation goes both ways.
China’s complicity in the perpetuation of these fantasies is, in fact, crucial to understand as we as a nation examine our contemporary relationship with modern China. That point is also taken up by University Press of Kentucky author Christopher Ford in his new book, China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations.
While Ford’s book isn’t particularly heavy on haute couture fashion, it does explore how Chinese leaders have crafted and re-crafted portrayals of the United States in order to serve their own agendas and refine the regime’s self-image—often portraying America as an antagonist and foil, but sometimes playing it up as a model.
Ford’s book, though, suggests that by better understanding how China views the United States—and how it envisions itself in the world in relation to the United States—we can learn much about China and the intentions and aspirations that underlie its policy choices and the image it projects westward.
What both Ford’s China Looks at the West and the 2015 Met Gala “China: Through the Looking Glass” reveal is that Chinese and American perceptions of one another are hardly concrete. In truth, they are constantly changing and being manipulated by both nations’ citizens and by political power-brokers.