April 27, 2013

Fashion at MOCA

Founded in 1980 as The New York Chinatown History Project with the intention of preserving the oral history and photo documentation of the city's Chinese American community, the current Museum of Chinese in America has evolved into a national cultural center dedicated to preserving and bringing 160 years of Chinese American history to life.  With the relocation of the Museum from a former public school on Mulberry Street to its expanded premises, designed by renowned designer Maya Lin, on Centre Street in 2009, MOCA was able to reposition itself as a key institution in New York's vibrant museum scene.

MOCA is far from just a historic look back at the Chinese American experience.  To be sure it chronicles the immigration and settlement of Chinese in New York and honors the struggles of these pioneers.  But it is also a thriving cultural institution that promotes current Chinese American contributions to the arts, sciences and industry.

Last night I was invited to the opening of MOCA's latest exhibitions both dedicated to fashion.  "Front Row" is a tribute to sixteen Chinese American fashion designers who made their marks in New York.  Several, including Vivienne Tam, Anna Sui and wedding dress queen Vera Wang have been established as leading houses since the 1980s.  Others, like Derek Lam, Jason Wu and Peter Som, came on the scene more recently but with no less of an impact.

Chinatown in lower Manhattan had long been known as a garment center continuing the Chinese tradition of fine tailoring and more mass produced dressmaking.  The Chinese American designers featured in this show transcended this legacy to great success in the fashion world by blending their Asian heritage with their own personal aesthetic to create distinctive international style.

Across the Museum's lobby is a second exhibition also on the theme of fashion but a more historic look.  "Shanghai Glamour" is a step back in time to the exotic and the mysterious Orient of the early 1900s.  By the 1920s Shanghai was established as the "Paris of the East", an identity that was deeply associated with its glamorous women who projected modernity in their dress and manners.

Divided into three sections including "Femmes Fatales", "Femmes Savantes" and "Femmes du Monde" the show explores how each of these types of women used fashion and style to express her own Shanghai look.  From socialites to students, courtesans to chanteuses, each of these modern women employed dress and accessories to state her role in this evolving society.  As well as drawing on MOCA's own collection of posters, magazines and images, "Shanghai Glamour" features twelve exquisite outfits borrowed from the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou - on view for the first time in the United States - and several beautiful dresses on loan from private New York collections.

Both of these shows feature noted guest curators and advisory councils drawn from prominent New York museums and each presents a very particular but informative look at Chinese American culture, both past and present.  They are on view at MOCA until September 29th.

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