June 01, 2015

"China: Through the Looking Glass"

For those on the social circuit, there is no more coveted ticket than the one to the Costume Institute Benefit held every May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Held in conjunction with the opening of the annual costume exhibition, the event is a major source of revenue and publicity for the museum and an opportunity for attendees to wear their most opulent and outrageous outfits.

This year the exhibition celebrated China and the influence of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion.  In a rare collaboration with another department, the show is spread over two floors beginning downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Center and continuing on the second floor in the galleries of the Department of Asian Art.  The result is a spectacular blend of old and new, high art with popular culture and East meets West.

Let's start off on the lower level where a series of "mirrored reflections" explores how the periods of Imperial China, the Republic of China and the Peoples' Republic of China have affected fashion. Using a multimedia film and mirror presentation, the galleries concentrate on the elaborately embroidered Manchu Robe of a Qing Dynasty emperor, the elegant and flattering qipao dress typical of Shanghai in the 1930s and the classless uniformity of the Zhongshan (Mao) suit, and their haute couture imitations.

Formal Robe for the Tongzhi Emperor (1862-74)
together with dress from
House of Dior, Collection Autumn/Winter 1998-99

With a strong emphasis on film, both classic and recent, these galleries are more of a mind-bending light and sound extravaganza than a fashion exhibition.  While it was sometimes difficult to determine what was real and what was an illusion, there were many truly exquisite examples of historical and contemporary costumes on display.

Heading upstairs to the Asian Art Galleries we come to the second part of the show.  For the first time since "AngloMania" in 2006, the Costume Institute has teamed up with another department to showcase even more treasures from the Met's vast holdings.  Divided into sections including Chinoiserie...

American (left) and French (right) dresses, circa 1780


Day Dresses by Christian Dior (left) and Coco Chanel (right)

Blue and white china...

Two gowns by Valentino
Evening gown (left), 1968;  Dress (right) 2013 


Gold lamé evening gown by Guo Pei, 2007

and Folding Screens...

Couture Ensemble by Valentino, 1990-91
together with a carved red lacquer screen, 1777

...we find historical and couture outfits by designers of both Anglo and Asian heritage posed with a corresponding Chinese antique or artifact. 

Some displays were intimate and modest like the perfume bottles based on Chinese imagery....

Chinese shoe (1800-1943) together with
"La Fille de Roi de Chine" perfume bottle by Caillot Sœur, 1923

While others were complete stage sets like "Moon in the Water" with a temple and rock garden...

At 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, "China:  Through the Looking Glass" is the largest show ever mounted by the Costume Institute.  By collaborating with the Asian Arts Department, the curators have offered fashion in an entirely new perspective while at the same time presenting the ancient artifacts in a new light.  The exoticism of the Orient has long been assimilated into decoration and design and has been the leitmotif in sartorial styles for generations as well.  "China:  Through the Looking Glass" is on view until August 16th.

Detail of sequin decoration done by the House of Lesage
on a dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Collection Autumn/Winter 1996-97

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