China: Through the Looking Glass – Art, Film & Fashion in NY

Tom Ford for YSL

Evening dress, Tom Ford (American, born 1961) for Yves Saint Laurent, Paris (French, founded 1961), fall/winter 2004–5; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Yves Saint Laurent, 2005 (2005.325.1) Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

This spring in New York City The Costume Institute, based at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, will hold an exhibition focusing on the use of Chinese imagery in art, film and fashion in the west.

China: Through the Looking Glass will be on view May 7 – August 16, 2015 preceded by the now famous The Costume Institute Benefit, which is a highlight of the American fashion season.

Some one hundred and thirty haute couture and ready to wear fashions will be juxtaposed with glorious objects from the great days of the China Trade that are made of jade, lacquer, and cloisonné and blue and white porcelain. The objective is to explore how Chinese art and also film have influenced fashion design in the west for centuries.

In celebration of the exhibition opening, the Museum’s splendid Benefit will take place Monday, May 4, 2015. It is the main source of annual funding for its exhibitions, publications, acquisitions, and capital improvements.

Renowned Hong Kong tycoon Silas Chou, considered as an ‘elder statesman’, will be honorary chair. In the world of China fashion, he comes from a respected family of textile and apparel manufacturers. Among his other achievements, he cleverly returned the desirable apparel brands of Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors to profitability.

Cavalli Blue and White

Evening dress, Roberto Cavalli (Italian, born 1940), fall/winter 2005–6; Courtesy of Roberto Cavalli Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

“From the earliest period of European contact with China, 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” he said

The show will demonstrate visually how important cultural and artistic exchanges between China and institutions in the west are.

During the press briefing in New York about the coming exhibition a display included a wonderful Yves Saint Laurent gown, by Tom Ford, 2004. Its form was inspired by the dragon robe worn by Puyi (1906-1967), the last Chinese emperor for his inauguration in 1908.

A blue-and-white Chanel beaded gown (by Karl Lagerfeld, 1984) and a Roberto Cavalli gown (2005) have patterns that reflect those on Chinese export porcelains, which were collected so avidly by the west until the early 20th century.

Mr. Shan Jixiang, director of the famed Palace Museum of China, said: “The close cooperation between the Palace Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in developing this exhibition has enhanced mutual understanding, formed new friendships and led to brilliant new and exciting ideas.

Court Robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 19th-century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Ellen Peckham, 2011 (2011.433.2) Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

Court Robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 19th-century; The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, Gift of Ellen Peckham, 2011 (2011.433.2) Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

Mr Jixiang further commented “We believe that in the near future, we can look forward to more collaboration opportunities and learn from each other by sharing our expertise and experiences in exhibition design and curating” Jixiang said.

Our visions of China in the west have been shaped by many influences, including narratives that draw upon popular culture and imagery like the magic qualities of Blue and White ceramics.

Once it was established that the west really responded to blue and white porcelains of the most amazing variety, the Chinese began designing blue and white objects specifically for sale in the west.

This came about because of the increasing practice of goods being ordered to fulfill specific requirements of English and European customers.

The Chinese always, with an eye to business, quickly picked up on this lucrative practice.

They were not so much the objects made in the Chinese taste for consumption by the Chinese, in other words they were what the Chinese thought that people in the west would like.

The people in the west gradually gaining the impression of this being Chinese, when it really wasn’t.

B & W Ceramic

Jar with Dragon (Chinese), early 15th-century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Robert E. Tod, 1937 (37.191.1) Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

The Ming period, 1368 to 1644, is considered by many  historians as the last great dynasty that was really Chinese.

By the 17th century Chinese influence on western culture really intensified.

This was when it was ruled by the Manchus, who, to the mainstream population the Han Chinese, were foreigners.

Marco Polo 8

Actress Joan Chen as Chabi, empress of the Yuan dynasty, the Khan’s chief wife in Netflix’s series Marco Polo, season one.

Great art is a wonderful conduit for cultural exchange and development.

It seems that from the many and varied exhibitions about China and its art and culture springing up everywhere, that China still retains its allure and appeal.

There is no doubt the current television series Marco Polo set in the court of Kublai Khan and all about the young Venetian’s visit to the land of Cathay in the 12th century, with its intense focus on historical costumes and settings, is also having an impact.

Kublai Khan gained the title Great Khan by defeating his brothers and embracing Chinese culture. In 1260 he began to use Peking as his winter capital and rebuilt the city.

In 1271 he announced the beginning of another Chinese dynasty with himself as first emperor, naming it Ta Yuan, meaning great origin.

He set about governing along Chinese lines and employing foreigners  who travelled the Silk Road, now a safe highway.

Previously it had often been called the Pax Mongolica, because a single power dominated its whole length.

It was along this route in the 1260’s the Polo brothers from Venice first reached his court. Then there is the extraordinary show ‘Lanterns of the Terracotta Warriors, an array of ‘warriors’ that are travelling around the world dazzling everyone.

Lantern Warriors stand silently against the spectacular backdrop of Sydney Harbour

Lantern Warriors stand silently against the spectacular backdrop of Sydney Harbour

Recently they stood against the stunning backdrop and beauty of Sydney Harbour for ten days and nights, providing an unforgettable experience of Chinese culture, especially for the first time viewer. Held over the Chinese New Year holiday celebrations, it clearly impressed many.


Quianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback, painted by Giuseppe Castiglione, Jesuit Priest at the court of three Chinese Emperors, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria and Palace Museum, Beijing.

In Melbourne the National Gallery of Victoria will devote 1,100 square metres of its gallery space soon for The Golden Age of China exhibition, starting 27 Mar 15 to 21 Jun 15 2015, revealing the richness of the court and personal interests of the Qianlong emperor (r.1736- 1795).

In both the east and western world costume encompasses all we wear, including additional objects for personal adornment.

Superb Chinese hairpieces hand-coverings and footwear, as well as jewelry all have a history of their own.

The traditional clothing of China was originally worn by the Han ethnic group of people, who from the ruling periods of the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns to the Ming Dynasty wore garments of great simplicity and elegant style that reflected their social and cultural growth as a group of people.

Like everywhere else in the world today in China traditions are changing, including its costume to reflect the ideology of their contemporary age and growing cultural connections.

This excellent interchange complements the Palace Museum of China in Beijing’s mission. It seeks to highlight the essence of Chinese art and culture formed over thousands of years in the west and the show dovetails well with The Costume Institute’s commitment to exploring the connection between art and fashion on a global scale.

Chinese Evening Coat

Evening coat, ca. 1925; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Robert S. Kilborne, 1958 (2009.300.259) Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

Wearing a beautiful Chinese style tunic made of colored silk that feels wonderful on the skin, is easy to wear and looks stylish both day and night, can certainly uplift the spirit and it has endless style.

Renowned filmmaker and artistic director of the exhibition Wong Kar Wai, commented about how pleased he was to be working in collaboration with The Costume Institute and Asian Art Department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art on such an exciting cross-cultural show.

“Historically, there have been many cases of being ‘lost in translation’–with good and revealing results. As Chinese filmmakers, we hope to create a show that is an Empire of Signs–filled with meaning for both East and West to discover and decipher” he said.

Valentino Red Dress

Evening dress, Valentino SpA (Italian, founded 1959), “Shanghai” collection 2013; Courtesy of Valentino SpA Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

The Costume Institute became an integral aspect of the Met in 1946, and subsequently has built a world-class collection, including more than 35,000 garments from five continents, with some dating back to the 15th century.

Filmic representations of China will be incorporated throughout to reveal how narratives that draw upon popular culture shape our visions of China.

It is all about us recognizing the importance of cinema as a medium through which we in the west understand the layers of richness attached to Chinese history.

And, copying to some extent after all, is the greatest form of flattery.

The Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre will present a series of “mirrored reflections”, illustrated with scenes from films by such ground breaking Chinese directors as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar Wai.

Distinct vignettes will be devoted to “women of style,” including Oei Huilan (the former Madame Wellington Koo), Soong May-Ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek), and Empress Dowager Cixi.

The famed Astor Court will feature a thematic vignette dedicated to Chinese opera.

The celebrated performer Mei Lanfang, who inspired John Galliano’s spring 2003 Christian Dior Haute Couture Collection will be highlighted, her ensembles showcased alongside Mr. Mei’s original opera costumes.

Cloud Scrolls Red Robe

Detail of Festival Robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 19th-century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1944 (44.122.2) Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

01 Yves Saint Laurent by Tom Ford 2004Today’s designers featured will include Giorgio Armani, Vitaldi Babani, Cristobal Balenciaga, Sarah Burton (Alexander McQueen), Callot Soeurs, Roberto Cavalli, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana (Dolce & Gabbana), Peter Dundas (Emilio Pucci), Tom Ford (Yves Saint Laurent), John Galliano (Dior), Jean Paul Gaultier, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Picciolo (Valentino), Craig Green, Madame Grès, Ground-Zero, Guo Pei, Adrian Hailwood, Marc Jacobs (Louis Vuitton), Charles James, Charles Jourdan, Mary Katrantzou, Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel), Jeanne Lanvin, Ralph Lauren, Judith Leiber, Ma Ke, Mainbocher, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen (Givenchy), Missoni, Edward Molyneux, Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte), Dries van Noten, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret, Oscar de la Renta (Balmain), Ralph Rucci, Paul Smith, Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, Isabel Toledo, Giambattista Valli, Vivienne Westwood, Jason Wu, Laurence Xu, and others.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a press presentation on Monday, February 16, 2015, in the Museum’s Chinese Galleries to reveal early details about The Costume Institute’s upcoming exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass,

Those attending included Silas Chou, Editor in Chief of the US edition of Vogue Anna Wintour, Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, Curator Andrew Bolton of The Costume Institute; and renowned filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, who is the artistic director of the exhibition.

Anna Wintour +

Silas Chou, Emily Rafferty, Wendi Murdoch, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, Wong Kar Wai, Mike Hearn, Nathan Crowley, and Joe Zee at the Met’s China: Through the Looking Glass advance press event

China: Through the Looking Glass at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be quite a unique show and those at The Costume Institute‘s Benefit Gala will be sure to be wearing copious amounts of rustling, and always fashionable, silk.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

The Costume Institute
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY

China: Through the Looking GlassChinaLookingGlass_DIGITAL_Hero
May 7–August 16, 2015

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