Founded in 1870, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest of its kind in the United States. Affectionately known as “the Met,” the venue houses some 2 million pieces in its permanent collection, earning accolades among art aficionados worldwide.
But last year, the Met’s stellar reputation came dangerously close to being tarnished when it hosted a fashion and art exhibit called China: Through the Looking Glass. Beginning with an uneasy alliance between the Met’s Costume Institute and its Department of Asian Art, the project was the brainchild of costume curator Andrew Bolton. Theoretically created to highlight the West’s fascination with China through an Alice in Wonderland-like lens, the exhibit organizers admittedly would present that bothersome enthrallment known as “Orientalism,” a fetishized appropriation of an Asian culture. The idea was to utilize priceless Chinese artifacts, paintings, and sculptures as backdrops to Chinese-themed fashions created by contemporary designers.
That the Department of Asian Art’s elitist heads hesitated at loaning its collections for displaying clothing, because they didn’t view fashion as art, was one of Bolton’s concerns as revealed in the film First Monday in May. In the documentary, the audience is taken along the arduous journey of planning, then implementing, the ambitious exhibit. Spanning some eight months until opening night, the film covers every minute of detail including soliciting participants comprised of 40 fashion designers, filmmakers, assistants, carpenters, electricians, seamstresses and more to pull off the feat.
Although it’s unclear why a documentary of the entire process was captured in the first place, it turned out to be a telepathic tool for addressing allegations of racism that followed the exhibit’s opening. In fact, the film clarifies the intention all along was to explain “Orientalism” of the past by re-creating it in the present.
To curtail any accusations of wrongdoing, exhibit organizers issue statements via their website like “rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.” And, to ensure they don’t offend anyone, the group even travels to Beijing to enlist the help of Chinese government officials, repeating their mantra to “explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion.”
However, regardless of the organizers’ efforts, there is some confusion over what constitutes Chinese traditions. In an early conversation between curator Colton and fashion designer John Galliano, Japanese words like “kabuki” and “geisha” are used to describe elements for the upcoming exhibit.
Further, while attempting to show Chinese influence on modern designers, only two of the 40 that are invited to participate are Asian American. Interestingly, both Vivienne Tam and Vivienne Westwood contribute designs with symbols of the Cultural Revolution. While Tam’s dresses are made of fabric illustrated with repetitious portraits of Mao, Westwood creates an entire People’s Liberation Army ensemble starring khaki hot pants.
Over 140 pieces of haute couture and ready-to-wear items appear in 16 galleries. One billowy dress carries the blue willow pattern borrowed from China by a Brit and found on popular 1960’s dinnerware.
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, recruited as artistic director, has his “In the Mood for Love” screened for prominently featuring the cheongsam, a Chinese sarong. Another display shows a coat worn by the last emperor of China alongside the film of the same name. But then there are the shameful opium den and dragon lady images to contend with, an acknowledgment that the past was misrepresented by Western stereotypes.
Vogue magazine editor, Anna Wintour, makes numerous appearances in the film as chair of the annual Met Gala fundraiser that accompanies the exhibit. With her precision-cut bob veiling half her face, and endless paper cups of take-out coffee in hand, she parades around in dark, oversized sunglasses, which she even wears inside her house. Fussing over seating arrangements for the Gala, she nixes the display of slithering dragons on both sides of the entrance staircase, then gushes over their replacement—250,000 white roses positioned on a giant blue vase imitating a Ming Dynasty pattern.
Popular singer Rihanna arrives at the Gala in a trailing yellow cape designed by China’s Guo Pei, but the lack of visible Asian or Asian American celebrities (besides Gong Li and Tang Wei) is problematic. Passing a photo of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, designer Michael Kors tells actress Kate Hudson, “the first Asian movie star.” But while Ms. Wong may have been the first Chinese face to grace the silver screen in 1920s America, there were plenty of Asian movie stars then—in Asia. It’s another reminder that the exhibit’s gaze is largely Western. Having Lady Gaga appear with heavily drawn slanted eyebrows only confirms it.
‘The First Monday in May’ opened April 15 at Landmark Seven Gables Theatre.