China: Through the Looking Glass

The Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art came together to shine a light on Chinese cultural traditions and the way they’ve been adopted and transformed by the western world. China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries, and in this exhibition, the two are juxtaposed with costumes, porcelains, calligraphy, and film to reveal the similarities, differences, and growth of the two worlds. Recently, the spotlight has been on China in terms of fashion and aesthetics and seems to spark interest when it comes to learning about the culture.

The exhibition is broken up into 16 themed galleries that are both visually appealing and educational. Some rooms address specific aspects of Chinese culture—like calligraphy and perfume—and Chinese fashion traditions like the Manchu robe, qipao, and Chinese textiles. The objects of artistic inspiration are carefully placed side-by-side with the designs they helped inspire to create a dialogue between the two cultures. In the qipao room, for instance, Chinese-designed qipaos are lined up in a row on one side of the room, the Western interpretations inspired by them on the other.

Other galleries are dedicated to designers who found specific artistic inspiration in China and embraced the fashion, like Yves Saint Laurent and Dior. The decoration on a 1950’s Dior dress is inspired by Chinese calligraphy drawn from a poem complaining about a stomach ache. Whereas the shoulders of an Yves Saint Laurent evening jacket have been picked out in the pattern on a 5th century BC bronze vessel. At the same time, there is a traditional Chinese garden court that has been transformed into a moonlit pool where John Galliano dresses appear to float over the surface.

The Porcelain Room has a gorgeous and calming retreat that houses an impressive array of blue-and-white porcelain pieces in a glass case across from a striking collection of blue-and-white couture. There are gowns by John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, and Rodarte, among others. Like a jaw-dropping, but wearable, gown by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen that features a bodice made of broken porcelain pieces over a delicate, ruffled white silk organza skirt with a long train.

With China as a major emerging market, the public is quenching their thirst for the Chinese culture, especially since the exhibition had a record-breaking 800,000+ visitors. Looking around at the crowd, it’s clear this may be one of the more diverse groups that have attended a single exhibition, as well. Pretty much every age, gender, and nationality seemed to be represented, and the excitement is noticeable.

Fashion definitely knows the power of the Chinese market.



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