Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 2, 2016
Andrew Bolton China: Through the Looking Glass Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. 256 pp.; 231 color ills. Paper $45.00 (9780300211122)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 7–September 7, 2015
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China: Through the Looking Glass. Installation view. Anna Wintour Costume Center, Imperial China. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

China: Through the Looking Glass, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exploration of how Chinese dress and aesthetics have influenced the Western fashion world, has been a popular success: with visitor numbers topping 800,000, it has entered the top five of the Met’s most successful exhibitions, beating another recent and immensely popular fashion exhibition also curated by Andrew Bolton, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, and proving yet again that fashion in the museum sells. But does it advance a knowledge of how fashion and dress have mediated cultural interactions between China and the West? How does it answer the implicit question behind all of the Costume Institute exhibitions of whether fashion is art? Is the audience asked to understand fashion as fine art, historical source, or cultural sign?

In contrast to twentieth-century exhibitions on Asian dress, China: Through the Looking Glass continues a shift away from purely dress-historical approaches and toward investigating how the West has responded to Asian dress. This shift was initiated in the 1990s by Harold Koda and Richard Martin’s Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994, but it was developed most forcefully in Akiko Fukai’s multi-venue Japonism in Fashion: Japan Dresses the West (at the Brooklyn Museum 1998–99), an analysis of the influence of Japanese clothing upon Western designers. This in turn inspired Valerie Steele’s 1999 China Chic: East Meets West at the Museum at FIT—an exploration of how designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano were influenced by China through categories spanning “Imperial China,” “1930s Shanghai,” and the “People’s Republic of China under Mao.” So, in a sense, we have been here before: the first half of China: Through the Looking Glass is divided into similar eras—“Late Empire” dragon robes; “New Republic” qipao silhouettes; and “People’s Republic of China” Red Guard uniforms. Still, the Met of 2015 is in some respects a different place; the Costume Institute’s exhibitions are not funded by American robber barons but by Hong Kong textile industrialists such as Silas Chou (honorary chair of the Met Gala). It also has a more global audience; last year visitors from China became the Met’s largest segment of visitors, and the Met has made connecting with this sector a central engagement strategy. China: Through the Looking Glass can be understood as a response to this global audience and also as a continuation of Bolton’s long-term innovations in the genre of fashion exhibition.

China: Through the Looking Glass innovates in two primary respects, both of which take the fashion exhibition beyond its traditional modes. First, it offers a model in which clothing is juxtaposed with other genres of decorative arts including porcelain, lacquer, and furniture from the Met’s world-class Asian art collection; indeed, the latter half of the exhibition, in the China rooms, is organized as a series of dialogues inspired by these objects and Chinese cultural figures such as Anna May Wong. Second, it offers a multimedia presentation that harnesses visual arts, cinema, and song to create a visually engrossing and persistently sensory experience for the audience: black mirrors, circular vitrines, transparent cubes, mirrored circles, and video corridors that lead to the “emperor’s throne,” metonymically realized in the form of a five-clawed dragon robe attributed to the Qianlong Emperor (1711–99). Cinema is a particular emphasis, with clips chosen by the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, together with his long-term collaborator, the art director-costume designer William Chang. When this presentation works, it awards the audience a compellingly experiential sense of the objects—the pleasures of combining sight and sound to engage with the garments and to enjoy not only one’s own vision of the garments, but also the more vicarious experience of watching others view the garments through mirrored and moonlit reflections.

What it does not do, however, is allow the audience to explore fashion as a more complex social and historical object. Sound and sight here primarily function to stylize in the manner of the catwalk and the fashion video. This is fashion presented solely at the level of surface—decontextualized and aestheticized—and the visual dialogues are founded on little more than these surface connections. Many of these associations are visually compelling—Chinese designer Guo Pei’s lotus gown set amid Buddhist sculpture garnered particular praise—but such pairings tend to shut out their wider cultural significance. What does this work of Chinese haute couture, slowly and painstakingly embroidered over hours, say to the religious statuary whose founder taught his disciples to wear tattered rags, but whose carefully carved images took equally as many slow and painstaking hours? Ultimately, in the absence of more historically or conceptually substantive moorings, the reliance of these juxtapositions upon patterns and palettes makes many of these pairings somewhat facile. In places, “influence” is so loosely conceived that sheer spectacle takes over, as, for example, in the final Wuxia room in the Great Hall. Centered around the British menswear designer Craig Green’s 2015 collection set amid a LED-lit plexiglass rod bamboo grove, it seems like an excuse to bring together the swirling painterly kinetics of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts spectacular, Hero (2002), with the Met’s renowned and immense Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) Buddhist mural.

The experiential emphasis upon the pleasures of surface is reinforced in the exhibition catalogue, with images presented without labels (a list at the back briefly details designer, material, and provenance) and often layered through transparent overlays to create multiple viewpoints that reiterate the conceit of echoes and reflections. Photographed by Platon, a British-Greek photographer renowned for his portraits of people of power, the objects were shot close-up on headless mannequins in blank settings, giving them a presence and sense of movement that belies their identity as fashion icons and instead awards them a rather human dignity. The catalogue comprises three short pieces—introductions by curator Maxwell K. Hearn and director Wong Kar-wai, and an interview with Galliano—and four short chapters, each lightly footnoted: one on Orientalism in fashion by Adam Geczy, an artist and lecturer; a brief history of China in dress by Koda; an overview of Chinese dress imagery by Mei Mei Rado, a Bard doctoral scholar; and a chapter on how cinema has imagined China by Homay King, a film studies academic. These are preceded by Bolton’s introduction entitled “Towards an Aesthetic of Surfaces.”

The exhibition’s academic point of departure is the work of Geczy and King, and their identity as cultural studies academics rather than art or dress historians is telling. In particular Geczy and his concept of transorientalism are foundational to the exhibition, which asks the audience to consider the reimagining process by which Chinese culture was brought into Western dress not in terms of linearity or simple East-West binaries, but rather as dialogue—“an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross-cultural communication and representation” (18). Here, the use of cinematic clips and the input of Wong along with three Chinese designers and artists—Vivienne Tam, Guo Pei, and Li Xiaofeng—play an important role in allowing Bolton to construct the exhibition as a dialogue. Yet three Chinese designers and a Hong Kong director do not a conversation make, and in actuality the remarkably conservative and homogenous nature of the Western fashion world’s take on China leads the audience to question these claims of dynamic dialogue. There are attempts to spin its simple and superficial quality—for example, Koda notes, “Paradoxically, chinoiserie’s prescribed and relatively limited aesthetic vocabulary, whether exploited by the Chinese or the non-Chinese, is directly related to its communicative power” (39)—but not to analyze it. Why have Western designers persisted in referencing a China reduced to palettes of red and gold, motifs of dragons, phoenixes, and pagodas, sartorial signifiers of difference (nehru collar, frog buttons, overlapping lapels), three modern modes of dress (changpao, qipao, Zhongshan suit), and the mediums that propelled early modern trade—blue and white porcelain, silks, and painted wallpaper?

As Bolton acknowledges in his foreword (20), accepting this limited range of motifs as in any way representative of Chinese culture and aesthetics is to introduce a misreading from the start. As the objects themselves make abundantly clear, there is in fact a very long span of Chinese dress history and aesthetics left completely untouched by this exhibition. Indeed, the very mode of dialogue undermines the curatorial claims: the juxtaposition of modern Western fashion next to Yuan Buddhist murals or Zhou bronzes demonstrates that Western designers have repeatedly ignored many of the most exciting and lovely themes of Chinese visual culture. But the superficial nature of this influence itself suggests all kinds of fascinating historical questions: Why has the impact of China as aesthetic been one of highly selected, restricted, and repeated surface patterns rather than the kind of conceptual impact that Japanese design has had on the Western fashion world, as explored by Fukai’s Japonisme? And given that what the exhibition and its catalogue reference is an aesthetic of early modern China informed by commercial processes of trade and export—which evolved in a process of self-selection that was guided by Western taste and, hence, was founded upon increasing contact and knowledge—why the insistence on China as fundamentally unknowable?

For Bolton and Geczy, the answer lies in “fantasy,” and specifically “collective fantasy.” Along with surface, fantasy is a central theme of this exhibition, serving as both a conceptual and organizational aesthetic: the vast and sprawling layout, the incessant media onslaught, the repeated assertions of illusions and imagination all create an experiential model that leaves the audience reeling with color and sound and pattern. But whose collective fantasy is this and how exactly was it formed? In his contribution to the exhibition catalogue, Bolton appears to wish his audience to understand the process primarily in terms of Barthian semiotics. His argument is inspired by Roland Barthes’s L’Empire des signes, a 1970 semiotics treatise written following a trip to Japan, in which he found the Japanese characters so beguiling that he had little desire to understand their meaning (Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982). Bolton declares that this rupture between signified and signifier also characterizes Western designers’ referencing of Chinese aesthetics. For they are similarly content to remain on the surface, since for them China is “a country of free-floating signs” (19) that “they aim to transform and reinterpret . . . through seemingly paradoxical postmodern constructions” (20). Again, one wonders here whether the objects do not weaken such lofty claims; after all, there appears little that is either paradoxical or postmodern about Ralph Lauren’s shifting the qipao into a little black dress or Tom Ford’s saturated sequined plays on the dragon robe. In placing Chinese or chinoiserie forms, colors, and symbols within Western silhouettes, surely they domesticate this material rather than reinterpret it. But more fundamentally, as Barthes himself argued in regard to dress, signs are not free-floating, but rather circulate in socially and politically constructed systems of value (Roland Barthes, “History and Sociology of Clothing” (1957), in Roland Barthes, The Language of Fashion, eds., Michael Carter and Andy Stafford, trans. Andy Stafford, Oxford: Berg, 2006, 7). Though Bolton claims to seek a “complex dialogue of elided meanings, a unified language of shared signs” (20), and though the exhibition continually reminds the audience of that language through visual reiterations such as the metal headdresses commissioned of British milliner Stephen Jones that flatten bamboos, peonies, and imperial symbols into “free-floating signs,” in fact the meanings that are really elided in this exhibition are history, power, and commerce.

The exhibition’s concern with the Western fantasy of China means that Orientalism—Edward Said’s account of the Western representation of the East as exoticized and essentialized—is something of an elephant in the (many) rooms, and the curators and writers go to some lengths to either avoid or deny its more distasteful implications. The exhibition’s premise is an apolitical manifesto: as a positive rehabilitation of Saidian Orientalism—“an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East”—the curators “neither discount nor discredit” Said’s representation of “subordinated otherness” (17). However, the political is hard to elude here. Presenting Tam’s screen-printed Mao dress without observing how her Warholian manipulation of Mao imagery speaks to Mao’s manipulation of his own image means the audience misses what the dress conveys about the entwining of the personal and political during the Cultural Revolution, and the use of the dressed body as a canvas to express these tensions. The message of the exhibition is that politics can be glided over with the glint of a sequin and the sheen of a lacquered surface. That is, since the Oriental other has inspired the Western creative mind to create such wonderful objects, we should not fret about Orientalism’s more troubling implications; instead, we should embrace what Bolton describes as “a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity” (17).

Yet the exhibition’s examination of fashion within an apolitical and ahistorical vacuum absent of race and class encounters even more confounding problems when it turns to the process by which Chinese designers themselves engage in China-themed designs. A growing anthropological and sociological literature has problematized this process as rooted within an “Orientalist political economy” centered upon designers tied to New York, London, Paris, and Milan that “bestows their claims with an aura of authority that translates into profits, while foreclosing both possibilities for most Asians” (Ann Marie Leshkowich and Carla Jones, “What Happens When Asian Chic Becomes Chic in Asia?” Fashion Theory 7, nos. 3/4 (2003): 281–300, esp. 284). In these studies, so-called “Asian Chic” emerges as a complex and ambivalent performance of self-Orientalizing within a fashion system of Western hegemony, involving a range of motivations and derived benefits, rather than simple replication of Western fantasies of the Oriental other. Bolton’s choice of mainland Chinese designers is carefully curated to avoid such issues: he includes neither those like Bu Kewen who designs chinoiserie glamour for stars like Fan Bingbing, nor those like Masha Ma whose very rebuff of such themes underlines the claustrophobic position of Chinese designers today—whether in acceptance or rejection, they necessarily position themselves against a Western-defined “Chinese” aesthetic.

Ultimately, the real problem with this dehistoricized account is that the show reveals little about one of Said’s most productive insights—that the Western Orientalist construction says more about the West than it does about the East. Though Bolton defines chinoiserie as a “site on which historically changing fears and desires are projected” (17), the audience is given little sense of these changes. How was “China” different for Paul Poirot, whose 1903 “Confucius” kimono-cut coat designs apparently lost him his job; for Yves Saint-Laurent, whose 1977–78 “Opium” fragrance courted such controversy; and for Ford, tasked with reinterpreting YSL in the 2000s at a time when the brand had become popular among Chinese consumers? Two catalogue chapters do provide some much welcomed historical context. Koda’s “Fashioning China” outlines the evolution of Chinese imagery in Western markets—from eighteenth-century chinoiserie painted silks to nineteenth-century minglings of chinoiserie, japonisme, and turquerie; and from Saint Laurent’s turning point collection of Chinese empire-inspired haute couture to the contemporary magpie samplings of Galliano. Rado’s “Imagery of Chinese Dress” observes the introduction of Chinese robes as a visual device in nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting, drawing out the development of this prop to communicate both “bourgeois notions of genteel femininity” and also “more complex fantasies of femininity” (50) tinted with a very familiar Orientalist construction of the female body as sensual and decadent. However important their insights, the catalogue essays are mostly detached from the exhibition and its objects. There, the lack of research into how these artistic and literary developments influenced actual fashion limits the audience’s ability to understand the many meanings of these often richly historical objects.

Given the interest in approaching chinoiserie trade as dialogue, it is striking that the exhibition did not look to the models of hybridity employed in more recent art-historical literature on chinoiserie; for example, David Porter and Stacy Sloboda have also constructed chinoiserie as exchange, but one situated more historically, as a “critical visual and material language rather than a mute ornamental style” (David Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Stacey Sloboda, Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014, 6) (click here for review). For these scholars, chinoiserie’s excessive nature provided a countercultural taste that empowered peripheral groups in their subversion of, and resistance to, classical traditions, offering a new space to discuss and construct identity. It would have been interesting to see such arguments applied to issues of gender in fashion design, to explore why many early twentieth-century female designers engaged with Chinese themes (Callot Soeurs, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet), as contrasted to the masculine celebration that it became over the course of the century, e.g., as embodied in Roberto Cavalli’s hyper-sexualized qipaos. One reason for avoiding this scholarship is perhaps because it constructs chinoiserie’s hybrid soul as shaped primarily by commercial relationships—“a type of network constituted by its cross-cultural makers, users, consumers, and critics” (Sloboda, Chinoiserie, 11). China: Through the Looking Glass’s preoccupation with the genius Western designer, apparently purely driven by beauty and inspiration rather than customers and profit, means it is little interested in these other agents; rather, the audience is asked to understand these objects as produced solely by creativity and art. Yet arguably what lies at the heart of this exhibition—what has always occupied the heart of material exchange with China—is not art but commerce. And though there is a reluctance to consider the museum itself (rather than cinema or painting) as the preeminent site for defining Chinese and Western dress, processes of exhibition and connoisseurship have always been rooted in monetization. The silencing of the museum’s own role conceals a more rounded history of the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western dress and the different levels at which China as fashion has played out, even if this complicates Bolton’s desired narrative of fashion as high art.

The lack of self-reflexivity concerning the role of the museum—to consider how China: Through the Looking Glass, with its delivery of reductive China-inflected semiotics, serves to define and confine cultural identity—is just one absence in this exhibition. But it is perhaps the Chinese designer whose absence is most felt. This exhibition takes place at a time when not just the Met and its audiences are changing, but the power dynamics of the fashion world are also shifting. Recent years have seen thousands of Chinese fashion designers trained in European and U.S. colleges of art and design; the twenty-first century is one in which they will come of age. In this light, China: Through the Looking Glass can be read as a final assertion of the creative genius of the twentieth-century Western fashion designer, at a point when that trajectory may well be turned topsy-turvy and back to front.

Rachel Silberstein
ACLS / Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Rhode Island School of Design, History of Art and Visual Culture, Affiliated Faculty

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.