The Met Gala is nearly upon us and as the fashion world braces itself for its very glamorous prom night, we can’t help but feel a bit uneasy about the affair. When we first heard that this year’s exhibit would be China: Through the Looking Glass, we let lut a Scooby Doo-style “Ruh roh,” nervous about what the red carpet gala might look like. Any theme based on a non-Western culture seems like a moment for some possibly tone-deaf costumery.
Andrew Bolton, who is involved in curating the exhibit, did nothing to ease our fears when he explained to WWD the premise of the presentation, saying it “is not about China per se, but about a China that exists as a collective fantasy. It is about cultural interaction, the circuits of exchange through which certain images and objects have migrated across geographic boundaries.”
And whose “collective fantasy,” pray tell, will this exhibit reflect? Obviously, the perspective of Chinese fashion and art will be done through a Western lens. It is a premise that sounds rather problematic, toeing the line of Orientalism. As Vogue put it, “‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ will primarily examine how Eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture in an exchange that Bolton likens to a complicated game of telephone.”
Here’s the problem. The story of the East, as told by the West is a narrative we’re accustomed to hearing. Putting a Western focus on a different culture should make us all uneasy, as historically this kind of practice has led to hurtful, racist and most importantly, inaccurate depictions of people. Why are we celebrating this phenomenon? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on the inspiration itself, rather than muddled, potentially disrespectful interpretations of that inspiration? Why not do an exhibit on the evolution and influences of Chinese fashion through the years? Or on Asian and Asian-American designers themselves and their impact on fashion?
Another thing bugging us about the event is that while it is focused on China, so far, the leaked guest list for the event (which we assume isn’t final) is brimming with celebrities – few of which are Chinese, or even Asian for that matter. Of course, we’re not here to nitpick the diversity of the guest list – that would be ridiculous. But you would think that there would be a little bit more representation from Chinese designers, artists and luminaries for this show. Of course, that list is most likely not complete, so we still have to see how the actual event plays out.
This is not to say that there are no Chinese creatives involved with the exhibit. Actress Gong Li is listed as a co-chair of the affair, Wong Kar-wai is handling the art direction. Silas Chou will also be on hand to host the event. On the guest list are Chinese-American designers Alexander Wang, Derek Lam and Vera Wang. Still, it seems very curious to us that this Western-focused interpretation of Chinese culture didn’t at least ring questionable to some of the aforementioned people, or at least they haven’t expressed as much.
But maybe we’re wrong to feel so nervous. Perhaps once the exhibit goes live, it will demonstrate the cultural exchange, rather than relish in exoticism and the good ol’ days where such behavior went unchallenged. We’re hoping that with the inclusion of Chinese artists, at least this version of Western storytelling will be more nuanced and respectful. As we know, innocent cultural appreciation too often turns into something more sinister. As Jezebel’s Kara Brown wrote, “The fact that the core idea behind the theme is how Chinese aesthetics have influenced other designers is troubling because that influence is often culturally insensitive or downright racist. There is, of course, a way to honor other cultures without appropriating them, but many people Hollywood—or really, any world rooted in elitism—have already proven that they don’t know how to do that very well.”
We’re hoping this time they get it right, but we have to admit, the whole thing looks dubious from here.