China: through the Looking Glass

AWNY Member Kim Broughton writes about her experience at The Met’s ‘China Though the Looking Glass’ exhibition.

Crossing the threshold of the Metropolitan Museum’s newest exhibit, I understood why my ticket to the Met Gala ball went missing in the post; I’m not sure Anna Wintour would have approved of my casual-yet-practical ensemble. My cheap sneakers were ideal for navigating the Met, but next time I’ll don reptile stilettos so fabulous they’d make tourists weep. Not this day.

My interest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, China through the Looking Glass was to satisfy my curiosity for Chinese history, plus it was a glorious fashion perv. I’d previously visited China in 1984 when she’d opened her doors to international tourism after the Cultural Revolution and again in the mid-90’s (ironically wearing a 2-piece grey suit).

The title of the exhibition refers to Alice in Wonderland, where Alice discovers a bold and imaginative world. This fashion exhibit mirrors an alternate view of China that is wrapped in invention and imagination. Two years in the planning, the displays offer something for everyone and (well, perhaps nothing for bored husbands) and are installed in the Costume Centre and also in the backdrop of the Met’s Chinese Galleries.

The exhibit is not simply about China, but rather a collective fantasy of China. It explores the products of this fantasy – fashion, art, architecture, fragrance, and porcelain. Covering two floors of the northern wing of the Met, the exhibit examines “Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity”.

As film is usually the first lens for interpretation, the exhibit opens with how film has influenced our view of Chinese imagery and created fantasy. Entering the lower gallery, you are greeted by a large-scale LED installation screening Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor”, which creates a wonderfully transportive mood, drawing you into a dream.

Surrounding the installation is a showcase of contemporary haute couture gowns beside their historical reference. It was fascinating to observe designers draw (or copy) their inspiration from fashion archives and translate into modern context. Offering more than 140 pieces of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear, the glorious fashion is juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, film, visual art, perfume, porcelains and paintings that reflect Chinese imagery.

I was delighted to discover the main exhibit, in the upper gallery, delved more into visual arts and architecture. The loveliest surprise is the main room installation, reminiscent of a Shanghai Tea garden with a lily pond under a full moon. All I needed was a lovely cup of tea or coffee, or anything actually.

If you’re interested in oriental fragrance, there is a fascinating section around the development of YSL’s ‘Opium’ fragrance; its creative concept through to the debut advertising campaign featuring Jerry Hall.

I happened upon a dreamy gallery of exquisite blue and white fine print dresses by Cavalli, Rodarte and Chanel inspired by Oriental blue. These were alongside cabinets displaying similar porcelain from Europe, England and Portugal to demonstrate the influence of the Far East in the big fashion houses. The dresses were extraordinary. The stand out was a dress made from porcelain shards (main picture).

There is a gallery dedicated to beautiful richly detailed Chinoiserie-inspired wallpaper (very popular in the USA). I would happily dedicate a room at my place to gaze upon its elegance (to my husband’s relief, we don’t have a spare room).

For me, the highlight of the exhibit was the Tom Ford creations – very sexy gowns cut from exquisitely embellished cloth inspired by Chinese costumes. The curators have setup the gowns to demonstrate the juxtaposition of fashion against the original costume or decorative arts.

This is a multi-faceted exhibition. Each gallery is an experience within itself with its own unique mood and story. There are elegant cheongsams, dramatic evening gowns, fantasy gowns, and glamorous frocks to wear to the Oscars.

China is an ancient civilization and the richness of its history continues to influence us today. For me the exhibition was both nostalgic and historic, but I loved that it demonstrated China’s influence in a modern context that was visually appealing to everyone. Maybe I’ll surprise myself and dress in an elegant suit, some red lipstick and heels, and revisit the exhibition again.


Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue

The Chinese Galleries (map ref 206–218)

Egyptian Galleries (map ref 132)

Anna Wintour Costume Center (map ref 980–981)

When: Open daily from 10.00AM – 5.30PM. China through the Looking Glass runs til September 7

Cost: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a ‘suggested’ entrance price of $25 per adult, however the entrance fee is what you are prepared to pay that day (I paid $15 because I was wearing cheap shoes).

Tip: Hang on to your ticket and enjoy free entry to the Cloisters on the same day. Catch the M4 bus from Lexington Avenue for an interesting bus ride north – it will take around an hour.

Photo credit: Kim Broughton

Author: Australian Women in New York

Australian Women in New York (AWNY) sources stories and guides that will help make you win the Big Apple. We also love to profile fabulous Aussie and Kiwi women.

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