Written by Simona Segre Reinach.

In the feud between curator Diana Vreeland and cultural historian Deborah Silverman, surely Diana Vreeland is the clear winner. The debate dates back to more than thirty years ago. It was 1986 when Professor Silverman published Selling Culture in which she accused the fashion exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum curated by Vreeland of transforming the museum into a department store, and of promoting an elite culture, endorsing a new aristocracy of taste in the Reagan age. In 2015 this is no longer relevant. Ideology has faded away and Michelle Obama publicly praised Vogue editor Anna Wintour for her role in renovating the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum. On inauguration day, May 8, 2014 the First Lady clearly stated the value of fashion for American culture and economy. Not only has the Costume Institute obtained full recognition within the Met, its ever-successful exhibitions help to sustain the museum. The exhibition China Through The Looking Glass is in fact directly connected with the museum, being a joint exhibit between the Costume Institute and the Asian Rooms of the Met. Visitors wander around admiring both the immense collection of modern clothes paired with Chinese emperors’ dresses, and ancient Chinese porcelain vases belonging to the Met collection.

One can really feel the power of fashion as never before in this exhibition. Fashion has become a key means of expression in a popular culture which is now apparently devoid of any subversive power. The point probably lies elsewhere, though. If fashion is admitted into the club, so to speak, the relationship between the West and the Rest remains a hot issue. And we are dealing with quite a powerful Rest here, China being a country that more than any other has changed its positioning in the global scenario. The transformation of China from a source of cheap labour to a place where millions of sophisticated consumers reside is palpable to many. From made in China to made for China has therefore become a kind of mantra and a necessity for most designers and fashion companies to acknowledge. How is it then possible to come to terms with Orientalism? Curator Andrew Bolton very clearly states that he is not interested in discussing Orientalism. His aim is in analysing the role that Chinese culture has played in Western fashion; China as a fantasy, and fashion as its instrument.

Bolton’s statement might appear somehow excusatio non petita, highlighting the problem he is trying to avoid. It is in fact difficult not to tackle an issue which influenced years of colonial relations. China, as any other country with a specific non-Western culture, had to come to terms with a more industrialised and richer West, which sets the visual canon of modernity. And fashion, after all, is precisely about modernity, despite the ambivalence of the term. Fashioning Orientalism in the museum is not an easy task. But the point Bolton is trying to make is not how much Orientalism is in the exhibition, it is rather the recognition that fashion produces a specific narrative which helps people, in the West and in the East, to understand more subtle power relations. Therefore one should not assume fashion designers have a disinterest in politics, social facts, or ‘sensible’ issues, because in fact they often touch on these issues in their craft, although in an idiosyncratic way. One of the more insightful designers of our time, the late Alexander McQueen, clearly acknowledged this when he declared, about his exhibit Savage Beauty (2011), also curated by Bolton at the Met: “I want to be honest about the world we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through my work. Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes…”

This statement did not stop him from appropriating many different aesthetics, as also evident in his many creations present in the show which were inspired by Chinese culture, clothes, design and colour. As a matter of fact, appropriation, imitation, adaptation are common words in fashion vocabulary, as was made clear by Valerie Steele and John Major in a past exhibit on Chinese fashion. Each of these words offer nuances that call for deeper analysis not present in show, although which can be found in the catalogue’s essays for readers who want to know more.

All this said, I suggest that the China Through The Looking Glass exhibit is considered as being the peak of a process which started in the late 80s – that it allows for wider recognition of China in the contemporary global stage, matching its powerful economy with powerful aesthetics. A sort of rehab process if I may put it this way, in which the so-called factory of the world can be eventually forgotten by offering to the enthusiastic public filling the premises of the Met a more charming and sophisticated profile of China. I am not saying it is false portrait, nor just a diplomatic move. The exhibition is splendid and very enjoyable, as well as being timely. I especially liked Gallery 132, where Maoist China and Zhongshan suits are offered to us through the extraordinary gaze of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 film Chung Kuo – a film which was not communist enough for the European communists and not critical enough for his adversaries. The film did not please the Chinese either – conversely to the reactions to this exhibition, which is apparently pleasing everybody. To conclude, I would encourage a visit to the exhibition if you happen to be in New York. It is worth the ticket. To counteract its sometimes unproblematic attitude, I would also recommend paying a visit to the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), for supplementary information concerning the relations between East and West.

Simona Maria Segre Reinach is a Cultural Anthropologist and professor of Fashion Studies at Bologna University, Italy. Image Credit: CC by Maia C/Flickr