As a way to transform the dreary halls of the museum, the Met enlisted the help of the vivacious Diana Vreeland. When I think of movies like A Night at the Museum and I imagine all of the exhibits coming to life, I believe this is what Diana Vreeland had the power to do as she applied her magical touch to the museum. When the legendary editor signed on to become a special consultant, she brought her exhibits and special projects to life. She didn’t just put together a room filled with garments. She created a world around the garments with an accompanying story.
Her first exhibit was “The World of Balenciaga” which introduced not only New Yorkers, but the entire world to the glamorous world of couture and costume. She is the reason, we eagerly await the announcement of the Costume Institute’s theme for their highly anticipated exhibit.
The torch has been passed to the gatekeeper of fashion Vogue Editor Anna Wintour. This year’s exhibit promised to be the largest Costume Institute exhibit yet, sprawled across multiple levels of the museum. With over 160 couture pieces, various installations, ceramics and jewelry; the Costume Institute enlisted the help of the best ensuring the viewer would embark on a memorable journey.
This year the West ventured to the East in China: Through the Looking Glass. Named after Lewis Carroll’s famed children’s book Through the Looking Glass, the viewer of the exhibit becomes the heroine of the story Alice. As we move through the exhibit, each of the rooms presents an entirely new world of wonder. When we peruse from gallery to gallery, we are immersed into the Chinese fantasy quite deeply as we meet a wide range of characters and their stories. Much like Alice, it is easy to become disoriented as one enters one darkly lit room to the next. It was a maze of couture that one can easily get lost in.
As one walks down the dark stairway, we fall down the rabbit hole as we enter the subterranean world curated by Anna Wintour. The first characters on this journey are gold faceless mannequins draped in the finest of garments from designers Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Tom Ford.
As we move about the gallery of couture, we are then guided to another where scenes from famous Chinese movies play on loop. In these galleries, we become acquainted with Chinese actresses Hu Die (Butterfly Wu) and Anna May Wong. Famous for defying traditional stereotypes, these women are our heroines through this world of wonder. These film actresses became the muse of many designers who attempted to emulate the elegant Qipao and sleek chinoiserie. When gazing upon the garments, we are taken back to a time where Shanghai Cinema ruled supreme. Almost 100 years later, the garments of Anna May Wong and Butterfly Wu are still making their mark on runway collections all over the world.
As one scans the designer name placards we bump into familiar faces Coco Chanel, Balenciaga, and Valentino. It becomes clear that we have been transported to a Chinese Wonderland made possible by the West. As we meet various characters who tell tales of Chinese inspiration, one begins to wonder where is a true representation of China, that can serve as our guide through this fantasy?
As we wind through the exhibit we meet our true guide to China, Guo Pei. Famed for her extensive work with peculiar materials, Guo Pei’s works of art certainly stole the show. Gowns made of fine China, and trains dripped in gold, Guo Pei designs with Chinese royalty in mind.
Like any fairy tale, it’s not all sunshine and wonder in a world of fantasy. Within the exhibit, we meet dictator of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. His haunting face is sprawled across a cocktail dress and his signature suit is shown as chic fashion statements adopted by the West. The drug addled reign of the Opium era is charmingly inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s fragrance and collection Opium. These controversial elements are where we are lead to the dark past of China. In this red-hued room, viewers get a peek through China’s troubling past. Like any fantasy, there is an antagonist and China’s Through the Looking Glass is no exception.
As our fantasy comes to a close, we are greeted with warriors that hide behind bamboos of white light. Contrasting with the dark rooms, the ray of light signaled that we have come to the end of our journey. In this room, the gallery is paying homage to the literary genre of Wuxia which translates as Martial Swordsmen. Much like the rest of the exhibit, this room does a great job of creating a whole new world around the garment. As you walk through trying to find the hidden figures, it’s as if we are Alice meeting a new set of characters that are our saviors in this Chinese fantasy.
As the fantasy came to a close, it was then time to leave the magical world behind and enter the world of reality. I returned to the world of the museum and I was no longer in the Chinese Wonderland. No more couture and no more hidden rooms. My fantasy had come to a close, but I was all the more grateful for the experience. It’s safe to say that what lies behind the looking glass is indeed quite the sight.
China: Through the Looking Glass is available for viewing until August 16th