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"China: Through the Looking Glass"
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How the East has inspired us with its imagination, art and culture
is magnificently shown in this exceptional fashion show.

By Rosalie Baijer

Chinese Dragon Robers and Yves Saint Laurent by Tom Ford. Photo by Rosalie Baijer.

Amazing exhibition. It starts on top of the stairs. The dark red and black walls, the loud music and the dark room take you immediately into an enchanting experience. Two big screens facing each other create a catwalk and next, on both sides, the most elegant dresses are standing on a line. Welcome, you are standing in the middle of a phenomenal show of how China was, and still is, an inspiration for the Western fashion world. I feel like a child in a candy shop; with sparkling eyes I ask myself, “Where do I go begin?!”

This exclusive exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows us Chinese Imagery in Art, Film and Fashion and how the western fashion world got inspired with beautiful, artistic cultural traditions from the East. Its impact is shown with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, films and all different kinds of art.

The first exhibition, called "Emperor to Citizen," focuses on Imperial China, the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China. It shows with mysterious objects and imagery from the East how the West is charmed, focusing on high fashion masterworks.

Film still from The Last Emperor, 1987

"The Last Emperor,"a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, is played on two screens facing in the center and it makes an exaggerated impact. Clips from the movie shows us the a brief reign of the child-emperor Pu Yi. On the back wall at the end of the "catwalk," you see one of the emperor’s robes, made from silk of imperial yellow embroidered with clouds, waves and dragons. Next to the screens on both sides are dresses from the biggest designers, shown in a line, and behind them trough a looking glass, we see costumes from old and new China and how our designers are inspired by them. It is remarkable to see the influence that robes worn by Chinese emperors have on dresses by John Galliano for House of Dior or the Red jacket by Ralph Lauren. They are using the same colors and symbols--dragons, ocean waves, and clouds--which are symbols of the imperial authority and are unique to China. The amount of fantasy and detail that is used in these clothes is fascinating. Less is more? Not in this show.

Evening dress, Jean Paul Gaultier autumn/winter 2001-2

There is one room dedicated to the Queen of Cinema ( from 1930) and the modern "Qipao," actress Hu Die (Butterfly Wu). With her sophistication and star image, she was recognized world-wide as an incarnation of Chinese Femininity. Her dresses were so glamorous and womanly, with abundant imagery in their detail, making them unique on their own. Together with clips from Hu Die's movies, you really get an idea of her impact.

The Chinese Galleries on the second floor showcase fashion from the 1700s to the present. The rooms are divided into different rooms and themes, such as Porcelain in Blue & White, Perfume, Saint Laurent & Opium, Anna May Wong and Empire of Signs. In The Netherlands we know blue & white porcelain as "Delft's blue" and I was aware of its origin in the East. We see this blue in dresses, too. Made in various shapes and materials, they are all white with blue and display pictures of landscapes, flowers, birds and Chinese fantasy images. The dresses are jaw-dropping.


Gallery view Blue and White Porcelain.

Perfume bottles from many designers show their inspiration in Chinese colors, characters and icons such as the buddha.

Video clips from China tell us how important the cinema is as a medium to understand the richness of Chinese history.

At the and of the exhibition, we get the big finale. The Astor Court, focusing on John Galliano's spring 2003 Christian Dior Haute Courture Collection, is called "Moon in the Water." This phrase alludes to Buddhism and is a Chinese translation for the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the looking Glass." It suggests something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative undertones. The dresses in this exhibition are inspired by the Bejing Opera, with its characteristic colors, textures and fancy stitching. All different and extraordinary, they breath the real art of fashion. The dresses seem to float on water because of the shiny floor, and it gives you the impression of a Chinese Garden with a gazebo and plants. The moon is projected on the ceiling and mirrored in the "water,"which expresses perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes beyond the grasp or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes unfaithful. Truly magnificent!

 Gallery View Chinese Galleries, Astor Court, Moon in the Water. Photo by



You can see the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Robert Lehman Wing, Gallery 955, 1st Floor, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York, NY 10028. From May 12–August 16, 2015.
For more information visit: General admission is $25.



Rosalie Baijer, from Holland, is an Assistant Editor of Curator's Choice.


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