By Lauren De’Ath
There are few events in the fashion calendar quite like the Met Ball, the multi-million charity gala that endeavours to raise funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This year the much deliberated dress code was ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ in honour of the museum’s imminent exhibition of the same name. As dress historians on this course, who come from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, we were all quite excited by the initial prospect of a fashion exhibition that honoured often under-represented and much maligned ‘non-Western’ design at a world-famous American institution. However from the offset the celebration of all things Eastern was plagued by a multitude of racial sins that go to show how little we have progressed in promoting and synthesising a common understanding of and between race and ethnicity.
It goes without saying that dress is one of the most visceral ways to communicate all that is endemic and unsaid about the veridical self; when we wear the colour black to a funeral we make a very clear statement of solemnity and tight-fitting or revealing clothes allude to a sense of empowerment and enjoyment of our own body. Clothes, whether we like it or not, tell stories. So as we click through the picture galleries for the Met’s red carpet- what do these garments tell us?
At an event where the theme was ‘China’, the choices revealed some very interesting things. To offer just a selection, we saw Jennifer Lopez’s clinging, transparent dress with a red dragon emblazoned across her torso; Sarah Jessica Parker in flaming Phillip Treacy ‘Dragon Woman’ head-piece; Emma Stone with chop-sticks in her hair; Cara Delevingne with cherry-blossom tattoos; Grace Coddington in blue silk floral pyjamas; and Kris Jenner wearing an ensemble two shades shy of Fu Manchu. These reflect nothing about China per se. Rather, they tell a very intriguing story of America and by extension the West’s perceptions of Sino-style. It tellingly bore the hallmarks of unwitting racism still so prevalent in the post-colonial occident; in essentialising and limiting all that is ‘eastern’ and ‘Oriental’ to a Ming vase and a mandarin collar; to floral patterns, silk and the colours red and gold. And this is before we move to discuss what certain choices of dress say about the stereotype of the overtly-sexualised Chinese female and host John McHale telling opium and Jackie Chan jokes. It somehow implies that we are so self-satisfied in our reductive comprehension of ‘orientalism’ that it can be surmised in a few choice colours, fabrics and patterns, even animals. Just to reiterate- China- the most populous and one of the most geographically and ethnically expansive countries in the world; with fifty-five ethnic groups recognised in mainland alone and limitless more thanks to a global diaspora that reaches all seven continents of the world.
There are so many other ways sartorially to celebrate ethnicity. Appealing to tired racialised tropes has no place in the ideal borderless dystopia that is so essential to a better and more inclusive understanding of each other. This inclusivity can only happen one way, by having an earnest conversation about race and offence. We live in a world that is increasingly globalised, interconnected and accessible, our knowledge of the world and ‘Other’ has never been more extensive. The Chinese reaction on social media was largely one of horror and ambivalence to the Western take on ‘Chinese dress’. ‘This is not Chinese’ was the main criticism and while perhaps the point of the exhibition wasn’t to solely promote Chinese aesthetics, the Met Ball and indeed the exhibition itself offered so much potential in challenging the Western imbalance in fashion and design and presenting a compelling case for all that is non-Western. It appears that this was a wasted opportunity. Anthropologist Jianhua Zhao in his book ‘The Chinese Fashion Industry’ writes of a thriving, fluctuating Chinese fashion business waiting to prove its worth. Will those home-spun new designers be featured in the exhibition halls, or will it just be household names and museum-favoured couturiers, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Galliano; designers who have warped eastern design into a worrisome vaudeville of orientalism, of Shanghai prostitutes and lithesome little Chinese China dolls with pale, haughty faces and painted cat-eyes. Chinese dress is so much more.
Now perhaps the show is unprecedented and ground-breaking, but judging by the red carpet as a prescient promotional tool, I cannot help but feel it was a paraphrase of the exhibition. Lo, reads the promotional text: ‘designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions.’ That, if anything, reminds us that postmodernity is a Western excuse for cultural misappropriation and ethnic fusion for its own economic-cultural benefit. I cannot help but fear that in the merging of cultures without reference, citation or knowledge of origin, i.e. ‘in pastiche’, we lose some of its essence. It doesn’t belong to us or them anymore, but to its new creator and mastermind, and that smacks of imperialism. In previous work I have defended the need for further study of Chinese dress as essential in furthering closeness and understanding of a country that even in today’s world seems so distant and closed. However to do this we need a more inclusive, conversational and phenomenological approach.