Thursday, May 7, 2015

China: Through the Looking Glass - Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute

What a way to start the week! Bright and early Monday morning, we attended the Press Preview presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's latest exhibition titled China: Through the Looking Glass. Members of the press arrived at 10 AM to view the show and at 11 AM adjourned to the spectacular Temple of Dendur for refreshments and to listen to the Director and CEO, curator, sponsor (Yahoo) and artistic director talk about how the wonderful exhibit came to be. The highlight that put us both over the moon was running into milliner extraordinaire, Stephen Jones, who designed the spectacular head pieces for the mannequins in the show. He is utterly charming and appeared to be enjoying the event immensely.

In no particular order, here is a selection of the articles of antique Chinese clothing, modern designers' clothing referencing Chinese influences, and of course, the people!

This Yves Saint Laurent dress designed by Tom Ford from 2004 is a decidedly glamorous take.

Paul Poiret's 1911 gown incorporates voluminous embroidered silk fabric in a gorgeous bi-level shape. Note the oriental wallpaper installed behind the mannequin.

Henri Matisse's 1911 painting "Manila Shawl" highlights the Chinese embroidery.

Harold Koda is the epitome of cool -- sort of the dapper version of the Great Grabowski. Repeat after us: "The dude abides"! We gushed about his appearance and commentary in the documentary "Iris".

An elaborately embroidered yellow silk semi-formal robe circa 1911 belonged to the Xuantong Emperor, better known to us as Pu Yi, in Bertolucci's amazing movie The Last Emperor.

Ralph Lauren's tuxedo with red embroidered jacket from his Autumn-Winter 2011-2012 collection looks quite chic.

The bright red color underscores the juxtaposition between the old and the new: the late 19th century summer court hat with peacock feather (left) and Jason Wu's 2012 hat with silk tassles.

Designer Thom Browne made the scene. As you can see, he has the perfect attitude for dealing with the throngs of photographers at the event, besieging him and other designers.

Check out this dramatic 1917 antique Chinese mantle, of black silk satin-embroidered with polychrome silk and applique' of red rooster feathers and pink silk flowers. And see how Stephen Jones' headgear perfectly accentuates the regal beauty of the ensemble.

Even Cristobal Balenciaga was influenced by China.

Will Morgan of the Ideal Glass Gallery on East 2nd Street made the scene.

Sir Gerald Festus Kelly's 1927 "Portrait of Jane with a White Shawl XXVII" also features Chinese embroidery.

Christian Louboutin's black calfskin and silver-stamped metal shoes are from his 2003-4 autumn/winter collection. The boots of black silk satin with black silk velvet and cream plain-weave cotton date from sometime between 1736 and 1795.

After we'd had a quick run through part of the exhibition, it was time for the press conference in the Temple of Dendur.  Earlier, we'd been trying in the dark to get a good picture of fashion writer Suzy Menkes, and every one of our opportunities was spoiled by one thing or another, so when we spotted her in the light of day, even half a temple away, we went for it.

Not only did we capture Suzy,  on closer inspection later we realized we'd gotten Hamish Bowles (who, in addition to his role as a Vogue editor, is also a lender to the current exhibition), our friend David Ho, and Henry Kissinger, all in the same shot.  (For those of you born after 1970, Henry Kissinger, under President Nixon, made countless trips to China to reopen diplomatic relations.)  Major funding for the exhibition was provided by Yahoo, so we had the pleasure of hearing from Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's 40 year old CEO (yay! women on top!), and were also treated to remarks by Chinese film director Wong Kar Wai, who strung together a series of early Chinese movie clips exemplifying elegant Chinese fashions of the times.  At the close of the press conference, the big photo op included Maxwell Hearn, Chairman of the Department of Asian Art;  Marissa Mayer; Andrew Bolton, the Curator of the Costume Institute; Anna Wintour, who gave her name to the Anna Wintour Costume Center; and Mr. Wong.

With the press conference over, the crowd thronged back to the exhibition, as we had been told that more wonders awaited us outside the usual boundaries of the Costume Institute, scattered like treasures in a treasure hunt among the various rooms of the Museum's Chinese art collection.

Everyone entering the exhibition passes through this opening room, which, in rich Chinese red lacquer, juxtaposed somber mainland Chinese military uniforms with the irreverent Mao prints of Hong Kong's Vivienne Tam.  Overhead, short films showed the regimented sameness of clothing prior to political reform.

Here is a fabulous still from one of many snippets from the films of Anna May Wong.  Inserted in the clips was the observation that miscegenation laws proscribed Wong from kissing men cast as her Asian romantic interest if they were not actually Asian.  Wong herself noted that the problem would be moot if Asian men, rather than Caucasians, were cast in those roles.  Wong said her film career was hobbled by Hollywood's reluctance to give Asian roles to Asian men.

Away from the central exhibition, this Jeanne Lanvin dress from 1924 is placed next to an eighth century Chinese mirror (the large metal disc on the stand to the right of the dress) so the viewer can see the source of Madame Lanvin's design inspiration.  The text for this dress reads: black silk taffeta embroidered with green silk, silver metallic thread; synthetic pearls; silver, black and gold beads and paillettes; silver lame; and ivory silk tulle embroidered with metallic silver thread. (Don't forget that Stephen Jones made all the headdresses, which all have subtle Chinese design motifs.)

In another room, wall to wall with calligraphy, was this 1951 Dior dress with a motif in keeping with the room's theme.

For Yves Saint Laurent, with his love of strong colors and contrast, China was a natural source of inspiration.  This jacket is from 1977-78.

Several YSL Chinese-themed drawings were on display.  This jacket is one of the items for which we were also treated to the original drawing.  The exhibition also had numerous pieces of jewelry - both Chinese and Chinese-inspired, several Chinese-themed scent bottles, including one shaped like the well-known "lotus slippers" for the once-popular tiny bound feet of Han Chinese women, and countless other breathtaking items that we don't have space to show you here.

This 97-98 Givenchy dress takes the india ink painted dragon seen so often on Chinese hanging scrolls and makes a startling fashion statement with it (on printed silk-cotton sateen).

In another hall, a 1998 Givenchy bolero of perforated cedar (by Alexander McQueen) shaped like traditional fragrant Chinese fans, lies nestled among ancient Chinese metalwork.

Chinese designers were also represented.  Guo Pei is one of China's most talked about designers today.  (She made the huge - and hugely controversial - yellow gown worn by Rihanna at the gala later in the evening.)

Three large rooms were able to hold vignettes, much like fashion stories occasionally told in Vogue magazine (actually, told all the time in the Vogue magazines we loved in our youth).  One was a room in blue, in reference to China's blue and white porcelain.  The room is so large that only half of it can be seen in this photo below.  One of the dresses, by Li Xiaofeng, was entirely made of porcelain; another, by Sarah Burton, has a bodice of porcelain shards and a skirt of yards and yards and layers and layers of silk organza.

Another blockbuster room, containing very modernist works by Gaultier, Yamamoto and others, consists of an eerie thicket of lucite (?) bamboo.  Here, hidden in the grove, are two works by young British designer Craig Green.

But by far the Metropolitan outdid itself when it transformed its Chinese courtyard for the exhibition.  In the courtyard are nine costumes - two by Margiela, six by Dior (Galliano), and one 18th century Chinese theatrical robe.  Somehow the floor has been flooded with water.  The courtyard is open to the sky, so a huge full moon has been superimposed on the ceiling, which, in turn, can be seen partially reflected below in the water.  In the dark, the costumes can be a little difficult to make out, but even in the dark (or perhaps because of the dark) the scene is breathtaking.

We loved the fact that David Noh dressed for the occasion, with the theme of the exhibition.  (He was one of the very few men to do so.)


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