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Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met's China Exhibit: Thoughtful, Beautiful, and Surprisingly Respectful

A look at China: Through the Looking Glass.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute exhibit opens Thursday, with the accompanying Met Gala taking place tonight. This year’s show, China: Through the Looking Glass, has gotten plenty of pre-buzz (mostly of the cynical variety, in regards to tonight’s big party). Today, Racked executive editor Izzy Grinspan and features editor Julia Rubin got to take a look for themselves.

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Izzy: Hey Julia! Happy Monday. Let’s talk about cultural appropriation.

Julia: YES, LET’S.

Izzy: Leading up to this year’s Costume Institute exhibit, the big question was "How can you showcase Western fashion’s love affair with China without getting into all sorts of horrible stereotypes?" And it turns out that the curators of this show addressed this issue head-on.

Julia: The wall text laid it all out there! "This exhibition is not about China per se, but about a collective fantasy of China." I feel like we both took a sigh of relief when we read that at this morning’s preview. The whole show was entirely's about appropriation, not guilty of it. Also! It was originally called Chinese Whispers, but they scrapped that. Which, good.

The Imperial China gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, featuring a sequined Tom Ford gown at left. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Izzy: Wong Kar Wai really underscored that at the press conference in the Temple of Dendur this morning (btw, love a press event where you’re told "Remarks will be in the temple" when you show up). He was the exhibit’s artistic director, which means he must have spent hours and hours immersed in these mythical, totally not-based-in-reality images of China. You could see this being frustrating for a filmmaker from Hong Kong. But at the press conference he said, "In this exhibition, we do not shy away from these images because they are historical fact and their own reality." The point is to examine the myth, because it’s been so powerful and enduring.

Julia: Exactly. It’s worth noting that this exhibit comes at a time when fashion is looking to China not in terms of inspiration, but rather cold hard cash. The country is full of wealthy people looking to drop crazy money on luxury goods. Remember when Prada hosted a fashion show in Beijing a few years ago? Miuccia rendered her mostly cotton spring 2011 collection in silk and covered everything in sequins, and it was a hit. In 2013, Valentino put out an entire Shanghai collection! Pieces from that one—all red dresses—are actually in the exhibit, in a totally red room, referencing both founder Valentino Garavani’s love of the color and its significance in Chinese culture.

A dress from Valentino's Shanghai collection. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Izzy: I liked that room! But I think that was exactly the point where I realized I was lost and might literally never be able to find my way out again. The show is sprawling, with over 140 pieces. It was put together as a joint undertaking between the Costume Institute and the Met’s Department of Asian Art, which is celebrating its centennial this year. It uses gallery space from both departments, requiring visitors to walk up and down staircases and wind through all sorts of little rooms.

According to Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute curator, you’re supposed to feel disoriented in the exhibit because the Western take on China is fundamentally disorienting. That’s why the show’s subtitle is "Through the Looking Glass" and it’s filled with mirrors and other reflective surfaces. The show’s designers want to take you into a topsy-turvy world like Alice’s Wonderland.

Julia: Yes! It’s huge! Bolton said it was very possibly the biggest exhibit the Met, not just the Costume Institute, has put together. I thought it was super interesting that there were several points of entry—there’s no "right" way to go through the exhibit. You can start with the Imperial China gallery, filled with the older stuff like qipaos and archival Chanel in the basement (sorry, the "Anna Wintour Costume Center"); or check out a super small section on Mao (both the Mao suit and Mao-printed clothing) one flight up; or take in so, so much stuff on the floor above that.

Up there you’ll find a gallery dedicated to Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star! A silk room with tons of Balenciaga and Gaultier! A Chinese garden filled with Galliano couture! Another just for Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium fragrance! The themes really worked, and I liked that each was generally tied to one specific designer, and oftentimes one specific collection from that designer.

Clockwise from top: Balenciaga dresses in the silk gallery, Craig Green in the Wuxia gallery, and John Galliano for Dior in the Anna May Wong gallery. Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art

And then there were the galleries branching off those that heavily incorporated the Met’s Chinese collection. I didn’t like these as much since they were less about the clothes (literally, as in there were far fewer pieces) and I don’t know that they contextualized the exhibit as much as the curators wanted them to, but it worked as an interesting wind-down from the #fashion galleries. You can also start the exhibit from that end, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. What do you think?

Izzy: In a lot of ways, I think the best place to start might be the Wuxia gallery, which paid tribute to historical Chinese action heroes. The room is dominated by a monumental sculpture of a bamboo forest, dotted with mannequins wearing Gaultier robes and light-up headpieces. Clips from the movie House of Flying Daggers are playing on a big screen, and there are Chinese artifacts on pedestals around the room. It doesn’t look like anything else in the exhibit, but in its size and drama, it’s a good testament to the scale of the Costume Institute’s ambition.

Julia: Oh, interesting! I would not start there, though that room ruled. I like the idea of diving into the denser galleries before seeing the juxtaposition of high-fashion with antiquities, though I guess it works as a ramp-up instead of a wind-down. The room with the gold couture Guo Pei dress surrounded by Buddha statues was pretty powerful. It’s actually one of the few pieces by a Chinese designer! Because, again, this was "not about China per se."

A Chinese cheongsam from 1932. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Izzy: I loved that room, too. Not only was it nice to see a Chinese designer, but I loved how the Chinese statues were all looking at the dress like they were part of the museum-going audience.

In general, I thought the most fun parts of the exhibit were the really fantastical, over-the-top stagecraft moments. The garden was a little gimmicky, but it was brilliantly designed. It took me a good five minutes to figure out that the floor wasn’t an actual pond but a reflection of a video of a pond projected onto the ceiling. All the music and film clips (also selected by Wong Kar Wai!) were great, and even elements that could have been so cheesy, like the billowing opium smoke in the perfume room, felt like they were commenting on Orientalism, not just repeating it.

Julia: Totally. Costume Institute exhibits—particularly the thematic ones, as opposed to single-designer shows like last year’s Charles James exhibit—tend toward the cheesy, and this, much to our delight, really didn’t. The exhibition design was clean and respectful. I actually think that’s the TLDR of this whole thing: We walked in super skeptical and left really impressed. This was a thoughtful, beautiful, and yes, respectful show. I loved it.

Izzy: Now all we need is a red carpet tonight that’s as thoughtful, beautiful, and respectful. A girl can dream.


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