In the new exhibit "China: Through the Looking Glass," early Hollywood — and film in general — is just one of the lenses through which the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute explores the way Chinese art and esthetics have been interpreted by the West over the years.
Another, naturally, is fashion — and the show boasts a massive 30,000 square feet of gallery space filled with rich ensembles: Chinese costumes, historic garments and decorative arts, displayed beside the work of dozens of Western designers who were inspired by China, including names like John Galliano, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Cristobal Balenciaga, Jean Paul Gaultier and many more. The show also features work by Chinese or Chinese-American designers — Jason Wu, for example, who designed both of Michelle Obama's inaugural gowns — working either in China or elsewhere around the globe.
The exhibit, a joint endeavour of the Costume Institute and the Met's Asian Art department, is one of the most ambitious in scope the museum has undertaken, director Thomas Campbell said Monday at a preview. And it is fully three times the size of the usual spring Costume Institute show, noted Andrew Bolton, its curator, comprising not just the institute's galleries but the entire Asian Art department.
One of the most striking elements of the show is how it melds its three main elements — fashion, film and decorative art — within each gallery, as well as drawing together disparate historical periods and different global perspectives, often in one glass case.
In one striking example, in a section devoted to Imperial China, the eye is drawn immediately to a toddler-sized, yellow, intricately embroidered ceremonial robe. Indeed, it is the robe worn by China's last emperor, Puyi, shortly after being crowned at age 2 in 1908 (the robe is on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing, one of more than 60 lenders to the show). Only inches away, a huge screen runs a clip from director Bernardo Bertolucci's sweeping 1987 epic, "The Last Emperor."
In a case nearby is another embroidered ceremonial robe from China — this one from the 1730s — right next to a 2011 design in the same colours, a one-sleeved number by Chinese designer Laurence Xu. And in the same display: an Yves Saint Laurent yellow silk embroidered evening dress by American designer Tom Ford.
There's also a red silk embroidered jacket by Ralph Lauren, displayed alongside Chinese theatrical costumes from the 18th century in red or black silk brocade.
In another gallery, a wall is filled with Andy Warhol's 1973 silkscreens of Mao Zedong. Next to it are fashions channeling Mao's portraits by Chinese-born American designer Vivienne Tam, a "Mao Portrait Dress" and "Mao Suit," both from 1995.
Elsewhere, clips from director Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) play on a wall behind a huge makeshift bamboo forest (the show's production designer is Nathan Crowley); within the stems, one can spy a 2001 Gaultier wedding ensemble in white silk damask.
There's also an "export silk" room with various garments inspired by Chinese embroidery, including a massive shawl that belonged to England's Queen Victoria.
The exhibit's artistic director is the celebrated director Wong Kar Wai who edited countless film clips for the exhibit, movies as different as his own 2000 "In the Mood for Love" and the 1929 "Anna May Wong in Piccadilly."
Wong called his work on the show "a remarkable journey," and said one of the most interesting experiences was revisiting early Hollywood and its interpretations of China.
"Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a fan-dancing Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature dragon lady roles, it is safe to say that most of the depictions were far from authentic," he said. Fashion designers, he added, in turn took some of those distortions to create their own works.
"In this exhibit we don't shy away from these images because they are historical fact, and their own reality," he said. "Instead we look for areas of commonality and appreciate the beauty that abounds."
Bolton called the China that emerges in the exhibit a "virtual China," and used the example of Lewis Carroll's Alice, whose looking glass inspired the title of the show, which runs May 7-Aug. 16.
"Like Alice's make-believe world, the China reflected in the fashions in the exhibition is a fictional, fabulous invention, offering an alternate reality," Bolton said.
For one Beijing designer, showing for the first time publicly in New York, the exhibit was a chance to show her country as she knows it. "I hope people can get to know China through my work," said Guo Pei, whose sumptuous designs are displayed in the show, through a translator.
Also viewing the exhibit Monday was New York designer Thom Browne, who seemed to be formulating ideas as he gazed into the cases. Asked if he had been influenced as a designer by Chinese art, he replied: "Now I am!"