Earlier this month, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art gala took the fashion world by storm. It stirred more attention than the red carpet at the Oscars. Actresses and other celebrities from around the world came out in chinoiserie dresses and suits.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to get to New York before the show closes this summer, so I took a lesson from my late father and bought the catalog, distributed by Yale University Press. The cover has a gorgeous red and gold textured pattern based on a 19th century robe featured in the exhibit.
So here’s the lowdown:
The show is heavy into women’s fashion, which will appeal to men and women. I thought the catalog was arranged nicely as it starts with imperial times and shows how Qing dynasty clothes inspired art and fashion later in the early 20th century. The catalog also shows the evolution of the qipao, or form-fitting dress that became popular in 1920s and 30s Shanghai. And there’s a section about post-1949 revolutionary clothing.
There’s also a section on fashion in movies, from Hollywood classics like The Last Emperor to Chinese Fifth Generation films like Raise the Red Lantern to wuxia movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
My kids’ favorite part is the section on perfume. Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium is featured prominently. There’s also a 1930s perfume called Nuit de Chine, which has been specially reproduced for scent sticks that are included with catalog orders. When I read the book to my kids and we get to that section, I take out the scent stick and let them rub it on their wrists.
Other sections include fashion based on objects like Chinese porcelain, pagodas, and wooden plates.
I’m all about Chinese-inspired fashion and certainly have plenty of qipao. (In my wedding dress below)
But I can’t help but look at the catalog through my gender studies eye. It reflects Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinese men and women. The women are depicted as either sensuous ingenues or evil dragon ladies. There’s nothing in between. And men are depicted as evil Fu Manchu types or exotic kung fu masters.
The few pages featuring men include multiple pages of Mao-inspired fashion. Yes, he has become a pop culture icon, but he was also a brutal dictator responsible for 45 million deaths in just over three years. That doesn’t include the other 24 years he was in power.
One of my favorite slides is one by Tseng Kwong Chi, a Hong-Kong born artist who took photos of himself standing by landmarks around the world while dressed in a Mao suit and sunglasses. I wish there had been more Tseng Kwong Chi. There wasn’t one changshan, or men’s long robe, like Sun Yat-sen is wearing in this photo. This fashion has been used in many period films, so I was surprised by the omission.
Those would be the only things I’d change. But I’m not a curator, so what do I know?
If you’ve seen the show, I would love to hear about it!