“China: Through the Looking Glass,” a dazzling exhibition at The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents not so much a vision of China, the curators state, but a reflection of a collective fantasy of it. And fantastical, it is. The exhibition is beautiful, fanciful, simultaneously decorative and thought-provoking, and absolutely stunning. The show carries from the Anna Wintour Costume Center’s galleries, up through the first floor and into the second floor galleries of Chinese art in an incredibly imaginative, brilliant installation.
Costume shows get to bend the rules and push the boundaries that sometimes apply to serious museum exhibitions. How exciting can they get? Under the artistic direction of acclaimed Chinese film director Wong Kar Wai, “China: Through the Looking Glass” is astounding. The mannequins have been staged like actors in complex, theatrical sets, bringing the both the designs themselves and the adjacent works of art to a whole new level. Lighting, backgrounds, music and films complete the magic.
The Anna Wintour Costume Center on the museum’s ground floor presents garments of historical and artistic importance from the imperial courts. Most were actually worn by emperors, and several are on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Mixing with them are couture creations by some of the world’s best fashion designers. Mirrored moon gates, both evocative and reflective, hold the real thing; mannequins stand in front, modeling modern designers’ responses. A Coco Chanel embroidered blue jacket reconfigures a cut-up historical garment, while John Galliano’s gowns use the colors and designs as a jumping-off point.
The gallery is dramatically lit by huge screens playing clips from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film, “The Last Emperor,” and a tunnel of monitors leads directly to a display holding a child’s semiformal robe from China made in 1909-11 just like the one the young emperor, Puyi, wore in the movie. It’s dramatic, but also brings to a vivid reality how special these rare garments are.
Inspired, wildly creative head treatments designed by the renowned British milliner, Stephen Jones, bring a crowning touch to the mannequins throughout. Jones carefully and cleverly responded to each setting. In the section dedicated to Chinese fashion in Western movies, headdresses are composed of film strips, and in the galleries where court robes are presented, each figure is topped by an image signifying imperial rank — from dragons and rabbits to celestial bodies and flames.
The exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” was chosen to give a sense of how the vision most Western designers hold of China is a blend of fantasy and romanticism, an imaginary universe, often bearing no resemblance to reality. The phrase also translates into Chinese as “moon in the water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped. And yet, the exhibition manages to catch and present just that in the Astor Court gallery. The floor has been transformed to a reflective, dark surface. The ceiling has become the sky, with an image of a full, golden moon projected onto it, and then mirrored on the floor below. It’s magnificent. The dresses, bathed in a nocturnal light, casting mystifying shadows, are by Galliano for Christian Dior, and Maison Martin Margiela, inspired by Beijing opera.
There are some 140 examples of haute couture and avant-garde fashion, from early 20th century masters such as Paul Poiret to classic creations by Yves Saint Laurent, to today’s most cutting-edge designers. Dresses, gowns, jackets, hats, shawls and shoes are shown side-by-side with masterpieces of Chinese painting, calligraphy and sculpture dating from the fifth century BC to the present.
To enhance the experience, three of the five senses are engaged. No touching or tasting, naturally, but film clips and music can be heard in many of the galleries, and in a room devoted to the influence of Chinese perfumes, a delicate scent fills the air. Of course, the eyes have the greatest treats, and those are truly extraordinary. It’s not possible for each piece to be a show stopper, but when you’re sure you’ve seen the most spectacular installation possible, the next one, almost invariably, tops it.
Priceless, ancient blue and white ceramics line a shelf across from gowns inspired by them. In a gallery filled with religious sculptures, a full golden gown by Guo Pei that mimics the shape of a lotus is worn by a mannequin topped by a headdress of a lotus of enlightenment. The effect is breathtaking. Representations of enlightened individuals are mirrored as they reflect in timeless space. In the next installation, an entire bamboo forest has been simulated with arching, elegant poles of bottom-lit acrylic. Through them, glimpses of stark black suits and an ethereal white wedding ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier can be seen.
“China: Through the Looking Glass” is an engaging, involving and thoroughly enchanting exhibition — providing a feast for the senses and food for thought. If you go looking for a history lesson or political realities, you may be disappointed. If you’re looking for gorgeous fashion inspired by China, displayed amid rare and incomparable works of art, prepare to be dazzled. It’s truly spectacular in every sense of the word — a remarkable, glorious exhibition.