The Met Gala is an annual party hosted by Vogue in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a fundraising event for the Costume Institute and is meant to celebrate the theme of the Institute’s exhibition for that year. If you are not on the guest list, in 2014 it would have cost you $25,000 to gain entry to what is arguably New York’s most exclusive event.
If it’s not ringing any bells to you, it’s the event that two years ago a very pregnant Kim Kardashian wore a flowery Givenchy gown to and then was the subject of many a sofa joke the next day. The theme that year was Punk, and this year’s was ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’.
The exhibition and theme’s aim, according to curator Andrew Bolton, was to recast orientalism in a more positive light as ‘an exchange of ideas and an honored source of influence’. This has been subject to a lot of criticism in the past few days especially as despite it’s aims, the exhibition still seems to represent less an exchange of ideas, and more the west taking interesting and exotic aspects of Chinese culture with little return. The literary theorist Edward Said defined orientalism as the way in which imperialist Western cultures have inaccurately and patronizingly interpreted the ‘East’. Looking at the exhibition, one can see elements of the accuracy of this definition. One piece featured is a Dior dress patterned with screen prints of Chinese characters, taken from a letter by Zhang Xu. As elegant and exotic as the dress seems, the characters plastered across it are actually describing a nasty stomachache. Not so romantic. Another less tasteful design featured is a dress with Mao Zedong’s face repeatedly printed all over it. If we forget who Mao was, the dress looks cool and edgy. But when looking at it from a different angle it seems like a designer is making light, making fashion, out of the death of millions.
The whole exhibit only featured a small number of actual Chinese designers, although Wong Kar Wai, a Hong Kong Second Wave filmmaker, did help to curate the exhibit.
The lack of actual Chinese influence and distasteful orientalism continued onto the red carpet. Poppy Delevigne wore a plunging red dress by Marchesa featured with poppies all over the torso. Some have said she was merely dressing as her namesake, but she told reporters that she had ‘come as opium’. Given China’s violent history of opium and Britain’s involvement in the Opium Wars, this outfit choice smacks of imperialism. Some made even less of an effort to adhere to the theme. Kim Kardashian and Beyonce both looked amazing in gowns sprinkled with jewels leaving lots of flesh on show, by Peter Dundas for Robert Cavalli and Givenchy respectively. However, these dresses had little to relate them to the actual theme of the event.
Even though some celebrities made a bit of an effort to appear theme-appropriate, with Justin Bieber wearing a Balmain jacket decorated with golden dragons, Lady Gaga and Karen Elson sporting headdresses and Kate Hudson and Anna Ewers, very few veered off the beaten track by wearing Chinese designers. Others wore traditional Chinese colours of red and yellow, perhaps in an attempt to play it safe with the theme.
A handful of guests, such as Rihanna and Chinese actress Fan Bingbing wore Chinese designers. Fan Bingbing played it right in a floor-length, gold sequined gown and green silk patterned cloak by Christopher Bu, whilst Rihanna caused a stir in a regal yellow coat trimmed with fur by Chinese couturier Guo Pei. Since the event the internet has been littered with memes and pictures of Rihanna wearing an omelette, a pizza, or my personal favourite, a steak bake. All jokes aside though, Rihanna looked flawless. In imperial China, only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow, and the colour symbolized prestige, good luck, and a balance of yin and yang. In her majestic yellow gown, Rih not only actually dared to wear a designer not usually featured on a Western red carpet, she revealed her inner Empress (as if we needed reminding of it). This is not to say that Guo Pei is an unkown designer; in China she has always been a top designer, she designed the costumes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and she just released a 16-piece collaboration with MAC cosmetics. Speaking to the Cut recently she said that she wanted the world to know China’s tradition and past and give the splendor of China a new expression. She said ‘I hope that people do know China in this way’. Sadly, with the main talk about Rihanna’s outfit being negative, and others wearing Chinese designers going relatively unnoticed to those in the classic big names, the Met Gala may not have helped much to further her ambitions.