The problem with getting dressed up for the Met Gala's 'China Through the Looking Glass' theme


With a name like “China: Though the Looking Glass” attached to its annual fundraising gala and accompanying exhibit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art seemed to be courting potential disaster.

Using China as inspiration for fashion’s biggest night — for an industry that consistently mishandles its implications — felt primed for cultural critics to unpack uncomfortable missteps on the red carpet, crypto-racist (mis)interpretations throughout the accompanying exhibit, or with some measure of luck, glamorous homages to centuries old customs.

And as suspected, a flurry of pre-emptive discourses on the show, which, according to Vogue, “juxtaposes masterpieces of Chinese art and rare artifacts with works by (mostly) Western designers” — i.e. a privileged, Western interpretation of the East and notes of Orientalism — flooded the internet. It was, in the simplest of terms, an imminent “shitshow“.

But last night, many of the Met Gala attendees quite simply didn’t dress in keeping with the theme. Instead of celebrities bungling an already opaque interpretation of an entire culture, what emerged onto the ascending staircase of the Met was a scant survey of an otherwise rich subject.

No one was directly offensive; crude interpretations such as, say, “Asian” eye make-up (Katy Perry had seemingly learned her lesson) or the use of chopsticks to hold a tightly wound chignon in place — were, fortunately, missing.

But what materialized instead was something more concerning: the lazy Western preoccupation with Chinese signifiers, such as red, silk, dragons, and China Doll cheongsams. Hollywood starlets flitted about in an odd amalgam of all these tropes, never venturing beyond a superficial, cursory, and rather boring read of a rich history. Jennifer Lopez’s custom Versace was really the same dress she always wears: sheer, curve-enhancing — but with a beaded etching of a red dragon covering her impressive lady bits. A look that did little to push back on the literal “dragon lady” stereotype that has persisted for decades.

Tory Burch, perhaps the modern bastion of American sportswear, couldn’t break away from florals — no, not Chinese landscapes, mind you…just Connecticut florals — and led Maggie Q astray in a Grecian (?) cut cream gown. Kris Jenner was blanketed in shirred red fabric and an ecstatic smile of disbelief; Kim Kardashian was bedecked in a cream, sheer Roberto Cavalli rip-off of Beyonce’s 2012 Givenchy gown that simply replaced lace with Chinese characters; Cara Delevingne apparently could not be bothered to research the origins of cherry-blossoms (ahem, Japan) before adhering a smattering of them across her arms; while, supermodel Karen Elson was simply in another era, another part of the world in her Byzantine-inspired Dolce & Gabbana gilded breastplate and adjoining tutu.

Miley Cyrus and Zoë Kravitz preened about in darkly romantic slinky columns that were better suited for 2013’s “punk” theme; Jennifer Lawrence, the co-host of the evening, had flowers fastened to the front of an otherwise simple black column; Jessica Chastain, while beautiful, was simply in a gold mermaid dress that perhaps was a dress that didn’t make the awards-season rounds. And though Solange Knowles appeared visually arresting, donning an indeterminable amoeba of a Giles Deacon frock, she was nowhere closer to the night’s theme.

And when Beyoncé arrived an hour late, essentially naked and channeling “The King and I’s” Tuptim, it became painfully clear that reverence of time, space, and country was not a concern. Yes, yes, Mrs. Carter slayed and it thrust her star power forward by shutting down the red carpet, but her Givenchy body stocking seems like a reference to Thailand. Go further East, Bey. Further East.

Yes, it was all lovely and mercilessly inept.

Oh, now a few people did get it right, or at least attempt to scour the archives for references. Sarah Jessica Parker, the doyenne of American fashion revealed to Vogue, “I research. I look at old images, I think quite seriously about designers, because actually, it’s quite fun to do so and you can learn a huge amount about history, fashion, and art.” But her flame-emblazoned Philip Treacy headdress and H&M silk robe seemed almost like costume.

And kudos must be given to 18-year-old fashion wunderkind, Zendaya Coleman, who dazzled in a Fausto Puglisi number that was apropos, both culturally and age-wise. The idea of simply throwing on a red gown like her peers (yes, you Gigi Hadid) seemed far too trite.

But it was Rihanna and actual Chinese actresses who interpreted fully and respectfully what the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Bolton, described as “an exchange of ideas and an honored source of influence.” Repping Chinese couturier Guo Pei, Rihanna strode in wearing an ornately embroidered yellow fur. She needed three fixers to assist in getting the miles-long train up the stairs. Meanwhile, a crown was affixed to the “Princess of China’s” dome.

It was a meme-able moment, to be sure, but RiRi took it as seriously as Chinese megatstars Fan Bing Bing, Zhang Ziyi, and Gong Li did.

There was a commitment and authenticity involved in all of these women’s looks, but what fundamentally stood out amongst this small cadre of guests was a real attempt to evince Chinese style. As Guo Pei explained to The Cut, “…It is my responsibility to let the world know China’s tradition and past, and to give the splendor of China a new expression. I hope that people do know China in this way.”

Marjon Carlos is a style and culture writer for Fusion who boasts a strong turtleneck game and opinions on the subjects of fashion, gender, race, pop culture, and men’s footwear.

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