I went to the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit at the Met yesterday. It was a spectacle, as I knew it would be, and it’s clear a lot of money was poured into it, but I have to admit it also made me uncomfortable.
For you all not in the NYC area, this show is meant to look at Chinese artistic style and fashion and how it impacted Western fashion from the 1700s on. A lot of the time, the haute couture dresses were displayed alongside–or, I guess, in front of–Chinese clothing, implying the play that was going on. The thing is that the Chinese clothing ended up being more of an afterthought or a “stand” to hold up the big names–Ives Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen and the like.
Sorry everyone, I didn’t take any pics myself because there was a constant stampede in there and I didn’t want to be murdered. But a lot of the exhibit looked like this. Western take of Chinese dresses = foreground, actual Chinese clothing = background, behind some weird otherworldly portal? They also were playing clips of The Last Emperor in this room on about 5 million screens.
(Also, that tailored suit on the far right had a printed design that was way poor quality, not to get into that too much.)
The Met acknowledged in their blurb that the show is an explanation of the Orientalization of Chinese culture over the years, and I get that that’s the purpose of the show. Though it still made me feel weird. Part of it is that I’ve been trying to do cohesive research on China for years now (for my Silk Road comic AHEM AHEM AHEM) and I would freaking love a show that was actually just about the clothes of China. There was also this definite schism between the named creators (almost all Western–I remember one outfit being named as Chinese) and unnamed creators, or the fact that nearly all of the contemporary outfits were made in the West. I get that history is tough and getting the names of clothesmakers from 500 years ago is impossible, but even having a show on contemporary Chinese fashion would be interesting to me. So I can see how they interpret thousands of years of their own history (and probably Western history as well).
Instead of a show that is independently about Chinese culture–which is oftentimes rare for me to see in NYC–we’re only able to see the actual Chinese work as an afterthought and a prop to the Western work.
It also had a lot of Anna May Wong in it, who went through a lot of crap and, well, that made me a little uneasy, too.
But, hey, I know this show was a moneymaker and a crowd-pleaser. I know I’m in the minority on this. And I don’t regret going to the show, it’s just… made me think. It also made me appreciate the Museum of Chinese in America even more.
I have a friend who loves shopping at super high-end department stores. Disclosure: That isn’t usually my kind of thing, but when she’s in NYC I go with her and window shop, because why not?
I definitely noticed a couple of trends that were big this season: The color purple (so many purple things) and embroidery. This in itself is no big deal, but then I started really looking at some of these pieces. I came across this jacket from BCBGMaxazaria:
Um… err… looks…. awfully familiar… right?
Okay, maybe you think I’m being overly sensitive about this. Actually, I’m not all that upset about this weird usage of keffiyeh patterns, I find it amusing that apparently keffiyehs are okay for high fashion now. It was just a few short years ago that one of the nearby shops here was selling keffiyehs (real big with hipsters at the time) and they put this big, handmade sign in the window that read “WE NOW HAVE TALBAN [sp] SCARVES.” This is an improvement? I guess?
The deal with this? It looks a hell of a lot like traditional Palestinian embroidery.
Forever 21 also had this dress that made me laugh out loud because it totally reminds me of Auntie Jamila (my husband knows what I mean when I say that), minus those ugly sandals:
I did a little searching on the intertrons for other instances of embroidery that just seems a little too similar to Palestinian sensibility but created for a Western audience/aesthetic. I didn’t do an insanely thorough search but did find this Asos company:
Honestly, with this one, it’s more of the types of embroidery going on in this dress than the pattern… minus the sleeve cuff embroidery.
This one really made me laugh, too. This looks basically like a Ramallah-made two-piece. The white fabric peeking through rich, bright, and dense embroidery is very telltale of Ramallah-style dress. Here’s a comparison shot:
Chest squares + diamond shapes + flower shapes = very big with our people.
Here are some more pics of Palestinian dress for comparison purposes:
I think you get the idea.
Am I saying that getting inspiration is bad, that people should just stick with their own culture? No, not at all. Inspiration is great. The problem is that–as I probably don’t have to remind you, my awesome reader–negative stereotypes abound. I have serious doubts that the vast majority of Americans are even aware of the embroidery traditions of Palestinians, and how the clothes are basically freaking amazing. Taking inspiration without that context and hiding it behind words like “boho” and “peasant” (which is insulting in itself, to be honest) to sanitize and make the patterns “safe” for Westerners further steals the deserved identity of a people.
I was thinking if there would ever be a day that the Met would host a show on how Arab aesthetics were transferred onto Western stuff. I would have my complaints, but at least there would be an admittance. “Yeah, uhh, we were looking at Negev-style clothing when we made that…. *sheepish grin* *toeing the floor*”
First thing’s first: People need to start using the P-word. Then we’ll be getting somewhere.