The Metropolitan Museum’s new gargantuan fashion exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, has its fair share of glamour-struck gawkers as well as apologists. It’s clear that the exhibit is primarily meant as an eyeball feast, secondarily as an examination of how Chinese aesthetics have fed Western imaginations, and not at all meant as a historical survey.
Neither is it a political critique. The Costume Institute exhibit includes an actual Mao suit, a Mao dress by Vivienne Tam, and a Mao-inspired Dior ensemble—and barely refers to the human suffering in China that followed and still follows the Cultural Revolution. Not surprising given the exhibition’s funding, which included some prominent Chinese donors.
Chinatown, Not China
Spanning three floors, the exhibit is packed with impressive designer dresses that bear superficial resemblance to Qing emperors’ robes, or the patterns on ancient pottery and bronzes. Some cases, like an otherwise standard tuxedo jacket by Ralph Lauren done in red brocade, are exercises in using Chinese fabric on Western designs, plain and clear.
Mannequin after mannequin, gobs of embroidery and exoticness are set against sleek chrome mirroring and giant walls of LCD panels looping montages from kungfu films, with erhu-laced battle music, and Old Shanghai romance flicks.
Each mannequin is topped with an unabashedly futuristic-looking metal-and-wire headpiece that is probably capable of phoning the mother planet. Astor Court, the location of what the institute calls a vignette to Chinese opera, looks like the scene of an alien landing.
The museum is careful to say that the exhibit does not mean to debate the justness of cultural appropriation. Curator Andrew Bolton has acknowledged that the distortion of Chinese culture in Western eyes is very much a two-way phenomenon.
“China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,” Bolton told The Washington Post.
The Chinese culture has long had separate public and private faces. Just look at antique Chinese export porcelains. Their decorations were tailored to the tastes of the British, the Dutch, or whoever was buying. Chinese people of the time would have never used such commodities, though they had become ubiquitous abroad. Little wonder, then, that many Westerners mistakenly thought they understood Chinese culture as it was, not Chinese culture as they wished it to be.
A Vanished Material History
Most of the pieces in the show reference court attire from China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912), the following Republican era (in which the body-hugging qipao became popular), up to the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). What isn’t present is 4,700 years, or 94 percent, of Chinese sartorial history.
The Chinese clothing in the Met’s collection (as far as the online catalog shows) consists of about 200 gowns, collars, hats, and other items from the year 1600 and onward. The other set of items predates the year A.D. 1—three pendants and a button of unidentified material.
That’s not unusual; wars happen, belongings get scattered, fabric rots. From all areas of the world, the Met’s costume department has nothing beyond a pair of gold earrings dated A.D. 500–1000. It has 49 items, including some badly beat-up hats and shoes, dated A.D. 1400–1600.
So if we can’t find actual examples for the bulk of historical Chinese clothing, does that mean this area of study is totally dead?
Bringing It Back
A small but dedicated group of people scattered around the world have tried their hand at resurrecting Tang, Song, Ming, and other dynastic dress that predates the Manchurian Qing Dynasty—collectively called Hanfu. “Han” refers to the Han ethnicity, which most Chinese belong to, and “fu” means clothing. Hanfu is the traditional clothing of the Han people.
Reconstructing a Hanfu garment is a bit like rebuilding a wooly mammoth from incomplete DNA—part science, part guesswork. A seamstress may refer to paintings and sculptures, and whatever scraps of texts refer to dress. But none of these sources are explicit about construction, material, or social norms for dressing.
The New Tang Dynasty TV’s Global Han Couture Design Competition is one of the only formal gathering places for members of the Hanfu revival community. It’s a significant but not popularly known event, attracting a few dozen designers from Asia, North America, and Europe, along with a modest local audience each time it’s held. Its last one was September 2013 in New York.
Then there’s a Hanfu movement in China where some individuals wear Hanfu in daily life. Observers regard them as either brave, eccentric, or backward. In communist China, where only a few decades ago all that represented traditional values was subject to violent persecution, seeing someone don such garments is bound to generate unease among the politically shell-shocked.
The Inner Spirit of Chinese Dress
The clothing worn in each dynasty had its unique style and flavor. Tang Dynasty clothing was characterized by bold colors, broad sleeves, and general lavishness. Song Dynasty clothing tended to be milder in tone, modest in cut, and heavy on pleated skirts. The Mongolian Yuan Dynasty followed the Song, and when ethnic Han reclaimed control of the country in the Ming Dynasty, its clothing tended to be subdued and studious-looking, exuding a Taoist air through and through.
The philosophy behind Chinese dressing is fundamentally distinct from Western dressing. Western wear values crisp and precise tailoring, with structure created from both the fabric and the enhanced body shape. Chinese clothes flow from the body, rather than modify it, and are meant to highlight the wearer’s inner spirit more than his or her physique.
What Hanfu aspires to, in part, is the life of quietude and reverence that for centuries had been the standard for all of Chinese society, from the emperor to the humble peasant. Hanfu was the uniform that represented a shared Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist ideal of harmony between man and the universe.
Hanfu designers might not ever be able to create historically accurate garments, and the rest of us will probably be none the wiser, but maybe the idea of Hanfu is worthy enough to strive for.