The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Fantasy of China



The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s annual benefit gala in New York City marks one of the most fashionable nights of the year, and this year all eyes were on China.

Rihanna’s infamous ‘jianbing’ dress took two years to make by hand.

Several famous Americans created media buzz by wearing ostentatious dresses and accessories that reflected their interpretations of the theme for 2015: “China Through the Looking Glass”. Soon after Rihanna walked the red carpet in a dress reminiscent of a famous  Chinese snack, the jian bing (煎饼), dozens of memes comparing it to the Chinese egg crepe were already making the rounds online. Although some people poked fun at her dress, she was one of the only non-Asian American celebrities who chose to wear a dress made by a Chinese designer (Guo Pei, who has dressed stars such as Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi) .

The exhibition includes some controversial pieces such as this dress with photos of Mao Zedong.

Although there is some doubt about the exhibition promoting ‘Orientalism’ (a sometimes harmful form of cultural appropriation and/or misinterpretation of Asian cultures) instead of Chinese culture, the fact that China is now the focus of such a media-heavy, high-fashion event is exciting.

Andrew Bolton, curator for “China: Through the Looking Glass,” answers these doubts by describing this year’s exhibition as a dialogue between the East and the West. He emphasizes that the exhibition does not aim to represent China directly, but instead create conversations between couture creations and iconic Chinese objects. He highlights the fact that in recent years, China has been a primary source of inspiration for Western fashion.

“[American] interest in China has amplified in the last few years… a lot of designers who are looking to show [their designs] in China are also engaging in Chinese history and creating thoughtful meditations on the history of China through their fashions.”

Mr. Bolton acknowledges that the exhibition is a glance at China through a Western lens. He describes it as ‘a fantasy of China.’ Although the exhibition does not showcase China per se, it does create conversation about how China is portrayed in the United States. China has been and still is represented from a Western perspective in American media and mainstream culture, but now, people are beginning to acknowledge that fact.“China: Through the Looking Glass” is not a representation of Chinese culture but, more accurately, an appreciation of and a growing curiosity towards Chinese culture.

It is encouraging to see highly publicized American events like the Met Gala showcase aspects of cultural exchange between US and China by spotlighting Chinese culture, celebrities, and designers. However, it is also important to acknowledge that our understanding of China from an unfiltered perspective is limited, especially in the media. As Pengyous, we should be excited to see a highly covered event such as the Met Gala creating meaningful discussion about how China has been, is, and should be depicted in American culture.


What was your favorite outfit at the event? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Photo and Story Credits: The Observer (Met Gala Exhibition story)The Shanghaiist (Rihanna story)Decor Blog (photo of Met Gallery)Refinery29 (photo of Mao Zedong dress)