The first Monday in May is when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds its annual Met Gala to raise money for the museum, especially for its Costume Institute; the Gala also serves as the opening night of a fashion exhibition at the Met. The First Monday in May (2016) is a documentary about the preparation for the 2015 iteration of this event, when the exhibition was China: Through the Looking Glass, on the influence of China on Western fashion, in cooperation with the Met’s Department of Asian Art. It turned out to be a record-breaking exhibition.
An important goal of the exhibition and its curator, Andrew Bolton, is to present an authentic China, and to this end Bolton enlists Wong Kar-wai as co-curator and travels to Beijing to (successfully) ask for the loan of some articles of imperial clothing. But fashion is mostly about form and appearances, and Western notions of China, especially in the eyes of creative types, is inevitably Orientalist.
This contradiction is hinted at throughout this traditional, even bland, documentary helmed by Andrew Rossi when Asian Art Department Director Mike Hearn repeatedly voices his concern to Bolton that the artworks lining the second-floor wing of the museum won’t receive equal emphasis once the exhibition colonizes the space (I use the word “colonize” advisedly); it also pops up when Bolton and Gala coordinator Anna Wintour travel to Beijing, and Bolton continually finds himself defending the exhibition to the press. In one meeting, when a Chinese person suggests the exhibition include more modern works of fashion, Bolton laments that China has none. Seemingly the only concessions to modern China in the exhibition are some qipao (hence Wong Kar-wai), some Mao suits, and the work of contemporary fashion designer Guo Pei, whose work is a deliberate hybrid of East and West—during the Gala fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, with Alicia Keys on his arm, mistakes Guo’s work for that of John Galliano, another featured designer.
The fears were justified, at least according to Holland Cotter’s review of the exhibition in the New York Times. Cotter suggests that Orientalist appropriation might have been avoided with more intellectual links between the fantastical fashion creations and authentic examples of the motifs by which they were inspired. That’s a tall order for a White man (Bolton), a White man who’s steeped in Asian art and can speak Mandarin (Hearn), a White woman (Wintour), and an East Asian film director (Wong) to pull off. I didn’t notice anyone in the film who’s identified as an expert on Chinese history of fashion. It was painful to watch the group of mostly White staff members trying really earnestly to avoid Orientalist caricature in all aspects of the Gala and exhibition design and often barely managing to succeed.
The thing is, I do believe that it’s possible for a person to truly understand and fully live out a different culture, but it takes more than mere intellectual knowledge. Knowing that Chinese culture emphasizes the social over the individual is one thing; trying to apply that knowledge to navigating a family meal is an entirely different beast. Successful inculturation takes a native of the culture at least two decades to nail down, mostly unconsciously but also including moments of overt instruction. Fluently switching between two cultural worldviews depending on context is a feat nearing the superhuman, but possible.
Aside from the works of fashion themselves, the logic of the exhibition layout and spatial design also sorely lacks in Chinese cultural authenticity: Works and rooms are often grouped by color or motif, regardless of historical compatibility. Wong, of course, knows better, and early on he tries to prevent a possibly even more egregious layout by advocating a non-linear exhibition narrative. It’s an impossible situation, to decide which is the lesser of two evils: getting Chinese history wrong unintentionally, or intentionally in service of another organizing logic?
Though I’m no expert myself, I would’ve appreciated a more honest exhibition that candidly admit the Orientalist nature of its featured works of fashion without straining, mostly in vain, to locate fleeting hints of authenticity. After all, an exhibition of Chinese fashion in New York can only have three possibilities, depending on the works featured: (1) authentic, with items on loan from China; (2) Western imperialist, with Chinese items taken during the century of humiliation or earlier; or (3) Orientalist, with Western items inspired by China. If ever authentic Chinese fashion gains a foothold in the West, we might one day have a fourth possibility: Chinese items inflected by the West, kind of like American Chinese food. But the possible geopolitical and ideological concerns of this scenario are best dealt with in another piece.