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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

Chinese Whispers at the Met

17 Февраля 2015


A slinky, sequinned dress from Tom Ford’s 2004 Saint Laurent show, and the same golden sheen on a Chinese emperor’s robe from the eighteenth century, were a dramatic way to open the temple doors on the subject of this year’s Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibition: China — Through the Looking Glass. 

Porcelain jar painted with a cobalt blue dragon under a transparent glaze, early 15th Century Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Porcelain jar painted with a cobalt blue dragon under a transparent glaze, early 15th Century Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

Amidst the Met’s Chinese Galleries, I was stunned at the sight of Sarah Burton’s Ming-inspired dress for Alexander McQueen. Her work, like the blue-and-white patterned sheath from Roberto Cavalli, was displayed beside a porcelain jar with a cobalt-blue dragon from the early fifteenth century. 

Satin evening dress by Roberto Cavalli A/W 2005/6
Satin evening dress by Roberto Cavalli A/W 2005/6

This exhibition juxtaposing high fashion with fine art — and celebrating a hundred years of the Met’s Asian Art department — opens in May. But Monday’s announcement came at an auspicious moment: it was a few days before the Chinese New Year. 

Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent sequinned evening dress A/W 2004/5
Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent sequinned evening dress A/W 2004/5

“It is the biggest show we have ever done,” said Anna Wintour, who was wearing a McQueen Chinese-patterned coat. The Vogue editor whose name is above the door at the Met’s costume center for the fundraising work she has done, was talking to fashion expert Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, and Maxwell K Hearn, who heads up the Met’s Asian Art department. 

Silk organza Ming-inspired dress, by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen A/W 201/12 embroidered with shards of blue and white porcelain.
Silk organza Ming-inspired dress, by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen A/W 201/12 embroidered with shards of blue and white porcelain.

The speakers all underlined the importance of collaboration with China, and of the country’s rich artistic history. According to Hearn, Chinese influence on fashion goes far back: in Ancient Rome they would wear Chinese silk over the skin to both conceal and reveal. 

Dior by John Galliano dress, S/S 1997 and an embroidered shawl of pale pink silk crepe by Jean Paul Gaultier A/W 2010/11
Dior by John Galliano dress, S/S 1997 and an embroidered shawl of pale pink silk crepe by Jean Paul Gaultier A/W 2010/11

“It’s so interesting for us that it will take place both downstairs in the Costume Institute and up here in the galleries, so there will be a series of conversations between East and West,” said Bolton. 

Chinese womans robe, 19th Century with silk and metallic-thread tapestry with painted details.
Chinese womans robe, 19th Century with silk and metallic-thread tapestry with painted details.

This will include an appraisal of both western and eastern visions of China on film, and hugely influential director Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express, Happy Together) is the exhibition’s artistic director. Films will range from the mythical visions of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor to Zhang Yimou’s period drama Raise the Red Lantern. 

Detail of Festival Robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 19th-century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1944 Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Detail of Festival Robe, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 19th-century; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1944 Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

Bolton emphasises the illuminating dialogues happening between the featured objects and clothes; the magnificent porcelain and other artefacts from China are part of the show, not just a backdrop to the fashion. 

Evening coat, c.1925; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Robert S. Kilborne, 1958 Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Evening coat, c.1925; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Robert S. Kilborne, 1958 Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

Meanwhile fashion folk may have yet another focus: how stars from Jennifer Lawrence to Gong Li are going to dress for the ball.

Evening dress from the Valentino “Shanghai” collection 2013. Courtesy of Valentino SpA Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Evening dress from the Valentino “Shanghai” collection 2013. Courtesy of Valentino SpA Credit Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon

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