By Keeva Stratton
Each year the Met Gala ball continues to grow in stature as a signature fashion and celebrity event. This film takes us through the incredible planning and preparation it takes to bring not only the ball, but the Costume Institute’s feature fashion exhibit, to life—and it’s as provocative and mesmerising as any exploration of art should be.
In planning the China through the Looking Glass exhibit of 2015, Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton, sets out to finally step out of the incredible shadow cast by his very successful Alexander McQueen exhibit, Savage Beauty.
With Anna Wintour by his side, he scours the collections of some of the world’s greatest designers, pulling from the most incredible archives—including Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Cavalli—to form an exhibit that traces how Chinese symbolism has inspired a range of different design collections and periods. He’s living a dream, and is visionary in his ability to bring the artistry of high fashion to the fore.
The fashion is mesmerising and the artistry is profound, but like all art that has been formed through a lens of the ‘Other’, it’s also problematic.
Tracing the West’s interaction with the East, and China specifically, through film, Bolton aims to bring to life the many ways in which fashion has indulged a Chinese fantasy. But this fantasy soon faces a difficult realty—much of the fashion spawned from the image of China as fostered in Western culture may step across the uncomfortable lines of cultural appropriation, raising deeper issues of cultural imperialism.
As brilliant as his eye is for selecting incredible pieces and telling a story through them, there are times where Bolton seems blind to the potential offence he could cause if the material is not thoughtfully composed.
There’s a moment in the film where Bolton seems unable to accept or comprehend how inappropriate placing a Mao themed display among Buddhist artefacts might be; it’s astonishing. He also fields questions from Chinese reporters about the lack of modern Chinese inclusions, assuming it is they who lack an understanding of the vision, rather than grasping the irony of educating the Chinese about their own cultural image.
Bolton, though, is not unlike many of us from the worlds of fashion, art and museums generally, who struggle in reconciling their desire to celebrate a culture with truly understanding that much of the inspiration behind the art or artefacts has roots in exploitative cultural and racial stereotypes.
To balance the exhibition, he asks Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai to help guide its vision. This balance helps Bolton to tread more carefully, and further input from the likes of Baz Lurhmann makes it obvious that capturing cultural beauty need not be literal, dramatic or reductionist, in order to be powerful.
The end result is astounding. But the true magnificence of this film is the way it will provoke thought and conversation. It’s indeed a celebration of fashion and the artistry behind it, but it also asks many pertinent and important questions.
Intelligent, inspiring and insightful, this is a thought provoking celebration of the at times difficult juncture between high fashion and cultural appropriation.
Director: Andrew Rossi
Stars: Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, Baz Lurhmann, Andre Leon Talley, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Rihanna
Runtime: 91 mins
Release Date: 12 May
Reviewer Rating: 4/5