The enormity of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” could in no way be encapsulated upon first glance. By juxtaposing traditional motifs, shapes, and materials from Chinese art and various Western items of haute couture, it becomes abundantly clear just how influential Chinese aesthetics have been. The exhibit then expertly weaves a narrative, with the inspiration of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, to manifest a cultural experience—three floors worth of it. As one of the largest exhibitions put on by The Costume Institute, “China” uses a variety of mediums to represent Chinese influence in Western design.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the main character Alice finds herself in an otherworldly alternate reality after climbing through the glass of her mirror. Carroll’s idea of the mirror is central to the exhibit as it explores how China is mirrored through fashion, in other words not how China truly is, but rather the fantasies and interpretations of China that Western designers have made by utilizing these stylistic techniques. In this way, “China: Through the Looking Glass” reveals the ways in which China has impacted Western style.
The exhibit is presented as a collaboration between The Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art: towering mannequins adorned in fashions from Givenchy to Yves Saint Laurent enclosed in glass cases also containing pieces of Chinese art. Patterns, colors, and materials work to demonstrate the reflection of the art in the couture. The Chinese art on display varies in period and medium; for example with Neolithic pottery, Shang-dynasty bronzes, Tang-dynasty mirrors, and Hang-dynasty tomb figurines. Moreover, the exhibit provides extensive diversity in artistic form in conjunction with over 140 examples of couture.
To walk through “China: Through the Looking Glass” is to wander through a dream-like state in which the fantasies of designers like Lanvin and Chanel come forth in each gallery. At times through the subtle detail of a bronze vase and other times as you navigate through into an ornately composed scene. Carroll’s alternate reality of fantastical creations does come alive in this tribute to China’s influence on Western design.