Chinese Whisperers

by Jiayang Fan

’Til next year… Thanks to @philiptreacy, @hm, @sergenormant, @leslielopezmakeupartist, @erinwalshnyc, the great #LarsNord and studio, @jfisherjewelry, @cindychao_artjewel, and everyone at #FredLeighton. Head to toe, soup to nuts, all of you. X, Sj #ChinaThroughTheLookingGlass

A photo posted by SJP (@sarahjessicaparker) on May 4, 2015 at 8:11pm PDT

During my first October in the United States, soon after my mother and I had emigrated from China, I was told about a very peculiar holiday: The American Ghost Holiday, as it was translated to me, involved an elaborate process of sartorial selection and anxiety-inducing performance. Acquiring a costume could be expensive, and there was very little payback — a handful of dollar-store candies, if you were lucky. To avoid spending money on a costume, my mother went “shopping” in the leather suitcases that we had recently lugged across the Pacific. The day before my “performance,” she excitedly dug out a tracksuit with a Chinese flag stitched onto the chest and matching tangerine orange pants. “What was I supposed to be?” I cast a doubtful eye. “Chinese!” my mother proudly beamed.

Last week, I was reminded of the experience while scrolling through photographs from the Met Gala. The annual benefit, which kicks off the spring exhibit at the Costume Institute, is a strange jubilee for celebrities, cultural luminaries, and meticulously-screened A-listers. Aside from raising a record-breaking amounts of money each year — twelve million dollars in 2014 — it’s the premiere party of the season, where scrupulous primping is elevated to an Oscar-level spectator sport. Every year, the style of the attendees’ attire is pegged to an exhibition at the Met. In 2003, it was the year of the goddess; in 2009, “The Model As Muse” honored fashion models in a splendid nod of unironic solipsism; and in 2013, tribute was paid to punk, as a a haute-chic reinvention of spiky mid-eighties grunge. This year, the theme is “China: Through the Looking Glass.”

The theme, as Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, explained to Woman’s Wear Daily, is about “the West’s interest in China” and “China’s cultural influence on the West.” The “costumes and decorative arts crystallize centuries of cultural interchanges between the East and the West,” and the exhibition, which encompasses thirty thousand square feet and one hundred and forty haute couture pieces, “is infused with fantasy and nostalgia and romance,” he added. What is created is “a virtual China, a mixing of these anachronistic styles, which results in this pastiche.”

Pastiche is the operative word here. The exhibition was originally named “Chinese Whispers,” after the British parlor game in which a message is whispered around a circle until it is completely distorted. It was renamed, presumably because a sharp-witted event planner realized its potential to ignite a public relations firestorm and propel the intended pastiche into graceless parody. But the best brand manager could hardly have been expected to anticipate the outfits in attendance, which resembled nothing so much as visual rounds of Chinese Whispers gone awry: Chloe Sevigny arrived in an off-the-shoulder grotesquerie of sapphires, chokers, and over-embroidered pagodas; Carolina Kornikova wore a confused Hanfu that looked like it was missing a skirt; and Emma Roberts, who brought a dragon clutch, seemed to have been left off the memo to avoid chopsticks in the hair. Cherry blossoms, cheongams, and dubious headdresses, of course, were on ample display. Amal Clooney braved the mob by fortifying herself with breastplates that evoked the bloodied cuirass of a fashion-forward terracotta warrior. Rihanna looked like she had invaded the closet of an obese, obdurately cold emperor; Sarah Jessica Parker seemed to have raided the same gilded chiffoniers, with only the empress’s flaming headdress in tow.

Before the last celebrity had stepped inside, backlash, rife with accusations of misappropriation, came raining down. “I’m expecting someone to come out and scream ‘CHING CHONG CHANG,’ ” David Yi, a Korean-American journalist, said on Twitter. Meanwhile, millions of Chinese Weibo users weighed in with 2.5 billion tweets, many of which echoed the sentiment of one user: “Foreigners with Chinese style don’t fit very well, huh?” A college student from Wuhan was less equivocal: “Really, are the Americans admiring or actually mocking us Chinese?”

In other words, the fete, which ostensibly attempted to pay homage to the “intensifying” fascination with China, seemed oblivious to its doomed mission by the illogic of its form. True, the Met Gala is meant to be a tribute, not a treatise. Yet a considered treatment of a subject like China — which does not lend itself to the kind of artistic tribute akin to ones of iconic fashion designers like McQueen (2011) or Schiaparelli (2012) — is a near impossibility. A country — one that has been frequently exoticized in the the Western imagination — encompasses a vastness, complexity, and a conflicting sense of self, that in its convoluted multiplicity, turns the very concept of ballroom (carnival?) theme into farce. As the critic Veronique Hyland pointed out in her review, for a show that bills itself as a celebration of Chinese design, “the larger cultural implications are often stripped away.” The gala, in its effort to ostensibly promote China, similarly corrupts its coherence of culture.

That a night of innocuous celebration becomes a convenient target for accusations of overt offense is probably unfair. But the troubling phenomenon of commercializing the anesthetized fantasy of a country is worth examining. What is the value of “virtual China” when the brand marketing on display perverts any thoughtful consideration of China’s history and meaning?

The red carpet is no Halloween parade, but it is a costume contest of sorts. Twenty-two years ago, my get-up earned me enough snickers from my eight-year-old peers for me to know, with heated cheeks, that I screwed up a ritual, both trivial and somehow sacrosanct. Witches, ghosts and the dictate to wear something original and unusual eluded my mother, but as a participant in the spectacle, I worried that my gym suit did not exactly constitute a costume. (I was right.) “But the idea of it is what’s original,” my mom responded, impertinently resistant, it seemed to me, to the spirit of the holiday. “Nobody should be wearing a costume to look Chinese.” (She was right.)