The biggest night in fashion is here. This evening, the world’s biggest stars and fashion insiders will come under one roof to attend the annual Met Gala at New York’s storied Metropolitan Museum of Art. The usuals are expected in attendance. Beyonce. Jay. Kanye. Kim. Rihanna. And there’s a new theme in tote: “China: Through the Looking Glass” with attendees’ attire designated as “Chinese White Tie”—not to mention, a new social media rule banning all selfies (sorry Kim) and a full year since #ElevatorGate.
But back to the Chinese white tie theme.
Many critics are cringing (guilty) hoping celebrities won’t disrespectfully mock and desperately appropriate Chinese culture. Andrew Bolton Met’s chief curator of the Costume Institute now named for Anna Wintour, explains the theme to Vogue stating it’s “How eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture.”
It’s the “misunderstood” portion of Bolton’s explanation that gives us pause. How will stars interpret the Chinese theme on the red carpet?
Let’s begin by considering why the theme was chosen in the first place.
In recent years, Met Gala themes drew on specific designers and forms of style: Charles James, Alexander McQueen and 2013’s Rock Style. A magnified look into the fashion archives, because we’re nerds, reveals this year’s theme isn’t the first time the event’s guardians of costume decided to put the spotlight on a specific country and culture —surprisingly, it’s also not a first for China.
The 1980’s theme was “The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of China, the Chi’ing Dynasty.” In ’94, the gala was centered on “Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress.” Galas of the past also took a looked at Russia (1976), Austria-Hungary (1979) and even India (1985).
In the highly-anticipated event’s 44-year history, nearly every form of style has been presented—except hip hop, which can also go all the way wrong. Of course, attendees can opt against dressing for the theme entirely, which has been done and of course, is no fun.
Let’s also consider when it comes to the country of China, where would the fashion industry be without it? From the notorious ‘Made in China’ labels nearly every person on earth is wearing right now thanks to countless Chinese garment workers who skillfully sew the army of looks that struts down runways and eventually makes it to department stores, the industry owes it to China to approach this event tastefully with homage and a little less spectacle.
But is there a true way to pay homage to Chinese style without insulting Chinese culture?
We know celebrities love to appropriate culture.
Katy Perry’s geisha get-up worn during her performance at the 2013 American Music Awards was highly offensive. In a piece written in 2013, a day after the AMAs aired, Phyllis Lee who agrees and wrote for Mic stating, “Between the lack of Asian women on stage, the heavy-handed use of bowling and shuffling around in choreography, and the ethno-confused set and costume design, Perry presented her viewers a one-dimensional Eastern fantasy drawn by Western eye right out of the gate.” Lee continues, “All of these things speak ignorance, yet I’m not laughing.”
In an article for Jezebel written last year and who wins best title: “2015 Met Gala Will Probably Be An Asian-Themed Shitshow,” Kara Brown predicts, “I do not trust the majority of Met Gala attendees to handle this theme with tact and respect.”
With critics already up in arms about what could happen at tonight’s Met Gala, here are some ways celebrities might avoid being the laughingstock of social media and the news the next day. For starters, let’s avoid looking like a Halloween costume and wearing anything remotely close to the West’s twisted fantasy of Chinese culture.
“Heavy Oriental-looking makeup and tired tropes will come across as unoriginal and culturally tone-deaf,” said Liz Flora, to Fashionista, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily.
The key for attendees to is not run for the nearest geisha couture costume, because that would be Japanese, not Chinese culture.
Flora also adds, “If a big enough celebrity shows up looking like a geisha, it’s not just the U.S. media that will tear them to pieces. They’re going to be trending on Weibo within hours—and not in a good way.”
You can bet your ass Jawbreaker will be clowning the appropriating clowns!
Many celebrated Chinese and Chinese-American designers are working today including Derek Lam, Philip Lim, Peter Som, Anna Sui, Alexander Wang, Masha Ma, Huishan Zhang.
Let’s hope stars lucky enough to attend play it respectful and truly honor Chinese culture by wearing a red carpet moment designed by someone Chinese.
And lest we forget, the event is also a costume gala surrounded by an actual costume exhibit—which no one seems to care about—so some level of inspiration from the event’s theme is expected in attendees’ attire, not necessarily cultural appropriation. We’ll see who walks the line.
Here’s a couple of our fave Chinese-inspired looks on display now at the Met.
Alexander McQueen, 2006
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Haute Couture