When details about the 2015 Costume Institute Gala first emerged last year, Jezebel's Kara Brown took umbrage with the theme off the bat, predicting the night would be an Asian-themed shitshow. While the final name, "China: Through the Looking Glass," is a hell of a lot better than the original one: "Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion," many Asian Americans with an interest in fashion (such as myself and Mashable Fashion Writer David Yi), hoped that the night wouldn’t be rife with cultural appropriation.
The China theme didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. It was a collaboration between the Met’s newly-renamed Anna Wintour Costume Center and Department of Asian Art, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. May is also Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. It also doesn’t hurt that, according to a recent McKinsey report, Chinese citizens’ “discretionary spending is taking off.” What better way to convince them to buy expensive stuff they don’t really need than actively catering to them on fashion’s biggest night?
Theming any sort of fashion event after a specific Asian country opens up a boatload of cans of worms. More often than not, China becomes a metonym for Asia—which absolutely shouldn’t be the case. Sure, roughly 1.4 billion people is a lot, but that doesn’t speak for the continent’s other 3 billion or so populace. China and Asia are not interchangeable nouns. That would be like having Algeria represent the entire African continent.
no one described anything as 'Oriental last night, but facets of Orientalism were everywhere.
Every single country has a unique culture and fashion history, and it’s wild disrespectful to sweep them all under the Chinese rug. China does not mean Eastern, either. Thank god no one described anything as “Oriental” last night, but facets of Orientalism were everywhere. When the theme of the night was described as examining the effect of the Chinese aesthetic on Western culture, three things sprang to my mind: Those necklaces with names printed on a single grain of rice, white people with Chinese character tattoos that purportedly mean “power” or “strength,” and well, the Wu-Tang Clan.
Thankfully, most attendees decided to sidestep the theme and just dress appropriately for the gala. And while no one showed up in yellowface, there were two particular outfits that hewed closely to the China theme in the worst way possible: Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga.
While the Internet was quick to draw comparisons between Sarah Jessica Parker's Philip Treacy headdress and everything from Dragon Ball Z to Samurai Jack, I couldn't help but notice the Dragon Lady-esque intimidation of it all. The heavy eyeshadow, long black dress, and ribbon detail channeled the stereotypical image of a '60s-era seductive Oriental villainess.
Lady Gaga's gown and voluminous robe seem to draw inspiration more from the Chinese Hanfu with its billowy arms and lattice pattern, which actually predates the Japanese kimono by a couple thousand years. Meanwhile, her eye make-up tries to evoke the almond shape most commonly associated with people of Chinese and East Asian descent. Of course, Gaga is no stranger to cultural appropriation—just a couple of years ago, her fanbase populated social media with controversial #BurqaSwag photos to coincide with her leaked track, "Burqa."
The problems weren't reserved for the outfits. As The Cut was livestreaming the red carpet via Periscope, Joel McHale stopped for a quick interview. Among the questions: When was the last time he'd been to China? He replied with two weeks ago, and then said it was because he was a drug mule. He followed it up by making jokes about opium, and saying he'd prepared for the night by watching Jackie Chan films.
On the Internet, the ignorance was just as rampant. I tried to find out who this guy was, quite possibly the only man who nailed the theme:
I was answered by about a dozen replies telling me it was Jet Li, Jackie Chan, or Manny Pacquiao. The "all look same" joke is a tired one, but it's still very much a reality in 2015.
The Cut's red carpet crew and André Leon Talley, who was interviewing people on behalf of Vogue, both frequently asked attendees what their favorite Chinese food was, a question that not only has nothing to do with the night's theme, but also is more ignorant than innocuous. Speaking of food, the Wall Street Journal's Ray A. Smith reported that the night's dinner was also Chinese-themed. The italicized emphasis is mine:
The dinner also paid homage to China, with an appetizer of vegetable, chicken, and shrimp dumplings with ginger-soy sauce and entrees of roasted duck with hoisin sauce or red snapper with ginger-lime sauce, served with fried rice, scallion pancakes and bok choy with spring vegetables. Chinese gongs called guests to dinner.
Were the gongs really necessary? What this Met Gala showed was that, like the punk-themed exhibition that preceded it two years ago, any pretense that this night is about paying homage to a culture or subculture more than it is about selling tickets to the exhibition itself is farcical. Infamously, mother of punk fashion Vivienne Westwood was denied a certifiable punk moment by emcee Billy Norwich at a friggin' punk-themed gala. When Westwood tried to talk about political whistleblower Chelsea Manning on the red carpet, she was cut off mid-sentence.
If anything, last night served as a reminder of the subtle institutionalized racism that's been compounded by centuries of Asian isolationism across the board, and enduring Western stereotypes exacerbated by ignorance and the meme-able nature of social media. The idea of China and Asia remains an exotic mystery where the natives remain outsiders to mass culture. Even with the notable amount of Asian Americans ascending the fashion ladder in the past decade (like recently named DKNY co-creative director and Public School designer Dao-Yi Chow), we are forever "the other," still trying to navigate our way above a bamboo ceiling.