The Met Gala was last night – the place where fashionistas and stars gather to decide who among this group of staggeringly rich adults is capable of dressing to theme.
Of course, it’s one thing to dress to theme when that theme is, say, punk, or Charles James. But this year’s exhibit is titled “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and is – depending on who’s talking – a history of Chinese fashion and its influence on design in the West, or an exploration of the effects of the Western gaze on perceptions of China and Chinese fashion.
It’s a crucial difference, one that I look forward to determining when I see the exhibit for myself – as much as a white person can determine what is and isn’t sufficient self-awareness when it comes to potential appropriation. Spoiler: Not much. (Something to keep in mind throughout this rundown, actually; I’m providing outsider commentary on an issue that involves outsiders helping themselves, so that’s as much a part of this mess as anything else. What fun the Met brings us!)
In the meantime, everybody had to get through the red carpet. The Met Gala is notorious for its themed carpets: specifically, it’s notorious for showbiz people’s inability to interpret the theme wholeheartedly or accurately, and for Anna Wintour’s tendency to show up on every red carpet in last year’s theme and grin at the chaos it causes. And that’s fine when “vaguely British” is the carpet theme, but even some of the mainstream media who normally don’t care that the Met Gala is happening realized the subject was China and winced.
Fashion, as an industry, isn’t culturally sensitive. It’s a machine with a thousand arms, and it will chew up and spit out whatever that it can talk people into wearing. Nature of the beast. As the recognition of cultural appropriation becomes a mainstream topic, so too has the intersection of fashion and culture. (A lot of America is currently somewhere along this learning process – whatever that point is where musicians still wear war bonnets for promo stills but enough people know it’s a problem that maybe soon it will actually be viewed as not worth the downsides anymore.)
But the idea of a “Chinese” red carpet is trickier still. One can, eventually, hope to shame someone out of wearing something that’s of specific religious or cultural significance. Harder to pinpoint and claim the origins of the high collar gown, of the slim silhouette, of thick embroidery. (The contingent of this red carpet that tried to evoke Chinese Imperial grandeur and showed up looking like Byzantine idols suggests the history of fashion is long, confusing, and weird.) Centuries of international trade mean that silhouettes can be both both recognizable by national origin and long since under adoption elsewhere; it’s all a bit of a quagmire, and this red carpet will almost by necessity be graded on a sliding scale. Treated respectfully, borrowing elements of design can be seen as homage and celebration. Treated cheaply, it’s straight-up racist.
And while the exhibit itself might be endlessly respectful and thoughtful, there was no such consideration about the red carpet. See also the “dim sum pajama party” held for attendees on Sunday night, which looked about like you’d expect:
Plus, there was this report from Fashionista:
HOW FUN AND AVOIDABLE. You just knew we were in for a ride!
The most hilarious part of this red carpet was how relieved every single dude looked for the tux-and-done system that kept them way out of that entire quagmire. The most “hilarious” part is how many women, confident they could skip the chance of cultural appropriation, just dressed with poppies! To celebrate an exhibit about China. (Yes.) Those sensitive geniuses include Anna Wintour, who broke her streak of showing up in last year’s theme to make sure everybody knew just how witty she is about that whole China thing.
“But Genevieve, maybe that was an accident!” Oh, sure, maybe! Not for Poppy Delevingne, though.
The actual good news about all this is that some amazing Chinese ladies were on the red carpet this year, and they were not taking any bullshit about any of this whatsoever.
It’s safe to say Fan Bingbing summarily won the red carpet for sheer glamorous ease. She often wears Chinese couture on the red carpet, and my favorite thing about this gold stunner and cape is that they had more Deco-Egyptian influence than anything else, because you cannot get the fashion runaround on Fan Bingbing. She is not playing your China-doll dress-up, thank you very much anyway, have a nice night, bye.
My personal favorite, though, is Gong Li, who showed up with the best accessory of the night: this carelessly dismissive expression. (“Oh, you’re throwing a little party? How nice. China themed? Mm. Charming. Sure, I’ll stop by. It will be amusing.”) Imagine her just sweeping that look across the room all night as people suddenly got overcome with awkward shame they didn’t even understand. And her dress! Do I love the lace? Honestly, no. But I love the velvet, and I love the back, and she’s amazing, so.
Is there a fancy murder planned for the evening? Carina Lao’s just asking, because she didn’t wear this one-glove glam-private-eye dress for nothing, dammit.
Sure, Du Juan might be wearing jeweled daisies, but as a professional clothes-wearer, she knows how to handle this.
Wendi Deng, in a dress that references Chinese motifs in a very interesting uncanny valley between elegant historical reference and four-figure takes on the “Chinese satin” that they always had in six colors in the JoAnn fabrics near my house in high school. It’s closer to the former, of course, but it’s still an interesting reminder of what gets recognized as shorthand for “Chinese.” (This red carpet is full of awkwardness, but it’s also a college course for all this stuff!)
Zhang Ziyi, whose dress looks like she’s halfway through a transformation into Jadis of Narnia, in a reboot I would totally watch.
Sun Feifei, demonstrating exactly the sort of intriguing carelessness that gets so often dismissed in beautiful people, though if red carpets have taught me anything it’s that being beautiful and being possessed of intriguing carelessness are two entirely different things; the former is handy, the latter has literally changed the course of history. She delivered this exact look, over the shoulder and everything, several times over the course of the night. It looked exactly this intriguingly careless every time. That’s amazing. (If you want to know what it looks like to try this and miss, look for nearly any red carpet with Lea Michele on it.)
The other way to win this red carpet, if you were not a Chinese lady, was to pretend you didn’t even hear the theme of the evening and just show up in what-the-fuck-ever you wanted.
Solange Knowles, in a dress that’s over the top anywhere else but perfect for the Met Gala.
Carey Mulligan, looking sleek and modern. (Aside from it being a lovely dress, it’s a really smart choice for a red carpet that’s always a riot of excess.)
Helen Mirren. Proceed.
Maggie Q. Half this outfit’s success is how determinedly modern and unfussy it is. The other half is her expression, just daring somebody to ask her the wrong question.
There was also a larger-than-normal contingent of people in run-of-the-mill formals. Given the huge opportunity to screw this one up, though, I respect anyone who got the invite, took one look at the theme, and said, “Oh, gosh – you know, I’m fine, I’ll just – a dress is fine. It’s fine. I’m good.” Happy just to be invited, that’s everybody in this picture.
A notable contingent decided to Penny Dreadful themselves and show up as characters from the Victorian Gothic, which is just inexplicable enough to be surprising in it pervasiveness, and just small enough to be fun.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are hoping you knew better than to expect them to break brand, for this red carpet or any red carpet.
Imogen Poots IS Vanessa Ives!
Jennifer Connelly; her neighbors whisper “an Aesthetic” as if that explains her simplicity of dress, but they haven’t begun to understand what those evening teas are really about.
Adriana Lima IS Jennifer Connelly’s granddaughter; separated by two generations, all that powerful magic has come home to roost.
Some aimed to be stylish while avoiding the theme as much as possible, which is a totally fair cop, though it did not go well for everyone.
Olivia Wilde is a Bedazzled mess; Chloe Moretz is dressed like a demonic doll. Everyone else is clearly trying to be Fashiony without actually touching on China more than absolutely necessary; Keri Russell manages it (“Does China have birds? I mean, probably, right?'”) and Ivanka Trump winks at it (“White and blue! So China, but not TOO China”). Lizzy Caplan comes closest, with the satin-and-embroidery combo that read as Chinese influence, but neatly blended into more standard Hollywood Regency. And Janelle Monae is straight-up superhero auditioning, with only some piping and a frog closure to assure us she read the invite but isn’t going to Do The Thing; if any civilians need saving from the dangers of restrictive formalwear, she’s on it.
Still, no matter how unfortunate their outfits (Olivia, seriously), they certainly avoided the very worst of the disasters we will get into shortly. But the group I think is more interesting to talk about is this one, featuring various influences of Chinese design that have already entered the mainstream. They are – deliberately – not quite costumes, because these elements have been used by Western designers for so long that they’re shortcuts for evoking the collective illusion of “China” rather than distinctively, actually Chinese.
Of this collection, Dianna Agron’s is probably the most interesting; it uses a motif carefully and in a modern silhouette that avoids looking costumey. A couple of these dresses are filtered through a very 1960s interpretation of Chinese fashion: Emily Blunt’s slightly oddball look and Jennifer Lawrence’s upholstery-sample disaster. (The red flowers are daisies, which means she didn’t get side-eye for that, but this dress deserves side-eye for everything else.) Kate Hudson, Natasha Poly, and Emily Rajatkowski draw a much more direct line of influence. Taraji Henson’s is a modern update of the stereotypical “cherry blossom” pattern again, but reinterpreted and stylized. And Selena Gomez also taps into Hollywood Regency in Vera Wang, with tassels meant to be both a vintage detail and a “Chinese” detail, and orchids that (probably deliberately) evoke Billie Holiday as much as any Chinese headpiece.
A lot of dresses, of course, were like these; beautifully made, deliberately referential.
Amal Clooney, in an armored bodice and modern skirt with embroidered accents. (It seems like a very interesting interpretation; then again, it’s also Galliano, who among his other cultural insensitivities has designed the “opium den” room in the exhibit, so.)
Some were essays all by themselves:
Anne Hathaway, whose hooded dress feels like a Handmaiden of Naboo costume – but that’s half the point. Amidala’s costumes were directly influenced by Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, and Hopi cultural dress. Anne Hathaway’s gown is part of a long, frustrating tradition of turning a culture into the Other – the fantastic, the unreal. “What’s Chinese?” “Something exotic.” “What’s Chinese?” “Like a fantasy.” Alone, it’s annoying. Taken widely enough and over enough time, it can dehumanize a culture into just so many elements of something vaguely foreign. Does Anne Hathaway want that? Almost certainly not. Is she buying into something unfortunate? Yep. This shit gets complicated.
It gets even more complicated when something meant to read as Chinese (specifically influenced by Chinese opera, one imagines), ends up landing halfway between Russia and Byzantium.
Perpetua, the three-headed saint of always knowing where the camera is.
Zendaya, whose diamond sunbursts seem more Russian Imperial than anything.
Karen Elson. I see where they were going! I just don’t think they did.
Two attendees actually committed to the Chinese opera theme wholeheartedly. One was Lady Gaga, who showed up as Turandot:
Drawbacks: That’s shaped distinctly like a Korean hanbok, also what the fuck are you doing with those eyebrows. Bonus: Since it stands on its own, she can curl up inside that gazebo hanbok and take a nap!
And Tabitha Simmons:
I…have nothing. Let’s just talk about some regular gown failures for a while.
Kerry Washington. I respect the risks she takes, but she’s hit or miss for me. This is a miss – if nothing else, the construction of the bows on that Pepto-Bismol bodice make it look like a dress that’s shrugging itself in apology even as she wears it. But to give the dress its due, this was clearly warn with the intent to ascend these steps in just that way.
Beyonce. She’s no stranger to the nude sparkly thing, and this is not my favorite iteration of it (that 1987 Color Guard ponytail is not helping), but I find this a fascinating set of pictures. They were taken on the loading dock and sent out before she appeared on the carpet; the former suggests carelessness, which has never been true of her a day in her life (and it’s worth noting how editorial they look, like she’s posing for Nylon and not instagram), and the latter was a strategy designed to let the enemy know she was coming. There’s always more happening on red carpets than a dress.
Take Sophie Turner:
She’s not going to do any more teenage roles after Game of Thrones, okay? She’s done. Adulthood for Sophie Turner. Sexy spy roles for Sophie Turner! Thank you for your time; sincerely, Sophie Turner.
Others hoped to arrest the red carpet with modern lines but cheeky references to China! (Yaaaay.)
The best of that lot: Rihanna, who showed up in a flapper-styled Guo Pei creation (Guo Pei is featured in the exhibit, which is closer to homage than a lot of people came), purely for the carpet: she changed as soon as she got inside for logistical reasons.
Not everybody’s cheeky homages went so well! At all!
Dakota Johnson in a dress someone chose for her and she hates, and a purse that is fucking fired, how does a PR team think this is okay.
Kate Mara, whose dress is just one slice too many.
The tough thing about a red carpet like this is how to judge the losers, since it’s possible to lose both by having a hideous outfit, and by wearing something thoughtlessly appropriative.
I mean, somebody was going to actually do the thing and come as a dragon lady. This is Julie Macklowe.
And this is J Lo.
Honestly, for a while I had the “winner” in this category marked as Karolina Kurkova, who managed to do exactly what everyone was afraid of and slap on some Orientalist Party City outfit that evokes a kimono as much as anything else. This is something I would have expected Katy Perry to wear, except she tried to show up Anna Wintour by appearing as the theme from two years ago (must you) and seems to have shoved the leftovers to Karolina, which is all such a mess that even Karolina looks a little embarrassed about the entire thing.
But actually, the worst of the night on that score might be Cara Delevingne, for nearly demonstrating what it means to appropriate something:
Drawn (literally in this case) from another culture, worn without context just to signal your own coolness. The Coachella of the Met Gala.
The most laughably awful outfit is somehow even harder to decide. The early front-runner was, of course, Sarah Jessica Parker:
It’s not the modern-Chinese-interpretation headpiece, either (though there have been plenty of jokes about it – apparently it’s based on “phoenix crowns” worn by brides, for what that’s worth). It’s the literal sad sack of her black dress, with those old reliable poppies painted on the train like an afterthought, the ribbon stapled to her chest like a kid trying to complete a school project in the car. However appropriative, the headpiece at least took some effort; the rest is just embarrassing.
Then, for a while, I thought maybe Georgia Jagger would take it all.
It’s a halfhearted Urban Outfitters dressing gown. Must we? Must we.
But really, we all knew it would have to go to Chloe Sevigny:
A mishmash of eras, poorly fitted, and so embarrassed it’s trying to slide off her arms and escape. Congrats, Chloe, such as they are!
I’d say there’s no better metaphor for the evening, but that was before I found this photo, which is by itself a perfect argument for why next year’s theme should be something else:
And safe to say that’s a wrap!