Met Gala 2015: “China: Through the Looking Glass”

Soo-Min Shim reflects on cultural appropriation at the Met Gala

The Met Gala is a spectacle that means, once per year, at about this time, my sad, lonely life culminates in an existence-validating, year highlighting, singular moment to watch beautiful strangers flaunt clothes more expensive than all four years of my degree.

This year though, the theme was China: Through the Looking Glass. My anticipation was replaced by skepticism and trepidation. In a social milieu where more and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation, I’m not alone.

Like a lot of cultural appropriation, the Met Gala did not intend any harm. See, the curator of the Gala, Andrew Bolton, defends himself obtusely: “[costumes] are infused with fantasy and nostalgia and romance, and what often is created is a virtual China, a mixing of these anachronistic styles, which results in this pastiche. What is interesting is how complicit China has been in forming those fantasies.”

Take that Edward Said. China has been “complicit” in its association with exoticism and mythology! They want to be seen as some “other”!

There was a moment when the red carpet was alive with a parade of every cultural stereotype and trope that the Western world has reduced to costumes I’ve seen at house parties. This includes Emma Roberts with her hair held in a bun with chopsticks, Sarah Jessica Parker looking like the Dragon Lady of the Fire Nation, and Poppy Delevingne coming as opium. I applaud the wit behind Poppy’s decision to come covered in poppies, if not her disregard for the historical implications.

The theme also means that celebrities could wear clothes by any Chinese designer. It may come as a surprise, but not all Chinese design is informed or derived from the cheongsam. Celebrities also have the option to reject the theme. (As when, in 2013, Kimmy K chose to wear polyester floral wallpaper for “Punk”, or, maybe a more legitimate example, this year celebrities like Lorde, FKATwigs, Miley Cyrus and Anne Hathaway, wore clothes that weren’t explicitly conforming to the theme.)

There were positive aspects. For instance, no-one decided to dress up as Mulan, or a geisha, or a salmon sushi roll. More importantly though, the Met Gala drew attention to cultural insensitivity on a massive scale (assuming there are more no-lifers like me out there who are emotionally invested in this event… maybe?). This appropriation is not a total loss if it creates important discourse (like this!) about the ownership and authenticity of culture.

But more than that, I nearly died at how glorious Fan Bing Bing, Gong Li, Du Juan and a number of Chinese actresses looked that night. It’s refreshing and important to see women of colour, completely killing it. No, they did not get enough media attention in my opinion. No, there were not enough Chinese actresses present at the night. But, it sure is more mainstream representation than I’ve seen in a very long time. The Met Gala was, partly, a platform for Chinese fashion designers to receive the attention they really do deserve.

Met Gala 2015 has been an important step in the debate about cultural appropriation. Too often celebrities and plebs alike don’t realise the significance of what they wear—hopefully the Gala and its short fallings will have played a part in fixing this.

It also gave us sequined Beyonce. This is certainly a historic moment.