This spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be hosting a significant fashion exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center exploring the influence on Western fashion and design of Chinese art and film. China: Through the Looking Glass (May 7–August 16, 2015) will feature more than 130 haute couture and ready-to-wear fashions juxtaposed with traditional Chinese masterpieces in jade, lacquer, cloisonné, and blue-and-white porcelain.
Chinese imagery will be used throughout, presenting a series of "mirrored reflections" that focus on the evolution of art, fashion, and culture from Imperial China through to the present-day People's Republic of China. "From the earliest period of European contact with China in the 16th century, the West has been enchanted with enigmatic objects and imagery from China, providing inspiration for fashion designers from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent," notes the exhibition's curator, Andrew Bolton. "Through the looking glass of fashion, designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions."
(Evening dress, Roberto Cavalli (Italian, born 1940), fall/winter 2005–6 Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon)
What's interesting, though, is that this fascination with Chinese cultural traditions has also given rise to an interesting new fashion trend at home. Students at the Nanjing University of Technology are showing up to class each day in the clothing and culture of the Han Dynasty...as in 206 BCE – 220 CE.
Wearing loose, floor-length kimono-esque gowns, they go about their student'y business, attending lectures, strolling around campus and hanging out with other Hanfu enthusiasts at "Hanfu She" - a club that meets regularly to celebrate Han garb and culture in their everyday modern life. "This is a feeling of pride towards my nation," notes one Hanfu-clad fellow. "Wearing Hanfu is more than just wearing traditional clothes, it represents all our culture."
So why the Han Dynasty in particular?
- poetry, literature, and philosophy blossomed during the reign of Emperor Wudi (141–86 B.C.);
- items invented during this technologically and scientifically sophisticated period include paper, water clocks, sundials, astronomical instruments and the seismograph;
- the artisans of the period perfected the art of porcelain, something their European counterparts weren't able to do until the 18th century;
- the 4,500 mile long Great Wall was completed (it was begun during the Ch'in dynasty);
- international diplomacy flourished as envoys from Central Asia, Japan and the West arrived, including an emissary from the the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, bearing gifts from his native Andun of ivory, rhinoceros horn, and tortoiseshell & suggesting a direct link to Rome in 166 A.D..
But in our technologically-shrunken global village, why adopt such blatantly tribal fashion? "Before the rise of the nation-state, between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the world was mostly tribal," explains Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and currently a professor of public policy at University of California at Berkeley. "Tribes were united by language, religion, blood, and belief. They feared other tribes and often warred against them." But over the past three hundred years, the idea of expanding the tribe borders to include the rest of one's countrymen began to take root, he continues. "Members of tribes started to become citizens, viewing themselves as a single people with patriotic sentiments and duties toward their homeland. Although nationalism never fully supplanted tribalism in some former colonial territories, the transition from tribe to nation was mostly completed by the mid twentieth century."
(Evening dress, Tom Ford (American, born 1961) for Yves Saint Laurent, Paris (French, founded 1961), fall/winter 2004–5; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Yves Saint Laurent, 2005 Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon)
In a world where all of us - and everything, our national economies included - are interconnected and intertwined, the concept of "nation" is less and less relevant. And what is relevant in a world where the nation state continues to dissolve by the day? Connecting in ways that are personal. "Religious beliefs and affiliations, the nuances of one’s own language and culture, the daily realities of class, and the extensions of one’s family and its values," says Reich, "all are providing people with ever greater senses of identity."
In short: tribe.
In addition to tribe, though, the dramatic Hanfu ensembles worn by the college kids did strike me as more than somewhat cosplay'ish. Or video game'ish, like characters from Dynasty Warriors 7 (above) which involves the Han Dynasty. Or maybe it's that the ubiquity of both cosplay and gaming that make it less outlandish to rock daily life in such anachronistic attire.
- Lesley Scott