Exhibition on Chinese aesthetics a hit in NYC

NEW YORK • A New York exhibition exploring Chinese influence on Western fashion has become a summer smash-hit, attracting a record 670,000 visitors in a sign of China's growing clout in America.

Spread across 16 galleries, China: Through The Looking Glass is the most visited show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute and has been extended for three weeks.

It broke the previous record set by a 2011 show celebrating the late British designer Alexander McQueen, which went on display shortly after his tragic death, the museum said.

By the weekend, more than 670,000 visitors had flocked to the China exhibition, compared with 661,509 for the McQueen show, and has been extended until Sept 7, the Met announced.

"As China's role politically and economically has grown on the world stage, it's very clear that people want to know more about the culture out of which that recent success has been spawned," explained Mr Maxwell Hearn, head of the Met's Asian art department.

The exhibition opened on May 7 and explores the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fuelled the fashion imagination for centuries.

It juxtaposes some of the world's finest haute couture with jewellery and works of Chinese art, focusing on Imperial China, 1920s to 1940s Shanghai and the People's Republic of China.

Mr Hearn attributes its phenomenal success to a unique creative collaboration between the fashion and Asian art departments.

There is a bamboo forest made out of plexiglass and a traditional Chinese garden court has been transformed into a moon-lit pool where John Galliano dresses appear to float over the surface.

There is an array of cinematic clips. The shoulders of an Yves Saint Laurent evening jacket have been picked out in the pattern on a fifth century BC bronze vessel.

The decoration on a 1950s Dior dress is inspired by Chinese calligraphy drawn from a poem complaining about a stomachache.

China was also the theme of this year's Met Ball, which kicked off the exhibition and acts as the Institute's annual fund-raiser, the most glittering event in New York high society.

"I think China is something everybody is interested in," Mr Hearn said. "To see how China has been an obsession, certainly a source of inspiration for centuries is something that really comes across."

After French and Spanish, Chinese is the most sought-after language in United States secondary schools, he said. There is also a huge influx of Chinese tourists, who want to see how China is represented in a Western museum, he added.

The US Department of Commerce projects visitor growth from China will increase by 172 per cent to 3.1 million visitors by 2019.

"For the Chinese to come here and see their culture in the context of Asia and beyond, I think that's why this show must be very interesting and even provocative for them," Mr Hearn said. "It's showing them that China has had a historical impact on the West."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is New York's most visited museum, welcoming 6.2 million people last year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Exhibition on Chinese aesthetics a hit in NYC'. Print Edition | Subscribe