When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute announced the subject of its spring 2015 exhibit, the media collectively cringed. China: Through the Looking Glass — which, according to the Met, “will explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries” — is a perfectly suitable topic for a museum dedicated to the history of fashion; after all, excising Western influence by, or appropriation of, other cultures would wipe out the bulk of art history. But the show’s theme doubled as the theme of last night’s Vogue-hosted opening gala, an event so intertwined with the actual exhibit that the Costume Institute’s official name (The Anna Wintour Costume Center, as of last year) is essentially a formality.
And while the Met itself can be trusted to deal with the delicate issues surrounding the relationship between Western designers and their non-Western inspiration, a bunch of celebrities and their stylists could most likely not. As I read the press release, which announced the exhibit under its original, eyebrow-raising name Chinese Whispers and introduced white co-hosts like Jennifer Lawrence and Marissa Mayer alongside Wendi Deng and Gong Li, I braced myself for hordes of Anglo celebrities looking like they’d just walked out of a tactlessly themed sorority mixer. Or, as Jezebel more succinctly predicted: “2015 Met Gala Will Probably Be an Asian-Themed Shitshow.”
Obviously, some of last night’s attendees didn’t disappoint. The first image to hit my social media was Sarah Jessica Parker’s Philip Treacy headdress, along with its resemblance to the Tinder logo, the flame emoji, and according to one memorable visual comparison by Twitter champion Desus, the cartoon villain Aku from Samurai Jack. Then Justin Bieber rolled through in a Ugo Mozie dragon jacket, looking like a Miami drug-lord villain from a generic heist movie. And then Chloe Sevigny, one of the few attendees I’d specifically expected to know better, showed up in a J.W. Anderson dress that missed whatever mark it was aiming for by a mile or three.
A certain pop star was conspicuously missing from the early red carpet coverage. By now, we know that’s because she was waiting to steal the show — and what Rihanna intends, Rihanna does. The initial headlines, of course, were dominated by the dress’s sheer size; the singer had to wait until most other attendees had cleared out because there simply wasn’t space for anyone else on the red-carpeted staircase while she was wearing it. Beyond stealing the show, however, Rihanna also simultaneously captured the gala’s theme and transcended its more obviously #problematic implications.
First, some background on her dress: it’s the work of Chinese haute couturier Guo Pei. Called “Magnificent Gold,” the garment took a full 50,000 hours to make, testifying to a level of detail that prompted model Carmen dell’Orifice to compare Pei to midcentury American designer Charles James, whose elaborate creations were the center of last spring’s Costume Institute exhibit, in a profile by then-New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. In her late 40s, Pei is one of the few contemporary designers — and more importantly, one of the few Chinese designers — whose work will be displayed in the exhibit itself. She’ll have two dresses on display in China: Through the Looking Glass: “Magnificent Gold” and “Blue and Porcelain,” which required 10,000 hours to construct.
Rihanna, and stylist Mel Ottenberg, thus handily navigated the Met Gala minefield by not just adhering to the theme, but arguably doing so in a way that better expressed China’s contemporary influence on Western fashion than any other attendee. The singer didn’t just show up her fellow guests by wearing a more physically impressive, expensive, and memorable dress — she also managed to demonstrate that it was, in fact, possible to dress for the occasion without being clumsily Orientalist. (Fun fact: Orientalism was, as writer Anne Helen Petersen pointed out on Twitter, the actual theme of the Met exhibit, and thus gala, in 1994.)
“Cultural appropriation” is a tricky term, and one that often erases the nuance involved in the post-globalization melting pot of influence. But when faced with the choice between Western designers imitating Chinese clothes and simply opting for the best Chinese fashion had to offer, most Met Gala attendees didn’t even realize there was an option B. Pointing that out, albeit subtly, is the genius of Rihanna’s outfit. That, and looking better than anyone else in the room.