We’ve all seen the Rihanna omelette memes from the Met Gala, but in this article, Christy Ku examines the Ball’s theme and the importance of its interpretation….
This year’s Met Gala Ball theme was ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’. Over a hundred immensely wealthy Western celebrities had the opportunity to adopt an entire country’s culture in the name of fashion for one evening.
It could have gone very, very badly.
In the early 1900’s, it was quite standard to dress in full yellowface as a costume or for white people to play Asians, since people of colour were generally excluded from the screens. Skin would be darkened, “Chinese mannerisms” adopted and eyes would be taped up and pulled back to look more “Chinese”.
Society has improved in many ways to move away from this but racism, in a day-to-day life basis and in the media, is far from over. Take the song and music video ‘Chinese Food’, performed by Alison Gold and written by Patrice Wilson in 2013. Both people show an incredible ignorance to Asian cultures and they still refuse to admit this. There was an “it’s all Chinese to me” attitude through the use of Mongolian restaurants and Japanese geishas – plus Wilson is squinting throughout the video to narrow his eyes.
In 2008, the Home Office released statistics that show Asians are twice as likely to be stopped and searched compared to whites (black people are six times more likely). In 2014, the British Social Attitudes showed a rise in levels of racial prejudice and London police reported a 65% increase in hate crime against Muslims.
Racism still happens, actively through hate crimes and passively through general ignorance and acceptance of racist ideas. I was apprehensive about the Met Gala’s theme and the risk of cultural appropriation. This is when one culture borrows something from another, changing or completely removing its meaning. Sometimes, it can be quite subtle and relatively harmless, or extremely racist such as blackface. It’s an immensely complex issue. Sharing and celebrating each other’s cultures is wonderful especially through fashion; one of the highest, most valued and influential art forms. But when does an entire culture become a just costume? For example, take wearing bindis – there is a religious significance behind them, but in primary schools it boiled down to putting glittery stickers on your forehead and saying “look guys, I’m Indian” (Gwen Stefani in the early 2000’s probably had an influence in this).
There is also some white privilege when a white person dresses in another culture – they are less likely to receive abuse or feel unsafe for wearing it. For my prom, I wore a kaipo and received a lot of looks (not always in a good way) and some idiot went “look it’s Jackie Chan” (I ended up winning ‘Best Dressed’, so screw you all). I’m still apprehensive about wearing a mandarin collar in public, about looking “too Chinese” and if I should dress more “normally” – in a more Western style. It’s easy to say “don’t care what other people think”, but a lifetime of having strangers yelling “konichiwa”, “ching chang chong” and various other racist insults makes you a little nervous, to say the least.
When a white person dresses in another culture, it’s unique and inspired. When a person of colour dresses in their own tradition, it’s weird, old-fashioned and a refusal to fit in with the “normal” West. However, does that mean only people who identify as certain races or having a certain cultural background are allowed to wear certain items of clothing? People can want to wear things simply because they want to.
There’s no easy solution to this. What is ok, and what isn’t? How can we tell if someone acknowledges the significance of what they’re wearing, and respects it? Maybe everyone should just wear anything they want?
I was pretty impressed with this year’s Met Gala ball. I rolled my eyes a few times at the clichéd dragons and kimonos (Japanese. Kimonos are Japanese), but I personally don’t feel anyone had any malicious intent or was accidentally racist. No one did a Gwen Stefani and had four silent Asian girls follow them around like exotic pets. There were no chopsticks-in-hair looks, though of course there had to be one who tried. Emma Roberts posted this photo on Instagram, which she later deleted. The internet reacted and she removed them before the event.
Chopsticks in hair is the equivalent of me doing this to dress up as white person:
Many ignored the theme; either they didn’t want to risk offence or because Met Gala guests tend to ignore it anyway. I was disappointed with the lack of Chinese designers; Prada and Marc Jacobs is very nice, but China has a population of 1 billion. There must be some good Chinese fashion designers? Even the Chinese celebrities like Fei Fei Sun wore Michael Kors. There’s no need to everyone to exclusively use Chinese designers, but as the fashion world is dominated by big Western brands already, it would have been good to see more than a handful do something different. Also, the media tended to ignore the Chinese celebrities, which was predictable.
Let’s go through some outfits now:
Helen Mirren. She kept it classy – she simply wore a red dress (a lucky colour in China). The pattern was impressive; it reminded me of paper cutting (a Chinese art form).
Georgia May Jagger. I’m not a fan of her garish phoenix plastered onto a lilac kimono….thing. And kimonos are Japanese. No, it is not the same thing – it’s like saying “English, Italian – it’s all white to me”.
Sarah Jessica Parker. What. Is. That. I think she’s trying to reference the Beijing Opera headpieces, with the tassels from the Chinese knots. It looks like she dropped furballs into a barbeque and put it on her head. You tried.
Zhang Ziyi had a nice hybrid of two cultures. The top half followed the kaipo style, with the Western ballgown skirt.
Kendall Jenner. I’m guessing the jade green dress is a more subtle reference – jade is a very revered precious stone in China.
Rhianna. YES. She looked magnificent, dressed in full gold (a regal colour and precious metal) and actually used a Chinese designer (Guo Pei). A lot of people are saying she looks like a pancake, but you couldn’t look this good on Shrove Tuesday.
Solange Knowles. No Chinese reference, I just wanted to say that it looks like the black hole in Interstellar. Anne Hathway is going to escape out of the dress later.
Grace Coddington. It looks like she stuck some cherry blossoms and Chinese-style buttons onto pyjamas. Thumbs down, sloppy effort.
Tabitha Simmons. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I don’t like it.
Justin Bieber. I really like this. In the time of Emperors, only he could wear clothes embroidered with five clawed golden dragons – a confident attitude, but an amazingly crafted jacket.
Of course, Beyonce was Beyonce.
I am not the sole, deciding voice on cultural appropriation and racism – if you find something offensive, you have the right to say so. If you think it’s ok, that’s fine too. It’s a complex issue and all we can do is have open and understanding discussions. We still have to work to celebrate cultures in the face of hostility and racism, but know this.
I do look fabulous in a kaipo, and I will wear it again.
All uncredited images: Vogue.com
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