May 07, 2015

    Stars' sartorial choices inspire satire


    WHEN Hollywood royalty took to the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala, or Met Gala, on Monday, they may have been earnestly interpreting the Chinese theme of the event in their bold fashion choices.

    But little did they know that their outfits at the event, held at the museum in New York City, would cause the Chinese Internet to explode with amusement.

    The vast difference between how the outfits were received in the West and in China goes to show how the East Asian country gets "lost in translation" in the West.

    Singer Rihanna and actress Sarah Jessica Parker became major inspirations for the Internet memes that swept social media, as Chinese netizens passed merciless and creative verdicts on their outfits - largely seen as examples of "trying too hard" - on one of the biggest fashion nights of the year.

    Rihanna opted for imperial yellow, the royal colour of China's dynastic past, intending to evoke royalty, and completed the look with a sparkling tiara that made her look more exotic. Instead, she reminded Chinese Internet users of one of the most popular snacks in China - jianbing, or Chinese pancake.

    As soon as Rihanna's yellow cape with floral swirls was revealed, Chinese netizens came up with photoshopped versions of the outfit as a Chinese pancake or a pizza. They were inspired by the shape of the long train, which required three people to help the wearer walk.

    Sex And The City actress Parker didn't do any better. For Chinese fans of the hit HBO show, she will always be Carrie Bradshaw, the epitome of chic, metropolitan style.

    Carrie would have reigned at Manhattan's biggest fashion night, but Parker's over-the-top "Chinese" headdress drew snickers.

    Her red headpiece reminded netizens of a Chinese icon, though perhaps not a particularly elegant one - Huanhuan, one of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' adorable cartoon mascots.

    If not for the China theme, the Manhattan night would have commanded the attention of only fashion pundits.

    Unlike in the West, where their every sartorial move is scrutinised in the media, even fashion A-listers like Rihanna and Parker seldom make headlines for their wardrobe decisions as they are not as well known here.

    It was undoubtedly because their outfits were supposedly "Chinese" that they garnered this degree of attention on social media.

    China's two most popular social-networking tools - Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo and instant messaging app Wechat - were awash with posts explaining the basic facts of Met Gala and snapshots of the red-carpet moments.

    Ordinary Chinese people may not be able to name any song by Rihanna or know of her alleged romance with actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But they could still pitch in to create the online sensation that made her pancake-like dress one of the night's most memorable looks.

    In keeping with the theme, the exclusive guest list included a Chinese delegation, comprising actresses and singers led by Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.

    The Chinese contingent earned kudos from their countrymen by dressing "normally", the highest compliment that could be paid to them on a night dominated by near-nudity and absurdity.

    As the frenzy of memes and comments dies down, the massive misrepresentation of China in the night's fashion prompts soul-searching of how, exactly, China should be represented to the West.

    After all, the Met Gala had aimed to shed light on Chinese cultural and artistic influence on fashion through the theme of "China: Through the Looking Glass".

    But can the idea of "China" really be boiled down to sequins, embroidery and Chinese motifs? Is that the extent to which China's influence on fashion can be seen?

    Parker may have an excuse - the mocked headdress was by non-Chinese Philip Treacy, one of Britain's best-known milliners, but Rihanna wore the sartorial work of Beijing-based designer Guo Pei.

    In contrast to its reception on the Chinese Internet, the dress actually made Vanity Fair website's best-dressed list.

    It seems that even a Chinese designer finds it hard to please her countrymen when presenting her country's culture to the West.

    That the theme references the 1871 fantasy novel by Lewis Carroll may give a clue as to how there came to be such a gap between East and West - the Western perception of China is still very much filtered through the lens of fantasy, a wonderland in their own minds, rather than the actual East Asian country itself.