The Met Gala was first established in 1948 as an annual fundraising event and celebration for the opening of the The Costume Institute‘s annual exhibit. It has taken place on the first Monday in May since 2004 and today would have marked the opening of About Time: Fashion and Duration, which explores how clothes generate temporal associations that conflate past, present, and future. Historically an iconic night for both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and fashion, this year’s Met Gala will instead be an intimate live stream celebration – A Moment with the Met – drawing on highlights from Met galas past.
As some of my favourite movies are set in the Met, including The First Monday in May and Oceans 8, I wanted to celebrate this year with a throwback to an exhibit I adored – Guo Pei: Couture Beyond. On display at the Vancouver Art Gallery from October 2018 to January 2019, this exhibition showcased Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei’s evolution as a designer from 2006 to 2017, featuring examples of her signature designs from her most iconic runway shows. Combining contemporary and ancient aesthetics from the Qing Empire (1644-1912), designs, materials and techniques to evoke Chinese history and mythology, her bespoke creations are both theatrical and extravagant.
Her 2008 collection, An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream, is both playful and youthful. Inspired by the idyllic innocence of fairy tales, muted pastel shades mimic the fantastical spirit found in children’s book illustrations. Several of the gowns on display employ an elaborate fabric folding technique that resembles origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, while others feature Guo Pei’s interpretation of the Spanish doublet – a close-fitting, baggy sleeved jacket. Echoing the historical garment’s elaborate surface decoration, she utilized both ornamental embroidery and Chinoiserie beading – the eighteenth century tradition of replicating Chinese motifs in European jewellery design.
Inspired by a collection of Middle Eastern folktales compiled in Arabic, Guo Pei’s 2010 collection 1002 Nights expanded her artisanship to include unique and decorative patterns, fine metal work, luxury furs and lace – mirroring the opulence of imperial Chinese fashion and the decadence of classic European haute couture.
Another centrepiece of 1002 Nights is a gown designed after China’s traditional cobalt blue and bone white porcelain. Decorated with hand-painted and embroidered ceramic patterns, the silk dress is accompanied by a headpiece made from cracked porcelain. The ensemble took nearly 10,000 hours to complete and was part of the Met’s record-breaking exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass in 2015.
Legends of the Dragon (2012) draws upon the extravagance of China’s rich cultural history and Guo Pei brings to life the fabled dragon motif, which figures prominently in the Chinese pantheon of zodiac animals. Historically, Chinese emperors would have dragons embroidered on their robes to represent imperial sovereignty and strength. Guo Pei’s gowns transform the traditionally masculine notion of power associated with the dragon, giving new meaning to the otherwise derisive description of a confident woman as a ‘dragon lady.’ The collection also gives prominence to the phoenix with the below dress, a mythological creature whose honesty, grace and beauty were often idealized in the character of an empress.
In Guo Pei’s 2016 collection, Encounter, drama is established through the use of black and gold with deep shades of blue, alluding to a more classic romanticism. Each garment represents an archetype of female royalty from a European princess to a Chinese Empress or presidential first lady.
Legends have always been one of my greatest sources of inspiration, unlocking my infinite imagination. The origins of mankind, creation myths and the mysteries of eternal life fascinate me. A part of my soul will always hold onto the most beautiful fantasies inspired by legends. – Guo Pei, 2017
The materials used in the 2017 Legends collection pay tribute to the haute couture textile and embroidery tradition of St. Gallen and the Cathedral’s painted interiors. Integrating Guo Pei’s lavish aesthetic with reflections on the spirit of devotion, her designs embody the silhouettes of medieval warriors and heavenly saints, rivalling the baroque opulence of the eighteenth-century Swiss cathedral that inspired them.