Tea Leaf Nation

‘Are They From the Zoo?’

No, they’re just from Hollywood. How American starlets tried, and failed, to rock Chinese couture.

SJ Parker

The Met Gala, an annual red carpet event held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has all the buzz of the Oscars, although even less substance. Principally, it’s known for its over-the-top celebrity fashion. This year’s May 4 event was themed “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and featured stars and starlets from around the world clad in ostensibly Chinese garb. If online reaction in China is any indication, that proverbial looking glass is unforgiving, at least to Americans trying their hand at Chinese aesthetics.

To be sure, like people everywhere, Chinese were principally interested in reading and talking about their compatriots; on the Chinese web, domestic celebrities carried the day. On social media, the gala quickly become the top-trending hashtag on all of Weibo, China’s microblogging platform. Mainstream media was also taken with the event. “Chinese stars light up the Met Gala,” wrote Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily on May 5, while Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media declared that the Chinese starlets were so stunning that they “blinded” those present. Actress Fan Bingbing, in a gold sequined dress with a glorious jewel-toned silk cloak, was crowned queen of the day. Weibo users said Fan was “wearing the entire Forbidden City” —a reference to the historical Imperial Palace in Beijing, whose architecture served as inspiration for Fan’s attire. Many online seemed to take special pride in the fact that her show-stopping outfit was that of a Chinese designer, Christopher Bu:

"China: Through The Looking Glass" Costume Institute Benefit Gala - Arrivals

Getty Images

But Fan appears to have been the only Chinese celeb who actually wore clothing designed by a Chinese person. The rest opted instead for mostly Western-style gowns and the status afforded by Western designers: Gong Li wore Roberto Cavalli, Zhang Ziyi sported Carolina Herrera, and Li Bingbing modeled Christine Dior. While homegrown Chinese haute couture may still lack the global clout of more established designers, the ranks of successful Chinese designers are growing quickly. Lending star power at a swanky international gala would have brought a needed boost, a reality not lost on Chinese netizens. One Weibo user, in a hugely popular comment, praised Fan and her compatriots (mostly actresses) for wearing a Chinese label and reprimanded the others, writing, “At this once-in-a-century China-themed event, each and every [Chinese celebrity] wore the big Euro-American brands to grace the red carpet.” Another wrote, “It seems that most of the Chinese stars didn’t go in Chinese style; rather, it seems the foreigners were the ones who made sincere attempts.”

Sincerity, it turns out, only gets you so far on the red carpet. In China, mainstream and social media viewed Western celebrities and their attempts at “Chinese style” as an amateurish afterthought. Articles doing photo-by-photo takedowns of the attire of A-list celebrities circulated widely. One such article, posted on May 5 to online outlet Sohu Fashion titled, “The Chinese fashions that foreigners misunderstood” juxtaposed photos of American and Chinese celebrities in a way generally unfavorable to the former. “Foreigners think Chinese style means tawdry gold,” the article averred, accompanied by images of singer Justin Bieber’s Balmain blazer festooned with gold dragon print, and singer Rihanna’s room-sized gold cape, which is by Chinese designer Guo Pei, but nonetheless drew comparisons to jianbing, a popular crepe-like snack food:


Weibo/Fair Use

Even celebrities such as human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and British singer Rita Ora, clad in relatively conservative scarlet gowns, didn’t escape a bit of snark. “It looks like they’re getting married,” the Sohu Fashion article noted, a reference to traditional Chinese wedding gowns, which are red rather than white. Another article by online outlet NetEase declared, “It seems like they haven’t quite grasped what ‘Chinese style’ is.” The article found actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s flaming red head dress a “dissonant” part of her outfit. (Less forgiving Internet users circulated a picture, shown above, comparing Parker to Huanhuan, one of the cartoon mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) Even actress Anne Hathaway, a usual favorite in China, wasn’t spared—“her gold dress looks more like something out of Star Wars” than Chinese style, went the article. One Weibo user asked, “Are they from the zoo?” Except for a few jabs at Justin Bieber’s blinged-out get-up, Chinese media unfortunately seemed to echo U.S. media’s obsession with women’s fashion and bodies, leaving men to enjoy their dignity and stardom in peace.

At least one user was a bit more encouraging, noting that Chinese celebrities seemed to have felt less pressure to embrace the night’s theme. “[The foreigners] may have misunderstood,” wrote the user, “but at least they gave it an honest try.”

Weibo/Fair Use

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