Meet Andrew Bolton, the Man Behind The Costume Institute's Genius Exhibitions

China: Through The Looking Glass. Evening Dress, Valentino, Shanghai 2013. Photo: Platon/Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

The annual fashion exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, might be better known for its kick off gala—where the red carpet has more high fashion than all Hollywood awards show combined— but the real raison d’etre for the party is to raise funds to maintain the Costume Institute.  

The mastermind behind it all is Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Costume Institute. For this year’s show entitled, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” the costume department is joining up with the Asian Art department, which are celebrating their hundredth anniversary at the museum . The show will center around Chinese art’s influence in fashion, both traditional Chinese costume and objects including jade, lacquer, and porcelain, and their influence in Western fashion. Bolton, who has been the head curator at the Met since 2006, was also behind the wildly popular Alexander McQueen exhibit in 2011. Yahoo Style sat down with Bolton and talked about the process behind putting together a show of this magnitude.

Wendi Murdoch, Anna Wintour, and Andrew Bolton during a press preview for ‘China: Through the Looking Glass,’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Getty Images

Yahoo Style: Let’s start at the very beginning, the 100th anniversary of the Asian galleries is the main impetus behind this exhibition, were there other ideas that you discussed before you settled on this particular theme? Andrew Bolton: Absolutely. Initially, we thought about showing the history of Chinese costume through objects within the museum’s collections; tomb figurines, porcelains, things of that sort, so it would’ve been more of a timeline, and it’s a very worthy theme, but I wasn’t sure it would be a particularly compelling topic of exhibition for the audience at large. We always want to bring a new audience, a new fashion audience. I worked as a curator in the Asian art department in the Victoria & Albert museum for about 10 years, and even then I was really interested in the impact of China in the West, and more so the cross-cultural dialogue between them, so that’s really where I decided to go.

YS: Is that something you are always aware of, how to bring in the most western or current fashion to the show?
AB: Absolutely. What we want to is have a resonance, have an audience, and to say something new about fashion. We want to offer a new interpretation about fashion, in this particular case, Chinese fashion in the West.

YS: You are collaborating with the department of Asian Art for this exhibition, how is this process different from the usual exhibitions, where it’s just you?
AB: It involves a lot of compromise, I think that Mike (Maxwell K. Hearn), the head of the Asian Art department has a different take on Orientalism than I do, so I think it’s been a challenge to come up with a thesis that we’re both happy with, that we feel is respectful to both our fields of study.

YS: What is the process of selecting the objects within the departments that will be featured in the collection?
AB: That’s my favorite part really, to bring the story alive through objects. Every fashion has a story to tell, and it’s our role as curator to tease it out and make that story legible to an audience. In this show, the fashion informs and enlivens the objects, so what happens is you end up with a reciprocal dialogue between them

YS: Is it ever difficult to get a hold of garments that you want for a show?AB: It’s getting harder and harder because more and more museums are staging shows about fashion, and as a result it’s getting more difficult to borrow from museums.  A lot of designers now have their own archive, so you rely on them to lend the pieces, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the pieces don’t exist anymore in the archives.

YS: How did the idea to bring director Wong Kar Wai come about?
AB: Very early on, we decided we wanted him involved in this. I had just seen The Grandmaster, about two years ago, and I loved the staging.  Kar Wai seems to have a genuine appreciation and understanding of fashion, which so manifests in the films he directs and produces, so I thought he was the most obvious choice.

YS: ‘Cultural Appropriation,’ is a current hot-button topic, how does the show address this issue, if at all?
AB: I think we will get those criticisms, I think it’s part of the history and the story of Orientalism. And we confront the issue head-on. I think what the show is trying to do is show there is a more positive approach to Orientalism, it’s not as political. Designers tend to depoliticize their subject matter. They often approach on the level of surface, and at the same time there is a genuine respect and honesty to the way they approach their subjects, which should be appreciated and applauded. There are deeply negative connotations to Orientalism, particularly in films from the 1930’s and 1940’s, where they stereotype Chinese women as either being “dragon ladies,” or “lotus blossoms,” so we deconstruct that stereotype through the figure of Anna May Wong, and the Opium Dens. Where we can, we’ve pointed the negative connotations of Orientalism, and we have deconstructed it. But also, lately, there has been a kickback against  the criticism of Orientalism, to a more positive approach.  So we have tried to merge the two.

YS: What do you hope to leave people that visit the exhibition with?
AB: Creativity. These garments that are in the exhibition were deliberately constructed as figments of the imagination, and they should be taken as that. They should be appreciated as that. Creativity and the creative impulse should always be celebrated, and I think that’s one of the main ideas behind this exhibition.

Related: Legendary Director Wong Kar Wai Talks Film, Fashion, and His Artistic Vision For This Year’s Costume Institute Exhibition