The talk of Wall Street over the last week may have been Shanghai’s plunging stock market, but many blocks farther uptown, where commuter traffic gives way to verdant sidewalks, a different set of numbers related to China was making news. As it entered its final week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring Costume Institute show, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” was attaining blockbuster status.
As of last Friday morning, 735,000 people had attended the show, with a week to go before its close on Sept. 7, including a final Friday and Saturday with viewing hours extended until midnight. That has already made it the most-visited Costume Institute show in the museum’s history, displacing “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which pulled in 661,509 attendees, as well as elevating it to No. 7 — and climbing — on the museum’s top-10 most popular list, on a par with other 700,000-plus-visitor shows such as the “Mona Lisa” (1963), “Origins of Impressionism” (1995) and “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (2010).
Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute and the man behind the show, said there have been more positive responses left in the visitor’s comment box than ever before. (“Usually people use it as an opportunity to vent displeasure,” he said. “Often at the lighting, or the signage.”)
By any objective measure, this will be the most successful fashion show the Met has ever had. The question is: Why?
“Honestly, it totally surprised me,” Mr. Bolton said. “I was prepared for it to be polarizing. We were predicting around 500,000 visitors. I never expected this level of response. ”
“No one expected it would surpass McQueen,” said Maxwell K. Hearn, the Douglas Dillon chairman of the department of Asian art, and Mr. Bolton’s collaborator on the exhibition, which is in the Asian art galleries on the second floor, some Egyptian galleries on the first floor and the Anna Wintour Costume Center on ground level.
I didn’t expect it, either. Not because I didn’t like the show (it’s visually engrossing in its mix of luxury, whimsy and point) but because it doesn’t have the single iconic hook that can transform a purportedly high culture meditation into an extended pop culture moment.
After all, it isn’t, as Mr. Bolton said, immediately obvious from the name what the show is about. (Answer: the way a received fantasy version of China engages the imaginations of Western designers.) And the subject itself was ripe for criticism from those who thought the approach played to a now-discredited stereotype of the East. You can’t attribute it to the sheer size of the exhibition, the largest ever, or it’s length, because size does not equate to allure.
There wasn’t the sort of human gossip element that helped drive interest in the McQueen show, held a year after the designer’s suicide and days after Kate Middleton married Prince William in a dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
There was, to be fair, lots of striking use of mixed media, which made it seem both very contemporary as well as historic. And it included film — Wong Kar-wai, who wrote and directed “In the Mood for Love,” was the exhibit’s art director, and clips from movies like “The Last Emperor” and “The World of Suzie Wong” abound — always a popular medium.
But Mr. Wong is an independent director as opposed to a household name, and when Baz Luhrmann, a much more recognizable Hollywood figure, was the creative consultant on an earlier Costume Institute show, 2012’s “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” it wasn’t nearly the same hot ticket.
When I first saw the show in May, I was struck by the facile nature of the fashion when juxtaposed against the antiquities. No matter the clothes’ beauty — I remember the runway impact of Tom Ford’s pagoda collection for Yves Saint Laurent and being amazed by the broken blue and white china shards of porcelain on an Alexander McQueen bodice — they pale when compared with the source of the inspiration, in part because the latter has a creative integrity the former only borrows. Often too literally.
It’s a good thing for the Asian art, because it makes you look twice at what otherwise may have been background pottery, for example, but not necessarily the clothes. It’s no accident my favorite room is the “small Buddha room,” which features an enormous gold dress by Guo Pei, the Chinese designer who made Rihanna’s yellow egg-yolk cape for the opening gala, surrounded by multiple earthen Buddhas. The connection being one of silhouette and shade as opposed to anything overt.
This probably has more to do with my own discomfort with what the exhibit revealed about the superficiality of the fashion imagination rather than the exhibition itself (indeed, it’s part of the point of the show); as Holland Cotter wrote in his review, “the difference between the two disciplines is, too often, made glaring.”
It turns out reviews have nothing on word of mouth as an audience-driver. “I call it the ‘Harry Potter’ effect,” Mr. Bolton said.
And the word “China” was magical. Mr. Hearn said, “Chinese visitors often want to see how China is presented in Western museums.” Forty percent of the show’s visitors have been international, and since June, 14 percent of total international visitors have been Chinese, the Met’s largest single group of overseas visitors. China was also, until recently, the one of the most lucrative markets for Western fashion designers.
Indeed, when the cynic in me first heard the exhibition’s title, I wondered if it was a calculated move to capture some of that gold dust. When pressed, Mr. Bolton claimed “we never think about the numbers,” though he did say, “I want to do exhibits that are relevant and resonate in contemporary culture.” It’s a slightly specious distinction (is making a listicle resonating with the culture or catering to click bait? Is there a difference?), but when it comes to the latter, there’s no question that China has been the buzz of many conversations, in every sector from Hollywood to finance, travel to e-commerce.
In any case, the museum quickly learned that its original expectations were going to be surpassed, and in late June, Thomas P. Campbell, the director and chief executive of the Met, decided to extend the show another three weeks. It was only the second time a Costume Institute show had been extended (McQueen set that precedent).
“We are like a fungal infection,” Mr. Bolton said. “We start out small, and take over the whole museum.”
This kind of takeover has created another problem for its creator: follow-up.
Mr. Bolton acknowledged the challenge, noting that, after McQueen, in order to better manage expectations, he and Harold Koda curated two much “quieter, more poetic” shows: one based on a conversation between two women (Schiaparelli and Prada) and one that took a forensic approach to the work of Charles James.
That said, however, Mr. Bolton has an ambitious wish list. He’d like to do a conversation between Edith Wharton and Henry James inspired by two portraits in the American galleries that would combine an examination of the American men’s wear tradition with furniture and sound. He would really like to work with the Egyptian galleries.
The museum’s biggest show, after all, was 1979’s “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which attracted over a million people. You do the math.