For the first time in its history, the Vancouver Art Gallery is hosting a fashion exhibit.
Launched in early October the Guo Pei: Couture Beyond exhibit will run until January 20th 2019. The centerpiece of this exhibit is the 2015 Met Gala dress worn by singer Rihanna. This embroidered yellow dress took 50,000 hours to make, weighs a staggering fifty-five pounds, and features an extravagant sixteen-foot fur-trimmed cape. It became the subject of a viral meme minutes after Rihanna walked the Met red carpet. Amongst the many names given, its most famous title is the “Omelette Dress”.
Below are some of the memes the dress inspired.
The infamous Omelette dress pushed its designer, Guo Pei into the international spotlight. In the years since the Met Gala, she has been the subject of a book, a documentary, and now a touring fashion exhibit. In 2016 she was named among Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”. She is the first and only Chinese national invited into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. This invitation has meant official recognition as an Haute Couture designer. The label of haute couture is only given to companies that have completely hand-sewn garments, maintain an atelier and employees in Paris, and put on an haute couture show twice a year.
In an interview with Entrepreneur Magazine, Guo commented that one show alone for her 2017 collection La Concierge cost around 2 million euros.
While fashion changes often, style is influenced by more long-lasting factors. These factors include politics, culture, religion, and economics. Guo is one of the leading designers in the Chinese fashion renaissance. She’s seeking to replace the “Made in China” label with “Created in China” (Lindgren, 2012). Unlike older couture companies, Guo has no interest in selling off the rack. Her collections are based off her own artistic aspirations, not consumer demand.
Guo Pei’s work explores themes of Chinese history, tradition, political upheaval, and cultural transitions.
Guo was born in Beijing in 1967 to two members of the Chinese Communist Party. Guo spent her childhood in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, a socio-political campaign launched by leader Mao Zedong. This campaign aimed to remove the capitalist elements infiltrating the Chinese Communist Party. Mao mobilized urban workers and youth in a violent class struggle that persecuted thousands for anti-communist sentiments.
The father of Chinese communism, Zedong, recognized the power of dress in presenting a shared national identity. He made his military forces wear two-piece cotton suits known as Mao suits. These uniforms were symbols of proletarian unity. Over the course of his cultural revolution, Mao suits began to be worn by everyone.
Fashion under the Maoist regime favoured muted colours and understated garments. The most common colours were dark blue, grey or khaki. Expressions of individuality through fashion weren’t often seen during this period. After all, appearing too consumeristic could be considered unpatriotic, even an act of treason. Guo’s parents were born into communism and working in the fashion industry was never considered a viable career option.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Guo recalls that the only member of her family that remembered witnessing an alternative reality was her grandmother. Guo’s grandmother was born near the end of the Qin dynasty (1644–1912). She would tell Guo stories about the clothes worn by the Chinese royal family, stories about embroidered dresses, silk garments, and ornate jewelry. Guo claims to have started stitching at the age of two, helping her mother sew clothes for the family, and dreaming of sewing elaborate outfits for herself.
When Mao died in 1976, a wave of liberalism spread throughout the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese economy opened up to the international market and suddenly there was a new social class of consumers hungry to buy all the latest fashions and technologies. By the 1980s, China’s domestic fashion industries began to form.
Guo Pei was fresh out of design school at this time and was able to take full advantage of China’s burgeoning consumerism. She started her own company, Rose Studio, in the 1990s with a small team of tailors. Today, she employs nearly five hundred employees.
If fashion is art, that Guo’s work is a symbol of rebellion. The designer used canary yellow for the “Omelette dress” and in much of her other work to pay homage to the Qin Dynasty. In Imperial China, only royalty was allowed to wear yellow. Yellow has always had importance. The Chinese word for emperor Huangdi coined during the Qin Dynasty means ‘Yellow Emperor’.
There are many other allusions to Chinese tradition in her clothes. One of the other dresses in the Vancouver Art gallery called “Blue and Porcelain” took over 10,000 hours to make and was inspired by traditional Chinese porcelain plates and vases.
Guo Pei’s exhibit has one weekend left in Vancouver so be sure to catch it before it’s gone. It’s not every day that the intersections between fashion, art, culture, and history can be seen in a single exhibit . Some of her work currently at the VAG can be seen below.
Rajita is Link Magazine’s Associate Editor. She likes writing about tech, culture and politics.