This past weekend marked the end of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Through the Looking Glass exhibition, which examined the influence of Chinese art, film, and fashion on Western haute couture. Dresses from iconic designers Alexander McQueen, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Anna Wintour, and more line three stories of exhibition space, surrounded by ancient snuff boxes, calligraphy, porcelain, traditional Chinese garbs and textiles, and massive screens playing movies by Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Ang Lee.
Amongst all these storied creations was a set of newly commissioned artworks: over 100 stylized metal headdresses by famous milliner Stephen Jones topping each exquisite outfit. For one gallery featuring a set of outfits worn by Chinese emperors displayed alongside works influenced by their imperial symbolism, Jones created 12 headdresses representing the designs highlighting rulers' ideal virtues and abilities.
As outlined in the gallery description, his headpieces symbolize the "constellation of three stars, which, like the sun and moon, signify enlightenment; mountains to signify grace and stability; axe to signify determination; Fu symbol (two bow-shaped signs) to signify collaboration; pair of ascending and descending dragons to signify adaptability; pheasant to symbolize literary elegance; pair of sacrificial vessels painted with a tiger and a long-tailed monkey to signify courage and wisdom; waterweed to signify flexibility; flame to signify righteousness; and grain to signify fertility and prosperity."
Jones has experience in the museum business, having first ventured into the field from the fashion world when he designed 20 punk headdresses for The Met's AngloMania in 2006. "I’ve known [curator] Andrew Bolton for many years, and we’ve talked about doing things for the Met," he tells The Creators Project. While he designed more traditional hats for that exhibit, the metal headdresses for Through the Looking Glass border on pure sculputure. "This was a natural progression," he continues.
Jones' career took off in the 1980s, and he's had the opportunity to work directly with labels like Dior in the past, which was both a blessing and a curse. "I can’t sort of divorce myself from my life experience," he explains. Starting with a fresh perspective would lend its own advantages to the creative process, but in this case he built upon a career's worth of experience. "It was great to make things to go with Dior clothes but remake them in a different way."
Other brands like Chanel, whom Jones has never collaborated with, challenged his established process, to his own delight. "To design a hat to go with a Chanel outfit or to design a hat to go with a 1920’s Lanvin outfit, they were some of the most extraordinary dresses of the 20th Century, so it was a real honor," says Jones of creating pieces for museum exhibitions.
Like these leviathans of contemporary couture, the Met wants and needs for the exhibit were constantly changing until opening day. "The brief was given to me maybe four months before hand, but the actual OK was only given to me maybe two months before," he says. "It was very much like working with a fashion designer."
Check out the fruit of Jones' labor in the images below.
Gallery View, Chinese Galleries, Douglas Dillon Galleries, Export Silk. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art