by Michelle Bovée
Henry Kissinger’s unusual appearance at the annual Met Gala in New York City serves as an important reminder of the deep historical and oft-forgotten links between fashion and international diplomacy.
Former U.S. national security advisor, Realpolitik proponent, and opener of China Henry Kissinger made a somewhat unusual stop on May 4th: the Met Gala. This annual event is known for drawing hundreds of Oscar-winning celebrities, fashion designers, and society darlings to raise funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, which houses a collection of over 35,000 outfits and accessories spanning five continents and seven centuries.
This year’s Gala marked the opening of an exhibit dedicated to Chinese aesthetics’ influence on Western fashion, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which will juxtapose Western high fashion with traditional Chinese artistic and cultural displays. Kissinger’s presence now makes a bit more sense. He wasn’t the only political wonk interested in the evening’s events, either; among the myriad reports from Vogue, Perez Hilton, and Elle is one from Foreign Policy, describing some of the Chinese reactions to the Western celebrities wearing ornate Asian-inspired outfits.
The intersection of fashion and foreign policy seems to be an undeserved area of study and commentary, though there is a wealth of opportunities for analysis. After the Gala, Kissinger remarked on how the creative and connective force of fashion draws people together and eases the path for diplomacy, adding that this exhibition “is a combination of fashion and history, what we see here, and of long achievement—and that’s the essence of China.” He brings up some interesting points. Desire for exotic goods has driven international activities for centuries, and Western interest in Eastern aesthetics is well documented. Orientalism, for example, has touched artists, designers, writers, and architects in the Occident since the 18th century, and was preceded by an obsession with Chinoiserie in the 17th. Chinese politics have even influenced Western designers as well, with the plain Mao jacket providing inspiration for many prominent designers in the 1970s. Indeed, Chinese designs, fabrics, and art works are so entwined with European designs that one can even ask: Who truly “owns” the classic blue-and-white style porcelain, the Chinese, the Dutch, or the English?
The soft power of cultural exchange aside, though, there’s also a darker element to the relationship between the fashion industry and foreign policy. As John Oliver recently pointed out in a biting sketch, clothing is cheaper than ever because so many items—particularly “fast fashion” pieces—are produced in sweatshops around the world. A number of international organizations like the International Labour Organization and United Students Against Sweatshops, have cropped up to advocate against the use of sweatshop labor, and to raise awareness of the poor conditions these workers face around the globe. Supporters of the practice, on the other hand, argue that the low prices of sweatshop-produced goods encourage an increase in trading, which will ultimately raise wages and benefit the countries involved in the industry. Whether you protest against them or believe they are a step on the path to economic development, sweatshops are clearly a part of the international political economy.
Fashion and international relations have a deeper link than might be immediately obvious, and should be considered as a rich area for exploration and analysis. As Kissinger himself pointed out after the Met gala, “Anything that connects people and enables people to understand each other better, makes diplomacy easier—and more creative.” It’s time we get creative ourselves, and work on building a deeper understanding of the ways items like fashion and art can influence diplomatic relations and support soft power. Fashion Week will never be the G20 Summit, but it will bring together people from around the world to celebrate international designers and exchange ideas. And that is something.
Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons
Michelle Bovée is an Account Executive at a business development firm in the Washington, DC Metro Area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer for Charged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.