Netizens turn Rihanna, Sarah Jessica Parker outfits into memes

When Hollywood royalty took to the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala, or Met Gala on Monday, they may have been earnestly interpreting the Chinese theme of the event in their bold fashion choices.

But little did they know, their outfits would cause the Chinese Internet to explode with amusement.

The vast difference between how the outfits were received in the West as opposed to in China itself goes to show how China gets "lost in translation" in the West.

Singer Rihanna and actress Sarah Jessica Parker became the major inspirations for Internet memes that swept social media as the Chinese Internet passed merciless and creative verdicts on their outfits - largely seen as examples of "trying too hard" - on one of the biggest fashion nights of the year.

Rihanna opted for imperial yellow, the royal colour of China's dynastic past, intending to evoke royalty, and completed the whole look with a sparking tiara that made her look more exotic. Instead, she reminded Chinese Internet users of one of the most popular snacks in China - jianbing, or Chinese pancake.

As soon as Rihanna's yellow cape with floral swirls was revealed, Chinese Internet users instantly came up with remixes that photoshopped the outfit into a Chinese pancake or a pizza, inspired by the shape of the dress' long train which required three staffers to help her walk.

Sex and The City actress Parker didn't do any better. For Chinese fans of the hit HBO show, she will always be Carrie Bradshaw, the epitome of chic, metropolitan style. Sex and the City's Carrie would have reigned at Manhattan's biggest fashion night, but her over-the-top "Chinese" headdress caused snickers instead.

Her red headpiece did remind netizens of a Chinese icon, though perhaps not a particularly elegant one - Huanhuan, one of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' adorable cartoon mascots.

Chinese theme piqued interest

If not for the China theme, the Manhattan night would only have commanded the attention of fashion pundits.

Unlike in the West, where their every sartorial move is scrutinized in the media, even fashion A-listers like Rihanna and Parker seldom make headlines for their wardrobe decisions as they are not as well-known here.

It was undoubtedly because their outfits were supposedly "Chinese" that they garnered this degree of attention on social media.

China's two most popular social networking tools - Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo and instant messaging app Wechat - were awash with posts explaining basic facts of Met Gala and snapshots of the red carpet moments.

Ordinary Chinese people may not be able to name any song by Rihanna, or know anything about her alleged romance with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, but they could still pitch in to create the online sensation that made her pancake-like dress one of the night's most memorable looks.

In keeping with the theme, the exclusive guest list included a Chinese delegation, comprising of actresses and singers led by Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.

The Chinese contingent earned kudos from their countrymen by dressing "normally", the highest compliment that could be paid to them on a night dominated by near-nudity and absurdity.

The question of cultural representation

As the frenzy of memes and comments dies down, the massive misrepresentation of China in the fashion of the night prompts soul-searching of how, exactly, China should be represented to the West.

After all, the 2015 Met Gala, held at the museum in New York City, was designed to shed light on Chinese cultural and artistic influence on fashion with the theme of "China: Through the Looking Glass".

But can the idea of "China" really be boiled down to sequins, embroidery and Chinese painting motifs? Is that the extent to which China's influence on fashion can be seen?

Parker may have an excuse - the mocked headdress was by non-Chinese Philip Treacy, one of Britain's best known milliners, but Rihanna wore the sartorial work of Beijing-based designer Guo Pei.

In contrast with its reception on the Chinese Internet, the dress actually made Vanity Fair website's best dressed list.

It seems that even a Chinese designer finds it hard to please her countrymen when presenting the culture of her country to the West.

That the theme, China: Through the Looking-Glass, references the 1871 fantasy novel by Lewis Carroll, may give a clue as to how there came to be such a gap between East and West - the Western perception of China is still very much filtered through the lens of fantasy, a wonderland in their own minds, rather than the actual East Asian country itself.