China at Bloomingdale’s and the Met

China at Bloomingdale’s and the Met

This article forms the first chapter of Debora Silverman’sSelling Culture. In her introduction, Silverman writes that she wishes to depict a broad “movement of aristocratic invocation in 1980s American culture, whose participants combined representatives from the worlds of the museum, the department store, fashion design, and the media.” Such cultural projects, she continues, “are tied to the big business of illusion-making and are perfectly suited to the politics of theater practiced in the White House.” We regret that we can here offer only one chapter of this fascinating book.—Eds.

In September 1980 Bloomingdale’s announced it had “unleashed the largest merchandising venture ever in the history of the store” by transporting the riches of China to New York. Advertisements declared that now consumers could travel to China without a passport. Embark on the journey to the East Side, urged the ads in the New York Times; in Bloomingdale’s one can experience the “sights, sounds, smells and scents of China.” The entire premises of the Lexington Avenue store were transformed into a vision of an opulent, hieratic China, land of emperors, mystery, and dazzling artisans feeding the emperors’ relentless needs for magnificence. The outside of Bloomingdale’s was bedecked with the banners representing the ancient Chinese martial arts: sabers and their exquisitely crafted blade cases. Inside the store’s capacious halls, numerous veneered black and red screens were erected, turning the open space into a multiplicity of small, intimate compartments resembling a maze of shiny black boxes. Here the glistening “baubles, bangles, and bedazzling things” of China, as they were called, were displayed. Among the varied objects bombarding the spectator-buyer with their shimmering surfaces were gold and jade bracelets, cinnabar bowls and plates, multicolored woven shawls, coral and garnet boxes, and short jackets and long robes shot through with gold threads, silks, and sequins.

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Lima