However, how much or how little you think you know about kimonos is sure to change after seeing “Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Opening to the public on Tuesday, the exhibition highlights the artistic exchanges between kimono and Western fashion through more than 60 examples of Japanese T-shaped garments, as well as through Western haute couture, textiles, Japanese paintings, prints and decorative art objects. Just as collaborations reign in fashion, so they do in the museum, as evidenced by the many entities, including the Costume Institute, the Departments of Asian Art, Textile Conservation, and Scientific Research, among others, that worked together to coordinate the show.
“‘Kimono Style’ brings to light “the art of the kimono from a transnational perspective, highlighting the artistic conversations between Japan and the West, and the garment’s continuing impact on designers around the world,” said Max Holbein, Marina Kellen French from The Met. director. Also celebrating the promised gift of 40 modern kimonos to the museum by established collector of Japanese art John C. Weber. A defining element of the Weber collection is the range of “meisen” kimonos, accessible ready-to-wear styles. wear that were rooted in the 1920s and inspired by Western art. The show also highlights how the transformation of kimonos represents the history and lifestyle of women, which was not recorded in books during the Edo period (1615 to 1868).
Japan’s characteristic weaving, dyeing, and embroidery techniques reached their height of artistic sophistication at this time. Fashion, however, was not then a free choice, due to the control of society by the military government. The Tokugawa shogunate regulated the use of gold in clothing and other expensive techniques. The samurai headed the social hierarchy, while the commoners had three levels: farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.
The ruling members of the military class were not the only ones who chose intricate kimonos: the merchant class wore them as status symbols. Spanning 10 galleries, the exhibition highlights how kimonos evolved, including during the Meiji period, when Western clothing was introduced to Japan.
During a preview on Friday, Mónika Bincsik, the associate curator of Japanese Decorative Arts at Diane and Arthur Abbey, said one of the takeaways is that “Japanese kimono is fashion. Sometimes we think of these beautiful garments as art, which is true, because they are beautifully made. But also, Japan had a fashion system dating back to the 17th century. It is not well known in the West that they were promoting fashion trends, patterns and colors. If you had a kimono for five or ten years, it would go out of style. You needed new ones if you were a high-ranking samurai lady or a rich merchant.”
While Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto are among the international designers inspired by the kimono, the garment’s influence on Western fashion dates back to the 16th century, when Portuguese travelers came to Japan and brought kimonos to Europe, he said. That led to kimono-inspired morning dresses, according to Bincsik, who co-curated “Kimono Style” with Karen Van Godtsenhoven.
Over time, the Japanese used European wool to make garments and learned European techniques such as cheap silk production, revolutionizing the production of women’s silk kimonos in the early 20th century. European intellectuals were among the first to popularize loose, warm, and padded garments. Visitors will see numerous examples of how the kimono has been a catalyst in inspiring new motifs and silhouettes from designers such as Madeleine Vionnet, Paul Poiret, Cristóbal Balanciaga, Thom Browne, Hanae Mori, Comme des Garçons and John Galliano for Maison Margiela. An anchor piece is a 1919 “Paris” coat that was made by Poiret using a single 15-foot piece of silk velvet that required minimal cutting, similar to kimono. Contrary to the hourglass silhouette that was popular at the time, Poiret freed women from the corset, Bincsik said. “The kimono was a very important part of a new avant-garde haute couture that developed in France in the early 20th century,” she said.
Kimonos from the late 18th to early 20th centuries are on display, but the lasting influence can still be seen in fashion today, thanks to contemporary kimono designers inspired by Western ideals and styles, Bincsik said. The youngest incorporate elements of denim or streetwear and Western designers continue to be deeply influenced by the silhouette or the idea of kimonos.
The lavender background and oversized “Kimono Style” graphic letters above the exhibition entrance in the Arts of Japan galleries hint at its modernity and relevance. The first section shows theatrical costumes that preserved ancient traditions in medieval times. The samurai and aristocrats patronized the Noh performers and, in gratitude, gifted their garments to the performers. Later, those aristocratic garments became stage costumes, including the very intricate few that are displayed on robe racks in display cases.
Gallery attendees will receive a crash course in the fashion system that operated in the Edo period from the 17th to the 19th century. On view is one of Japan’s earliest fashion books, the “Kosode Pattern Book of 1667,” which highlights description, color preferences, and dyeing techniques. “This was very important because women could look at the pattern and ask for the most modern kimonos. It was the predecessor of the modern kimono,” said Bincsik.
Another book from nearby Kosode from 1760 shows clerks with bolts of cloth, a samurai attendant looking at a piece of cloth and discussing the price, and women looking at woodblock copies of the book to select their orders. Paintings and objects such as the porcelain “Standing Beauty Figure 1817-1819” show how kimonos were worn. The wealthy wore kimonos to magnify their wealth, as evidenced by some kimonos featuring top-notch silk, gold accents, and embroidered family crests made in traditional patterns inspired by things like “The Tale of Genji” or poems.
Also on display are ornate designs for male samurai firefighters and a red style with a removable hood for a female samurai firefighter. Nearby are multi-layered cotton bomber jackets for commoners, which have interior patterns inspired by woodcuts associated with bravery. There is also a Kansai Yamamoto bomber jacket from the early 1980s with a design of a Kabuki actor.
In the 1920s, the more affordable “meisen” gained popularity and reflected a more Westernized lifestyle. In the 1920s and 1930s, working- and middle-class shoppers could find meisens in department stores like the Western-inspired Mitsukoshi Department Store. One of the most vibrant examples of Western influence is a swirling green and white summer kimono that magnifies the connection to cutting-edge movements at the time like Art Deco. Another indicator is a meisen kimono with a large 1930s checkered pattern inspired by Piet Mondrian’s paintings, as seen in the large ikat kimono in bright yellow, teal, and raspberry red. “It shows how quickly the Japanese caught on to these artistic ideas,” said the co-curator.
One of the most intriguing combinations in the exhibit is a baby blue kimono-inspired coat that Charles James made for his little boy in 1956 with a boy’s kimono featuring 1930s Mickey Mouse imagery that he borrowed from Walt Disney. “The kimono has a surface that works like a canvas so you can immediately choose trendy designs or new ideas. In Japan, they even made kimonos out of trains or airplanes to represent modernity and technical advances.”
The sustainability element of fashion is a recurring theme, as kimonos were made from a single piece of cloth, and in some cases cotton or hemp. When designing with cotton, nothing was wasted since at that time it was considered a luxury item. “So they recycled cotton and even cut it up to make a [new] cloth. In the past, they were green before we started thinking about this issue,” said the co-curator.
The grand finale, so to speak, has a colorful Comme des Garçons outfit inspired by the shape and lines of the kimono and has a manga design. Nearby is a dramatic lavender design by Galliano’s Maison Margiela with a vibrant blue obi-inspired bow at the back and a kimono-inspired collar and sleeves.
Narrowing down the selections took some time.
“It was a long and painful process to choose the best ones,” Bincsik said. “But the visits were fun because we got to see a lot of these kimono-inspired garments. I hope that when women pass by, they will discover new ideas about kimono and Western fashion.”
As to whether the exhibit will have a greater impact given the AAPI-led racial crime incidents in New York City, Bincsik said, “I hope that fashion transcends these conflicts and also helps send a message about beauty and importance of what [it is] that we do not think about races and conflicts in the world. But we look at bigger issues like sustainability, protecting nature and maximizing the use of fabrics without wasting anything. I hope this provides another perspective on what we find these days.”