I always suspected that, but the exhibition ‘Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art confirmed it for me: the kimono is one of the most prominent artistic mediums of the 20th century.
The show follows the evolution of Japan’s most famous traditional robe – a T-shaped garment always cut from a single piece of fabric – from the staid, silk formal wear of the Edo period (1615-1868) to the limitless canvas for graphics were introduced in the 1920s and beyond.
It has also become an unlikely cultural focal point. In 2015, protesters accused Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts of using the garment as an orientalist prop in a series intended to feature Impressionist painters using it similarly, and Kim Kardashian caused a stir in 2019 for trying to use the word. as a brand name for its shapewear line. (Aside from the appropriation question, it was an ironic choice, as it was the kimono’s straight silhouette that inspired fashionable Western women to ditch their corsets in the first place.)
The truth is that Japan and the West have been busily pursuing and exoticizing each other since at least the Meiji Restoration of 1868. And that exchange, as the exhibition amply documents, changed fashion in both hemispheres. Because, as the curators Monika Bincsik and Karen Van Godtsenhoven try to emphasize, the kimono is not just a symbol, a relic or a kind of unchanging “national dress”, but a versatile, beautiful piece of clothing, worn by men and women, with a complicated history, and as much to say today as 100 years ago.
In the 18th century, as it began to take on its modern form, the kimono was both literally and figuratively heavy. The signature patterns helped identify stage actors who wore stylized masks, and it was a place for the wealthy to show off elaborate brocade. In one such kimono from the Noh theater, rows of six-spoke “dharma wheels” in red, white and yellow alternate with pointed clouds above a repeating pattern of flowers in interlocking gold rings. In another, less stifling example, a delicate pattern of white chrysanthemums floats over beautiful large diamonds of white, orange, purple and green.
In addition to loans and promised gifts from a single private collection, as well as items from the museum’s Japanese and costume collections, “Kimono Style” also includes non-kimono treasures such as a 17th-century pattern book, a striking jacket made from recycled fabric by the Ainu population of northern Japan and various reversible firefighter outfits with gloomy insignia on one side and riotous mythological scenes on the other. The Japan Wing’s permanent fixtures also provide elegant counterpoints, such as when an 18th-century Buddhist robe is flanked by a pair of ancient wooden Buddhas.
But the show doesn’t really find its focus until it arrives at the end of the 19th century, the period when Japan opened up to the West while undertaking a breakneck modernization. Japanese textiles appeared at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle and 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, and as Van Godtsenhoven points out in her sharp catalog essay, in 1906 French designer Paul Poiret presented “his first collection worn without a corset, based on the loose-fitting kimono.” .”
Back in Japan, mass production made the kimono less complicated, the patterns more experimental and the cost much lower. Aniline dyes allowed for more powerful colors, while the European Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements introduced new motifs in graphic new styles. In the spirited early days of the Showa period (1926-1989), a kimono could be printed with anything—delicate dewdrops and grass leaves, gigantic arrows, an off-center Mount Fuji, even a giant spider crawling over one shoulder.
A spectacular array of combinations shows kimono features — polka dots, raised collars, huge armholes — bouncing from east to west for over a century, while western accents, like the Mickey Mouse appearing on a 1930s kid’s kimono, flow the other way. . Hits range from Poiret’s gorgeous 1919 opera coat, made from a single strip of uncut purple silk velvet, to a 2018 kimono printed with oversized manga characters by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo. But it’s not western clothing that benefits from these juxtapositions. In addition to a stark red kimono printed with lightning bolts, even an intricate 1939 harlequin coat from Elsa Schiaparelli can look fussy and overdone.
The model that really touched me was a summer model from the 1920s or 1930s. Giant white swirls flow across the dark green surface, subtly reflected by light green swirls behind the white. (The green ones are hard to see in the dim light of the exhibit; I saw them later, in the catalog photo.) It’s a motif, as the wall label notes, that dates back to prehistoric Japanese pottery, but here it’s presented with a deco impetus that remains fresh even after a century.
Add this to the already intoxicating interplay between the object’s functional status as a garment and its painting-like rendering, to the tension between the infinitely repeatable pattern and the sharp edges of its back and sleeves, to the implicit contrast between its perfect flatness as it hangs on a rack and the curves of the body have to be wrapped around it, and you get something as visually rich, so conceptually complex, as anything in the modern art wing of the museum.
Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection
Until Feb. 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.