Home Fashion Styles ‘Kimono Style’: A Beautiful Painting You Can Wear

‘Kimono Style’: A Beautiful Painting You Can Wear


I’d always suspected as much, but the exhibition “Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection”It was confirmed by me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The kimono remains one of the most important artistic mediums of 20th century.

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The show tracks the evolution of Japan’s most famous traditional robe — a T-shaped garment always cut from a single bolt of cloth — from the staid, silken formal wear of the Edo period (1615-1868) to the unbounded canvas for graphic display it became in the 1920s and after.

It’s also become an unlikely cultural flashpoint. Protesters were active in 2015 accused Boston’s Museum of Fine ArtsThe garment was used as an Orientalist prop in a series about Impressionist painters using it in the same way. Kim Kardashian caused a stir in 2019 when she tried to use the term as a brand name to her shapewear line. (Aside from the appropriation question, it was an ironic choice, since it was the kimono’s straight silhouette that inspired fashionable Western women to discard their corsets in the first place.)

The truth is that Japan has been exoticizing and imitating the West since at least 1868 Meiji Restoration. The exhibition also demonstrates how that exchange has shaped fashion in both hemispheres. Because, as curators say, Monika Bincsik and Karen Van GodtsenhovenThey emphasize that the kimono is more than a symbol, a relic or a kind of unchanging garment. “national dress,”But it is a versatile, beautiful, and versatile garment that can be worn by men as well as women. It has a complicated past and has as much to tell today as it did 100 years ago.

The kimono, literally and metaphorically, was heavy in the 18th-century when it was starting its modern form. Its distinctive patterns helped to identify stage actors wearing stylized masks. It was also a place for wealthy people to display elaborate brocade. Six rows of six-spoked rows are found in one such kimono, which was from the Noh theatre. “dharma wheels”Red, yellow, and white alternate with pointy clouds above a repeating pattern made up of flowers set in interlocking gold rings. A delicate pattern of white Chrysanthemums floats on top of beautiful large checks in white, orange and purple. This is another less suffocating example.

Comprising 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 such non-kimono treasures as a 17th-century pattern book, a striking jacket made of recycled fabric by the Ainu people of northern Japan and several reversible firefighters’ outfits with somber insignia on one side and riotous mythological scenes on the other. The Japan Wing’s permanent fixtures, too, make for elegant counterpoints as when an 18th-century Buddhist vestment is flanked by a pair of ancient wooden Buddhas.

The show’s focus is only found when it reaches the late 19th century. This was the time when Japan opened up to the West and underwent rapid modernization. Japanese textiles appeared at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle and 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, and as Van Godtsenhoven notes in her acute catalog essay, by 1906 the French designer Paul Poiret was presenting “his first collection to be worn without a corset, based on the loose-fitting kimono.”

In Japan, mass production allowed for kimono designs to be more complex, cheaper, and less complicated. Aniline dyes were able to produce bolder colors while European Art Nouveau, Art Deco and European Art Nouveau introduced new motifs in graphic new designs. In the racy early days of the Showa Period (1926-1989), a kimono could be printed with anything — delicate dewdrops and leaves of grass, giant arrows, an off-center Mount Fuji, even a giant spider creeping over one shoulder.


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A spectacular series of pairings show kimono features — polka dots, standing collars, enormous arm holes — ricocheting from East to West for more than a century, while Western accents, like the Mickey Mouse that appears on a 1930s child’s kimono, flow back the other way. The hits run from Poiret’s stunning 1919 opera coat, made of a single swath of uncut purple silk velvet, to a 2018 kimono printed with oversize manga characters by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo. But it’s not the Western clothes that profit from these juxtapositions. A simple kimono in stark red printed with lightning bolts can look sloppy and overdone. Even an intricate 1939 Harlequin coat by Elsa Schiaparelli may look fussy.

The one that really got me was a summer model from the 1920s or ’30s. Its dark green surface is adorned with white swirls that are subtly echoed by pale green swirls. (The green ones are hard to see in the exhibition’s dim lighting; I noticed them afterward, in the catalog photo.) It’s a motif, as the wall label notes, that goes back to prehistoric Japanese pottery, but here it’s presented with a Deco élan that remains fresh even after a century.

Add this to the already heady interplay between the object’s functional status as a garment and its painting-like display, to the tension between its infinitely repeatable pattern and the crisp boundaries of its back and sleeves, to the implicit contrast between its perfect flatness as it hangs from a rack and the curves of the body it’s meant to wrap around, and you get something as visually rich, as conceptually complex, as anything in the museum’s modern art wing.

Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Selection

Through February 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; (212-535-7710) metmuseum.org.

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