Fashion, at its best, is art in motion. The body becomes a canvas, the garment transforms into a gallery-worthy work of art that makes you touch something. This sensation is on full display in the Japanese galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where one of his most recent exhibitions, Kimono Style, traces the layered legacy of the kimono.
Now until February 20, 2023, visitors can see selected works from the John C. Weber Collection of Japanese art spanning the 17th to 20th centuries, which aim to explore how the kimono has evolved not just in Japan, but around the world. , leaving a particularly indelible mark on Western fashion.
Monika Bincsik, the curator of this exhibition, explains that the first encounter between Europe and the kimono dates back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese and Dutch arrived in Japan and saw the garment for the first time.
“They are fascinated by it and are starting to bring kimonos back to Europe,” he tells Fashionista. “These are very expensive in Europe then [another] the garment is inspired by the shape of the kimono. It is probably one of the first [instances where] you can clearly see this impact of the kimono: proof that in the beginning, the shape and cut of the kimono attracted Europeans. “
A leap forward to the 19th century, when almost all popular Japanese art forms of the time, from ceramics to wood prints, were exported to Europe and regularly exhibited at world exhibitions. Many Western couturiers, especially Parisian ones, came across woodcuts on kimonos, which led them to start studying the structure of the garment itself.
Meanwhile, a new style began to emerge in Japan, particularly for western export: nicknamed the Yokohama garment, it was made around 1870 in Yokohama, featuring a western cut and made with Japanese silk and traditional Japanese embroidery technique. . “It was very popular as a dressing gown,” says Bincsik.
The exhibition features several early examples from Yokohamas; next to one is a coat made by Takashimaya, a major department store originally founded as a kimono shop in Kyoto.
During the late 19th century, Takashimaya focused on cultivating a business relationship with the West, selling fabrics and kimonos made to suit Western tastes. The coat on display is decorated with a peacock motif, which was significant in the Art Nouveau style, and features beautiful embroidery. However, the form is a hybrid: it has influences from both the West and China.
“This is a great example of how different cultural trends were blended together to create these garments that were so popular at the turn of the century,” says Bincsik. “The kimono had a very strong impact on Western couture because it has a straight line and very loose silhouettes, so it was, first of all, really comfortable.”
It was around the 1920s when the kimono’s popularity exploded far beyond the borders of Japan. The kimono “freed women from the corset,” according to Bincsik, calling it a “catalyst” that helped inspire new shapes and silhouettes in Western and non-Japanese fashion. The designers embraced the linear construction of the garment and the idea that it is made from a single piece of fabric. The French designer Madeleine Vionnet, in fact, developed the bias cut based on the influence of the kimono.
Showcasing both Japanese kimonos and Western inspired garments, the Met exhibition aims to shed light on these significant sartorial connections, which are as prevalent today as they were 100 or even 200 years ago.
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In fact, nowadays you can’t go very far on any fast fashion site without stumbling upon a kimono-like garment featuring a kind of floral landscape with a vaguely “Asian” look, complete with flowing sleeves and a built-in belt. . Or without a non-Japanese person using the term to denote something completely unrelated to kimono (speaking to you, Kim K). Brands market and sell a product based on their (very) limited understanding of what kimono actually is, and this is the difference between appreciation and appropriation of the garment. However, this misunderstanding of the kimono and what it represents dates back hundreds of years
These appropriation issues refer to the stereotypes and generalized ideas attached to the kimono, according to Bincsik. He cites Impressionist paintings in which kimonos are seen with an open front, worn as a basic dress, which goes against Japanese custom. “It was a prop in the art world to emphasize women’s sexuality or the beauty of the female body,” she says.
The way kimonos were depicted in those works of art – in which “basically, you just put it on your naked body” – is a prime example of appropriation “coming mainly from those ideas Westerners attributed to them. But it is not part of the original Japanese kimono context. If you keep thinking of kimonos as a prop, or if you still associate kimonos only with beautiful women, it becomes inappropriate. “
Traditionally in Japan, people from all walks of life wore kimonos, from high-ranking samurai to women and commoners of the merchant class. For centuries, access to high-quality silk was limited to the elite class, but that began to change in the late 19th century as technology and materials imported from the West allowed manufacturers to ramp up production. and reduce costs. As Arai Masanao, a kimono meisen specialist based in Kiryū, Japan, wrote in an essay for the exhibition catalog: “Machine-spun silk, electric looms and aniline dyes all contributed to the creation of Cheap and elegant kimonos made with meisen, an inexpensive silk woven with pre-dyed yarns. “
During the 1920s and 1930s, the meisen-style silk kimono was the most popular garment in Japan, further democratizing access to the garment and expanding its cultural influence. Despite this, these popular fabrics have been little studied until now.
“Little was known about their techniques, the origin of their motifs or even their precise dating,” Masano wrote. “Recent research into the history of manufacturing techniques has helped to contextualize meisen in Japanese textile history and facilitated a more accurate dating and description of these kimonos, which are significantly represented in the Weber Collection.”
Today in Japan, the number of women wearing kimonos on a daily basis is decreasing. Most wear Western clothing, kimonos typically reserved for special occasions such as a wedding or birthday party. Some people ask for professional help dressing in a kimono because they don’t know how to wear it, how to tie Obi’s headband or what accessories to wear.
Yet while the ubiquity of kimono in Japan is no longer what it once was, say, 100 years ago, millennials and Generation Z are reinventing the traditional garment for their contemporary wardrobes.
“What I really like is seeing young women on the streets of Japan experimenting with kimonos,” says Bincsik. “Someone is trying to make a kimono out of denim, or else they cut it and make patchwork dresses.”
In the Western fashion world, the kimono continues to be a vast well of inspiration for designers, not just for those who are Japanese, like Rei Kawakubo or Issey Miyake, but for those who admire and respect the history of the garment.
“The kimono idea is very flexible,” says Bincsik. “You can experiment with the surface, the texture, the cut. It’s very versatile. I hope that new ideas keep coming out of this east and west juxtaposition, which is no longer a juxtaposition, but more like a real, deep conversation.”
Kimono style: the John C. Weber collection is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 7 June 2022 to 20 February 2023.
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