Fashion, at its best, is art in motion. The body becomes a canvas, the garment transforming into a gallery-worthy work of art that makes you feel something. This sensation is on full display in the Japanese galleries at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one of its newest exhibits, Kimono Style, traces the layered legacy of the kimono.
Now through February 20, 2023, visitors can view selected works from the John C. Weber Collection of Japanese art ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries, which aim to explore how the kimono evolved not only in Japan, but across the world, leaving a particularly indelible mark on Western fashion.
Monika Bincsik, the curator of this exhibit, explains that the first encounter between Europe and the kimono dates back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese and the Dutch arrived in Japan and first saw the garment.
“They’re fascinated by it and start to bring kimonos back to Europe,” she tells Fashionista. “These are very expensive in Europe, so [another] garment is inspired by the kimono’s shape. That’s probably one of the first [instances where] you can clearly see this impact of the kimono — proof that early on, the shape and cut of the kimono had an appeal to the Europeans.”
Flash forward to the 19th century, when nearly every popular Japanese artform at the time — from ceramics to woodblock prints — was exported to Europe and regularly spotlighted at the world expositions. Many Western couturiers, particularly those in Paris, came across the woodblock prints on kimonos, which led them to begin studying the structure of the garment itself.
Meanwhile, a new style began to emerge in Japan, specifically for Western export: Dubbed the Yokohama garment, it was made around the 1870s in Yokohama, featuring a Western cut and made with Japanese silk and traditional Japanese embroidery technique. “It was very popular as a dressing gown,” Bincsik says.
The exhibition features several early examples of Yokohamas; next to one is a coat produced by Takashimaya, a leading department store originally established as a kimono shop in Kyoto.
During the late 19th century, Takashimaya focused on cultivating a trade relationship with the West, selling textiles and kimonos made to meet the taste of the Westerners. The coat in the exhibition is decorated in a peacock pattern, which was significant in the Art Nouveau style, and features beautiful embroidery. However, the shape is a hybrid: It has influences from both the West and from China.
“That’s a really good example of how several cultural trends were mixed together to create these garments that were so popular at the turn of the century,” Bincsik says. “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 well beyond the borders of Japan. The kimono “liberated women from the corset,” according to Bincsik, calling it a “catalyst” that helped inspire new shapes and silhouettes throughout Western and non-Japanese fashion. Designers embraced the garment’s linear construction and the idea that it’s made from a single bolt of fabric. The French designer Madeleine Vionnet, in fact, developed the bias cut based on the influence of the kimono.
By showcasing both Japanese kimonos and Western garments inspired by them, the Met exhibit aims to shed light on these significant sartorial connections, which are just as prevalent today as they were 100 or even 200 years ago.
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Indeed, these days you can’t get very far on any fast-fashion site without stumbling upon a kimono-like garment featuring some type of vaguely “Asian-looking” floralscape, complete with flowy sleeves and a built-in belt. Or without a non-Japanese person using the term to denote something completely unrelated to the kimono (talking to you, Kim K). Brands are marketing and selling a product based on their (very) limited understanding of what the kimono actually is, and that’s the difference between appreciation versus appropriation of the garment. Still, this misunderstanding of the kimono and what it represents goes back hundreds of years
These issues of appropriation relate to the stereotypes and generalized ideas attached to the kimono, according to Bincsik. She cites Impressionist paintings where kimonos are seen with an open front, worn as a basic robe, which goes against Japanese custom. “It was a prop in the art world to emphasize the sexuality of women or the beauty of the female body,” she says.
The way kimonos were depicted in those works of art — where “basically, you just put it on your naked body” — is an early example of appropriation “coming mainly from those ideas the Westerners attached to it. But it’s not part of the original context of the kimono in Japan. If you still think about the kimono as a prop, or if you still associate kimonos with only beautiful women, that gets inappropriate.”
Traditionally in Japan, people from all walks of life wore kimonos, from high-ranking samurai to merchant-class ladies and commoners. For centuries, access to high-quality silk was limited to the elite class, but that began to change in the late 19th century, when technology and materials imported from the West enabled manufacturers to increase production and drive down costs. As Arai Masanao, a specialist on meisen kimonos based in Kiryū, Japan, wrote in an essay for the exhibit’s catalog: “Machine-spun silk, power looms and aniline dyes all contributed to the creation of affordable, stylish kimonos made from 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 textiles have been scarcely studied until now.
“Little was known about their techniques, the origins of their motifs or even their precise dating,” Masano wrote. “Recent research into the chronology of production techniques has helped contextualize meisen in Japanese textile history and facilitated more accurate dating and description of these kimonos, which are significantly represented in the Weber Collection.”
Today in Japan, the number of women who wear kimonos on a daily basis is declining. Most wear Western clothing, kimonos typically reserved for special occasions like a wedding or birthday celebration. Some people call in professional help to dress in a kimono because they don’t know how to put it on, how to tie the Obi sash or which accessories to wear.
Yet while the ubiquity of the kimono in Japan is no longer what it once was, say, a 100 years ago, millennials and Gen Zers are reimagining the traditional garment for their contemporary wardrobes.
“What I really enjoy is to see young women on the streets of Japan experimenting with the kimono,” Bincsik says. “Somebody is trying to make a kimono out of denim, or they cut up the kimono and make patchwork clothes.”
In the Western fashion world, the kimono continues to be a vast well of inspiration for designers — not only for those who are Japanese, such as Rei Kawakubo or Issey Miyake, but for those who admire and respect the history of the garment.
“The idea of the kimono is very flexible,” Bincsik says. “You can experiment with the surface, the structure, the cut. It’s very versatile. I hope new ideas will keep coming out from this East and West juxtaposition — which is not a juxtaposition anymore, but more like a real, deep conversation.”
Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from June 7, 2022 through February 20, 2023.
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