Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection
On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum Of Art
Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection
June 7, 2022–February 20, 2023
Do not delay going to see Kimono Style before it closes. The selections from the John C. Weber collection of Japanese art include scores of magnificent garments, objects, and prints from the Edo period to modern works influenced by Western art, giving an authoritative overview of the kimono’s development. With gob-smacking visual impact, Kimono Style showcases the sophistication of Japanese production techniques, traditional and industrial, in the service of intricate textile designs that range from the elegant to the bold. The unisex, t-shaped garment has been one of Japan’s greatest cultural ambassadors, and Kimono Style also tells the story of its impact on Western fashion and art, from Commodore Matthew Perry’s forced opening of Japanese markets onward, culminating in contemporary haute couture from the Met’s Costume Institute.
Traditional kimono textile design has captured my imagination since college, so I was particularly delighted by a Noh costume in the show dating from the Edo period (1615–1868). The subtle color palette consists of rectangles in burnt orange, cream, purplish dark grey, and pale forest green. The simplicity of its checkered pattern is belied by the blurred ikat borders between the colors. The ikat technique tie-dyes the silk warp yarns before they are woven into the cloth, which separates out individual threads along the color borders and results in ikat’s characteristic shimmer. On top of the broad rectangles, supplementary glossed silk wefts weave a repeating pattern of chrysanthemums floating on water, a traditional motif that refers to the ancient Chinese legend of the Chrysanthemum Boy. The basis of a Noh play, the legend tells of a young man banished from court who becomes immortal, and, unaware of the passing centuries, copies over and over on chrysanthemum leaves a couplet from the Lotus Sutra, an essential Mahayana text. The visual effect of the colors and patterns are soothing and energizing at the same time, like a good shamatha session.
The first non-Western country to develop its own industrial base, Japan began to mass produce ready-to-wear women’s fashion in the early 1900s using aniline dyes that introduced a new palette of strong violets, deep reds, and bright greens. Clothing manufacturers saw a major market opportunity in selling kimonos made of meisen, a low-cost silk that nevertheless suggested luxury, to “modern girls” (moga) who, entering the work force starting in the 1920s, had disposable incomes. Kimono manufacturers required a steady stream of novel styles to boost sales and so began to incorporate design ideas and patterns from Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and even abstract art. In contrast to the Noh costume described above, a meisen kimono from the 1930s on display employs the ōgasuri technique, a mechanized “large ikat” where both the warp and the weft yarns are bound and dyed before being woven. Kimonos using this technique could only produce blocks, stripes, or checks. This modern kimono looks like Western geometric abstract art à la Mondrian, with blocks of bright yellow, vivid red, and deep green—all typical of aniline dyes—separated by white borders. The large ikat effect creates a shimmering on all sides of the blocks of color where they run into their white borders. Unlike the Noh costume, the visual effect of the meisen kimono is bold and eye-catching, deliberately untraditional.
While kimono manufacturers were integrating Western art and design into their textile patterns during the early twentieth century, Japanese fashion was revolutionizing Western couture. The French designer Paul Poiret incorporated the kimono’s loose fit into his creations, participating in the sea change in women’s wear after World War I. The show has an “Arrow of Gold” dress he introduced in 1925, a green silk tunic decorated with a traditional Japanese motif in gold thread. He made it drape in a straight line from the shoulder to the hem of the dress, kimono-style, emphasizing the fabric over the shape of the wearer, and added an obi-like sash in pink and gold that rests on the hips. Gone was the hourglass figure of an earlier generation. Examples of contemporary Japanese couture and ready-to-wear fashion in the exhibition, including Issey Miyake and Hanae Mori, point to a fashion world awash in the island nation’s influence. Kimono Style paints a vivid picture of the subtle, complex, and at times fraught cultural exchange that did so much to enrich Japan and the world.