The MET Museum / “Kimono Style” John C. Weber collection / Tuesday November 1st, 2022.
Welcome back friends!
Welcome back, this week, to a wonderfully, exquisite, dazzling, exciting art exhibit, celebrating an arresting, compelling, beautiful, self-expressing, asian garment: the kimono!
Yay! yay! yay!
Welcome to a fun sneak peek, into a few past and contemporary design examples, of this stunning collection (which features about 70 garments), and welcome to some of the wonders, attached to this traditional Japanese garment.
We shall see how the “kimono”, and some of the other Japanese visual art forms often depicting “kimonos”, have influenced at times, around the world, not only, new ways to dress, but also, new ways to see, hear, or translate symbolic ideas, as, when Japanese culture was introduced to the “West”, in the late 19th century, its artistry, had a profound influence on all art forms, including of course, fashion.
And yay! yay! yay!
So first, what is a kimono?
Originating from the words ki (“wear”) and mono (“thing”), the kimono is a traditional Japanese garment. Kimonos come in a range of styles and patterns. They are typically hand-sewn into a “T” shape, from four single pieces of fabric, called “tans” and tied with an “obi”, or belt.
So, the term “kimono” meaning “the thing to wear”, was first adopted, in the mid-19th century.
And interestingly, it was originally worn by commoners, or as an undergarment, by the aristocracy, and from the 16th century onwards, the kimono, became the principal item of dress for all classes, and all genders, and is still an enduring symbol, of traditional Japanese culture today.
Admire here, a charming woodblock print, by an unknown Japanese artist, featuring two kimono clad young women, in an everyday setting, at home, playing a game, called Cat’s cradle.
And before, we dive into the “kimono” garment itself, let’s first, pause and reflect, on the opening of the Japanese culture to the West, around mid 19th century, after a long self contained period, after which the West discovered Japanese culture, including Kimonos, and how “Japonisme” held a huge influence on “impressionism” and “post-impressionism” painting, decorative arts, classical music, poetry, and of course, as we’ll see later as well, on fashion.
So before discussing kimonos further, let’s start first, by focusing on another typical Japanese art form, the Japanese woodblock print (as seen above and below), which is a form of painting where paint is applied to a wooden block and pressed on to paper, in the Ukiyo-e style, and often featured kimonos, and communicated Japanese culture elements, in revolutionary ways, by western standards, and influenced deeply, in Europe, “Impressionist” and “Post-impressionist” art, by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects, from “the floating world” could be presented in arresting, appealingly, and decorative ways.
Let’s now, admire from Utamaro (1753-1806), this spectacular 1805 Courtesan wood block print.
So decorative and beautiful.
Let’s admire now, from Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), this equally decorative wood block inspired print, from 1892-93, featuring another type of entertainer:
So striking and compelling.
And interestingly, the Japanese woodblock prints flourished, after Japanese ports reopened to trade, with the West in 1853, and were widely collected, among other Japanese imports, including fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes and silks, as they entered Europe.
Let’s now admire as well, this earlier 18th century woodblock print, by Masanobu (1686-1764), depicting another striking, beautiful, and yet, simple and everyday topic: an “accompanied” aristocratic man and a few maidens, strolling down a street.
Such striking colors and poetic decorative motifs, as well.
And pay attention to various other typical aesthetic elements, that can be observed in all these prints: admire their elongated formats, their asymmetrical compositions, their unusual perspectives “from above”, their simplified, abstract elements of color and line, and finally, their focus on attractive and decorative “motifs”.
And here, let’s admire another example, a 1823 work, by Kuniyasu (1794-1832), featuring three Kabuki theater actors.
And now, let’s admire as well, another Japanese woodblock print, the most iconic of all, a nature driven topic this time, and also, transitory and everyday: the famed and elegant (1830-32)”Great wave” by Hokusai (1760-1849).
And this “Great wave” painting, is said to have also influenced or inspired, Debussy’s “La Mer” (The Sea), as well as Rilke’s 1918 poem, “Der Berg” (The Mountain), and one could easily imagine as well, that this imposing and swelling “wave”, inspired Puccini in 1904, while composing “Madama Butterfly”, about the emotional importance and hope provided for Cio-Cio-san, of watching the harbor from far away, and from above, and/ or that this “Great wave”, also inspired Britten’s stormy and emotional “Sea interludes”, which connect various scenes, in his unique 1945, “Peter Grimes” opera.
And let’s also keep in mind, that many “westerners” saw their first formal exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, when Japan was represented, at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair.
And famed “Impressionists” Claude Monet (1840-1926) who actually collected many Japanese woodblock prints, along with Degas (1834-1917), and a few Nabis (among which, Bonnard (1867-1947) and Vuillard (1868-1940) are notable), along with post impressionist Van Gogh(1853-1890), Toulouse Lautrec ( 1864-1901) and Whistler (1834-1903), among others, were all, incredibly influenced by Japanese culture, in their choices of unusual perspectives, bold colors, and often, simple, everyday topics.
And believe it or not, but Monet’s water garden, at Giverny, was inspired by Japanese gardens depicted in prints, and included as well, a Japanese-style wooden bridge.
Let’s admire now, this stunning Monet painting from 1899: “Water lily pond with Japanese bridge”.
So poetic and serene.
Let’s turn now, towards Van Gogh’s 1887 “Portrait of Père Tanguy”, and look out in the background, for the various Japanese references, including multiple Samurai characters, a solemn Mount Fuji, and delightful cherry blossoms.
So rich and colorful.
And now, let’s admire this 1864 Japanese inspired “The princess from the land of porcelain” painting by James McNeill Whistler, which translates well also, the artist’s admiration for this eastern culture, and the striking beauty of the kimono.
Let’s now, get back to the kimono itself, and its interesting features, before sharing a few of my favorites, from this terrific collection.
Interestingly also, the kimono is a very versatile garment:
It could, and can be worn, by all body types.
And a kimono was, and is, easily adjustable.
Even its length for example, could and can be altered, by drawing up excess fabric, under the obi.
Pulling back the kimono’s collar could and is also possible, so that the nape of a woman’s neck, could and can be even more seductively revealed.
And more importantly still, the wrap style of a kimono, allowed and allows for ease of movement, which is useful for a culture where many activities were, and are sometimes still, performed, while seated on the floor.
And let’s now admire here, by Moronobu (1618-1694), a late 17th century hand scroll, ink, color, and gold on paper, depicting a visit to the Yoshiwara.
The kimono was, and still is also, well-suited to Japan’s climate, with unlined kimonos being worn in the humid summers, and multi-lined kimonos being worn in the winter.
And interestingly and importantly, and not unlike in 19th century western opera, in particular, with Wagner, and his ear catching, beautiful and memorable, musical “motifs” in his “Ring”, representing a character (for example, Rhine maidens or Siegfried), a place (Valhalla, which is Wotan’s castle), or a concept (fire), kimonos, in addition to their unique visual aesthetic, are especially valued for their symbolism, and in the past, style, motif, color, and material, worked together to reveal the individual identity of the wearer.
And here, in this 1780 dyptich of woodblock prints, admire by Shunshō (1726-1792), a striking pair of Kabuki actors.
So what does a kimono symbolize?
A kimono typically symbolizes longevity and good fortune, but the style, motif, color, and material used as mentioned above, all, specifically disclose the identity of the wearer, and still today, unveils the wearer’s personality.
And the fact that traditional kimonos come in a variety of styles, was, and is dictated, by a range of specific criteria, including gender, marital status, and types of event (wedding, tea ceremony, formal event, plays, festivals…). For example, an unmarried woman would wear a “furisode”(“swinging sleeves”) to a formal event, while a male store owner would wear a “happi”(a type of jacket), to a festival.
Specifically patterns, symbols, and other designs on kimonos and its accessories, also helped expose the wearer’s actual social “status” (commoner, merchant, aristocrat, Samurai, or theater actor).
And let’s admire here, for example, an incredible beautiful first half 19th century, “merchant” wedding, over robe: (Uchikake) with bamboo and folded-paper butterflies, with figured satin-weave silk (rinzu) with tie-dyeing silk embroidery, and couch gold thread, which would have been worn by a merchant’s bride, with symbols chosen, alluding to a long marriage.
So uplifting and joyful.
Interestingly, regarding other social classes, the “Samurai” were the hereditary military nobility, and an officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan, from the late 12th century, until their abolition in the late 19th century.
As for theater artists, they could be affiliated, with either, Kabuki theater (recognizable for their elaborate and beautiful costumes, their overly-exaggerated movements, their dynamic sets, and ingenious use of props); or solemn Noh drama (a popular form of dance-drama, including white face masks); or comedic Kyōgen (a form of traditional Japanese theater, that developed as a sort of intermission and comic relief between the solemn Noh acts), or Bunraku theater (a special form of Japanese puppet theatre, that originated in Osaka, between 17th and 19th centuries).
And all these chosen images, also ultimately, helped and help, communicate poetically, the wearer’s aspirational or authentic personality traits (joyful, mystical, poetic, etc…), and virtues (serenity, loyalty, peacefulness, etc…).
How about that!
And here, admire a 1782 woodblock print, of a famous Kabuki actor, by Shunshō (1726-1792).
Popular motifs for the kimono or the obi, included and still include buddhism references (such as the wheels of destiny), deity, poems and plays, and mostly revered worship of nature-inspired (all 4 elements) designs, such as mountains, rivers, waves, planets, stars, trees, plants, leaves, blossoms, insects, spiders, wind gusts, clouds, and birds (in particular, cranes which represent auspiciousness, as do many other nature symbols, weaved in a kimono or an obi).
On top of their imagery, kimonos’ colors also hold symbolic significance, as do the pigments used to achieve certain colors. Dyes are seen to embody the spirit of the plants from which they are extracted, and any medicinal property, is also believed to be transferred, to the colored cloth.
For example, the blue color derives from indigo (ai), which is used to treat bites and stings, so wearing a blue fabric therefore, is thought to serve as a snake and insect repellent.
How about that?
How are kimonos made?
Kimonos are made from various handmade and hand-decorated fabrics. Traditionally, these include linen, silk, and hemp. Today, materials like rayon, cotton, and polyester are often used. Unsurprisingly, of course, the traditional, non-synthetic fabrics are preferred.
The choice of an obi, and of specific accessories to the kimono, such as fans, or combs and pins worn in the hair, are also important.
And here, admire another woodblock print from 17766-67, featuring another domestic scene from Harunobu (1725-1770), and look at the interesting hair styles.
And finally, when did the kimono appear in Japanese dress?
An early, easy-to-wear prototype of the kimono, emerged in Japan around 794 to 1192 AD. Like the current-day kimono, this garment was composed of straight cuts of fabric, and was intended to suit all body sizes and types.
Eventually, from the 17th to 19th century, this robe became known as a “kosode”: a term that literally translates to “small sleeves”, as its armholes, decreased in size. The “kosode” played a particularly important role in this period, as all Japanese people (regardless of social status, age, or gender) wore it. Thus, in order to express their individuality, and “describe” themselves, wearers adopted ways to customize their “kosodes”.
Finally, during the 19th century, the “kosode” evolved into the “kimono”. Unlike its earlier edition, the kimono was worn predominantly by women. And, in spite of these small changes, the garment’s main function, is still to communicate a “personality” message, and this, has remained unchanged, even today.
And now, let’s admire a few (7) of my favorite pieces, from this terrific “Kimono Style” exhibition:
1) First, let’s focus on a mid 19th century “Wedding” garment, for a samurai’s wife: an over robe (Uchikake) featuring Mount Hōrai. Figured satin-weave silk (rinzu) with paste-resist dyeing, stencil dyed dots (suri-bitta), silk embroidery and couched gold and silver thread. And this over robe, is one from a set of three luxurious white, red and black over robes, and typically worn, only once. And I love that the Mount depicted, evokes Penglai, the mythological Chinese mountain of eternal life, known in Japan as, Mount Hōrai.
How about that.
2) Let’s now admire, part of a Daimyo firefighter’s, first half of 19th century, red wool (rasha) ensemble, with satin weave appliqué, and silk and gold embroidery, which would have been made for a samurai, whose job, while on fire duty, would have been to safeguard the area from looting, to supervise the scene, to evacuate people, or to give instructions to firefighters. I particularly enjoy, what looks like crashing waves, water droplets, and anchors, which all, refer to the process of extinguishing a fire.
3)Let’s now admire, a man’s Under Kimono (Nagajuban) featuring “Mount Fuji”, from the second quarter of the 20th century. Plain weave silk with stitched tie-dyeing. I really enjoy the snow covered, stylized design of the Mount Fuji, a symbol of good fortune.
How about that.
4) Here, let’s admire a late 18th century-early 19th century, “Summer” robe (Katabira), with Kemari balls and willows. Plain weave ramie with paste-resist dyeing, stencil-dyed dots (suri-bitta), hand painted details, and couched gold thread. And this unlined robe, was designed for a young, unmarried, commoner (chōnin) woman. And I am struck by the beauty of the cascading branches of various willow trees.
How about that.
And finally, here, are three of my favorite 20th century designs, from this “Kimono Style” exhibit, from two western fashion designers, and one Japanese designer, from early and late 20th century.
Yay! yay! yay!
First, let’s drool of course, over this stunning 1911 “opera” coat, by illustrious French designer, the one and only, Paul Poiret (1879-1944).
Second, let’s admire a long sleeved kimono style, 1967 evening silk dress, by iconic French designer Madame Grès (1903-1993).
And thirdly, let’s now admire, an unconventional to say the least, 2016-17 “Comme des garçons” design by famed founder, Rei Kawakubo (born in 1942). Silk, cotton, polyester, rayon, acrylic, nylon, acetate “ensemble”. So Samurai inspired in its shape, yet so romantic, in its textures and colors.
Just awesome and wildly original.
So, to sum up my feelings about this unique and enchanting sartorial “Kimono Style” exhibit, seen last Tuesday, in great company: What great beauty, and how wonderful to observe how rich cultures, always inspire each other, in fascinating ways, and across all art forms, including fashion, allowing then, for even greater, richer and intriguing expression to flourish.
And wow! wow! wow!
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊