Kimono: A Modern History

Like most textile enthusiasts I know, I am enchanted with all things Japanese. Living in Greece I rarely have the opportunity to see Japanese textiles in person, so when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its Kimono: A Modern History exhibition earlier this fall, I was on it.

Set in the Arts of Japan Galleries, alongside highlights of the permanent collection such as Isamu Noguchi’s Water Stone, this exhibition explores the fascinating history of the kimono from the late 18th century to the present day, and particularly how “its design, function, and meaning have shifted dramatically in the last one hundred and fifty years, shaped by the dialogue of Japanese traditions, modern inventions, and Western ideas.”

Featuring items both from the Museum’s holdings as well as objects on loan, the show opens with several masterworks from the Edo period (1615–1868).

Image: Iris Plaitakis

Image: Iris Plaitakis

These mid-19th to early 20th century firemen’s jackets are stunning examples of garments designed for labor. Made of several layers of thick quilted cotton, they were worn plain-side out, soaked in water. Here they are displayed inside-out, the way they were worn after putting out a fire, with elaborate images of warrior heroes or mythical creatures.

Image: Iris Plaitakis

Image: Iris Plaitakis

The exhibition highlights how the opening up of Japan’s ports to international trade in 1854 transformed the textile industry, affecting both kimono production and Western dress. I was most drawn to examples of kimonos which reflect the influence of Western oil paintings.

The Japanese adopted Western synthetic dyes and combined them with traditional Japanese stencil-dyeing techniques. This led to the development of sophisticated stencil paste-resist dyeing (kata-yūzen), as seen here further embellished with gold thread embroidery.

Image: Iris Plaitakis

Twentieth century history is also reflected in wartime propaganda kimonos on display.

The bold geometrics and vivid colors of mass-produced Meisen kimonos became popular for everyday wear in the early 20th century.

two meisen

Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (left: Lent by Julia Meech Collection, right: Lent by John C. Weber Collection)

The exhibition also features contemporary kimonos created by designers designated by the Japanese government as Living National Treasures. This is a detail of Serizawa Keisuke’s ‘Kimono with Pine, Bamboo, and Topiary Holly Trees,’ c. 1962.

Image: Iris Plaitakis

Related objects such as folding screens, lacquerware and ceramics, as well as these pattern books, complement the rich display of textiles.


Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Lent by Paul T. and Betty M. Nomura)

Finally, select garments by Hanae Mori, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and others illustrate how the kimono is a source of inspiration for contemporary designers.

Kimono: A Modern History is on view now through January 19, 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

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