21 December 2014

Kimono exhibit at the Met, New York

Kimono with peonies, ca. 1930's.

In the three hundred years following the establishment of the Tokugawa military government, in 1603, the kimono evolved from an item of everyday apparel into Japan's national symbol. The cultural history of this garment is described in the late Terry Satsuki Milhaupt's scholarly book Kimono: A Modern History.  We viewed the exhibit, based on Milhaupt's work, earlier this month.  Eve Kahn reviewed the exhibit in her column in the New York Times; note, however, that Ms. Kahn's article gives an incorrect closing date - according to the Met's website, the exhibit ends January 19, 2015.

Kimono exhibit title.

The kimonos can be enjoyed on several levels - as exemplars of sophisticated craft and design, as a catalog of changing textile technology, and as a record of cultural transfer, as Japan both influenced, and was influenced by, art movements originating in the West.  

A note on the wearing of kimono - it's a layered affair, with one or more juban, or under-kimono, beneath the outermost kimono, which in turn may be topped with a robe (uchikake)  or by a jacket (hanten).  This layering approach provides warmth in cold weather, and helps keep the most expensive, visible outer kimono clean.

Three masterpiece kimonos from the late Edo period.

During the Edo period (1615-1868) sumptuary laws and social stratification meant that one's apparel immediately telegraphed one's social status. The silk robes in the image above were made for women of the highest social class, the samurai, or for wives and daughters of wealthy merchants. The merchant class had the lowest social standing in the rigid hierarchy established by the shogunate, but, paradoxically, was generally the wealthiest social stratum.

Over-robe with long-tailed birds, late 18th c.

The over-robe, or uchikake, in the image above, was a component of wedding attire. The hem is padded to ensure a graceful drape while walking or standing, and the garment is beautifully embroidered with auspicious symbols - phoenix-like birds, cherry blossoms and pine trees.  Click on the image to enlarge it and view the waterfall stitched in couched gold thread in the central portion. The glint of the metallic thread recalls the sparkle of sunshine on water; the effect is also presented in the flowing lines stitched on the hem, below.

Over-robe, detail of couched gold thread embroidery and padded hem.

The exhibition also includes contemporary depictions of kimonos, as well as objects, such as lacquerware, which feature shared design motifs.

6-panel folding screen featuring dancers, detail.

Depictions of kimono, in various media, recognized their pictorial value.  The screen above, painted around 1700, shows the use of fans as props, and how the dancers, captured in mid-performance, used their flowing sleeves to attenuate the fluid motions of their arm movements.

Folding screen, detail, dancer with fan.

The making of a kimono traditionally involved the coordinated efforts of many people, including silk farmers who raised the silkworms, workers - including women - who reeled the silk from the cocoons into filament, weavers, dyers, and artisans who specialized in one particular type of surface design, such as stenciling or embroidery. The production began, though, with an artist producing a design, such as the one shown below in an early pattern book of kimono designs.  These pattern books are somewhat analogous to the 19th fashion plates, exported from Paris, which gave dress-makers in London and New York an idea of up-to-date styles and trends.

Kosode (type of kimono) Pattern Book, 1667.

We get another glimpse of kimono design and production from the rare 19th-century fragment, below, showing a weaver at his loom and, sitting on top of the frame, a young worker known as a drawboy. Before Joseph Marie Jacquard invented his automated loom, around 1801, a lightweight person, often a child, with dextrous fingers, would manually lift and lower harnesses controlling warp threads, allowing the weft filaments to pass under or over the warp, creating the complex patterns of brocades and damasks. Woe betide the youngster who made a mistake in the pattern.

Textile fragment showing weaver and drawboy at a loom.

People at every rank wore some variant of kimono, and the exhibit includes robes and garments worn by peasants, townsmen and the special padded jackets worn by firemen.  Frugal farmers recyled precious textiles, not just from an aversion to discarding any usable scrap, but because finding a new use for an old thing extends its life, and confers longevity to the wearer.  Someone carefully hoarded the textile scraps used in the jacket below, as some of pieces date from the Edo period.

Patchwork jacket (hanten), second half 19th century.

Farmer's jacket, 2nd quarter, 20th c.

The jacket pictured above is an example of sakiori weaving, another method of repurposing worn-out clothing.  Cloth scraps become the weft threads for a warp formed from a bast fiber, in this case mountain wisteria vine.  

My grandmother - who grew up on a farm in southeastern Michigan - told me that when old clothes beyond repair were made into rags for rugs, her task as a child was to patiently remove the sewing thread from the seams and hems of old garments, and spool the thread, for reuse. Farmers everywhere are savers.

In 1854 Commodore Perry, utilizing "gunboat diplomacy," negotiated a trade agreement with Japan. Soon after Japanese kimonos - both the garments themselves and their depiction in woodblock prints -  began influencing Western dress and art.  The exhibit overview below shows three Western gowns whose silhouettes and detailing are beholden to the kimono. In a nice touch, chairs by the late Japanese-American master craftsman George Nakashima provide a comfortable perch.

Visitors seated in George Nakashima chairs.

Once trade with the West began, Japan quickly sought to establish itself as a player on the world stage; high-ranking men adopted Western military dress and by the mid-1880's the imperial offices mandated Western dress for government officials.  Court ladies used Singer sewing machines in their dress-making, pictured below.

Adachi Ginko, Ladies Sewing, 1887.

In 1905 Japan's modernized navy defeated the Russian navy in a much-celebrated victory. The men's under-kimono, or juban, below commemorates General Nogi, a hero of the Russo-Japanese conflict, and his entourage, at the surrender of Port Arthur (now Lushunkou, China).  This successful campaign set the stage for Japan's militarization and expansionist policies in the 20th century; as always kimono designers reflected the spirit of the times and kimono became canvasses for propaganda.

Kimono featuring scene of Russo-Japanese war, detail.

Western imagery influenced the design of kimono, which continued to be worn even as Western dress became part of urban consumer culture. Below is a post-war man's under-kimono depicting European cameras, celebrating aspirational consumption and the photography hobby, which is still big in Japan, judging from scene at the Arimatsu shibori festival in 2012, below, where phototogs snapped shots of the festival "prince" and "princess."

Man's under kimono with camera imagery, ca. 1955.

Avid photographers, shibori festival, Arimatsu, Japan, 2012.

Photography became so popular that the market for traditional woodblock prints all but dried up; a few artists, selling nostalgic images of kimono-clad, idealized Japanese women, continued to succeed commercially.

Woodblock print, Ogata Gekko, 1895.

Woodblock print, Ogata Gekko, 1895.

The image above shows a little girl wearing a colorful kimono.  Ceramics featuring children in traditional garments are featured in the exhibit along with children's garments.

Children playing Go, late 18th c.

As shown in the image below, the East/West pathway of design influences was definitely two-way - the child's kimono on the left, with its design combining wisteria vines and a fragmentary trellis motif, was owned by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. On the right is a child's kimono with a design of Mickey Mouse. Traditional motifs, however, were never abandoned, but modified throughout the 20th century; generally, designs became more stylized.

Kimonos for children, early 20th c.

Summer kimono, detail,  wave and water droplets, 2nd quarter 20th c.

The design above riffs on the famous print "The Great Wave," by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and updates this iconic image in bright fuchsia with aqua water droplets. The kimono below reimagines the traditional motif of plovers (a shorebird) and waves for a lightweight summer kimono.

Summer kimono with stylized design of plovers and waves, ca. 1912-26.

The gauzy kimonos below, of lightweight fabrics suitable for the hot, humid Japanese summer, suggest waves or pools of cool water.

20th-century lightweight summer kimonos.

Summer kimono, dragonflies and stream, ca. 1920 - 30s.

Summer kimono, blades of grass and dewdrops, 2nd quarter 20th c.

Twentieth-century artists created kimono, but with an important change in production method - these artists, such as Serizawa Keisuke, implemented the surface design themselves - for example, cutting their own stencils and decorating the fabric, as in the work below. These creations, by Serizawa and other artists designated as Living National Treasures (a program begun in the middle of the century) were not meant as wearable textiles, but were prized as works of art, the apotheosis of the kimono form.

Serizawa Keisuke stencilled kimono, ca. 1962.

Among our favorites are Meisen style kimonos from the early 20th century. Meisen, pronounced May-zen, is a type of fabric, silk or, later, rayon, produced relatively inexpensively, using pre-dyed warps; in a way, it's a mechanized form of ikat weaving. The bold colors and patterns show the influence of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and even cubism, as filtered through a Japanese design esthetic.

Meisen-style kimonos.

Meisen kimono, 2nd quarter, 20th c.

Meisen kimono, ca. 1920.

Left: ca. 1920; right: Cracked ice pattern, 2nd quarter, 20th c.

Today kimonos are still worn for lifecycle events, such as weddings,  and festivals; below are two very elegant women who graciously posed for us in the Arimatsu train station. Kimono heritage continue to influence contemporary apparel design and Japanese designer Hanae Mori reinterprets kimono style in some of her couture.

Dressed for the shibori festival, Arimatsu, 2012.

Evening ensemble, Hanae Mori, ca. 1966 - 1969.

Directional sign for the exhibition.