Kimono Refashioned at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is not a kimono exhibition. Instead, it explores the journey of the Japanese garment, looking at its influence on fashion from the 19th century to the present. From the appearance of kimono in American and European paintings to the fashion created by designers such as Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, the exhibition shows that the Japanese garment entered the Western artistic environment and pushed the fashion industry to explore new structures, shapes, and fabrics. Just as the kimono has been the impetus for larger fashion trends, the two-part exhibition opens with one stunning example: the only kimono on display, a mid-1800 long-sleeve summer kimono. “It is a winter scene” curator Yuki Morishima explains, “and the cool motives and colors were meant to make the person feel fresh during summer.” Using this prime example of the art form, the exhibition encourages us to reflect on the relevance of kimono in the world of fashion and art.
The Traditional Japanese
Garment with a
Big Impact on Fashion
For more than 150 years, this iconic garment has inspired Western designers and artists to think outside the dress form.
While the origin of kimono is unclear, it seems that the flow of people and goods between China and Japan during the Heian period (794-1185 CE) played a pivotal role in the birth of the modern-day kimono. The kimono, literally the thing worn, was worn by men and women alike. The embroidery, patterns, fabrics, and colors were used to differentiate between social classes, seasons, married and unmarried women, and social occasions. The kimono saw a decline in popularity at the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE) as people were encouraged to embrace the more practical Western-style clothing. Nowadays kimono are mainly worn for special events, such as weddings and funerals.
The relationship of the kimono with the human body is one of the most interesting aspects of this garment. While Western clothing embraces and enhances the body features of a person, the kimono deletes the body and becomes the focus of attention through its colors, motifs, and symbolism. Just like the Indian sari, the structure of the kimono is flat. From a single piece of fabric, the tan, of approximately 12 meters by 37 centimeters, the kimono is cut and sewn together leaving no scraps or waste. Cut into four parts, two pieces are used for the sleeves, sode, while the other two become the migoro, the main body panels. The collar, eri, and the narrow front panels, okumi, complete the garment. Curators Yuri Morishima and Karin G. Oen note that “the kimono’s construction is flat,” and this flatness is the fulcrum of Kimono Refashioned, which explores the influence that kimono had in the Western fashion industry and art scene from the 19th century until the early 20th century, and in a second section examines the impact that kimono has had on contemporary fashion. Between the 19th and early 20th century, fashion designers approached the kimono as a sizeable piece of fabric that could be transformed into dresses, coats, and cloaks. The 1875 dress by Misses Turner Court Dresses was created using a kosode, a looser, short-sleeved robe, the precursor of the kimono. Another example is the furlined coat with a samurai helmet design, fans, and cherry blossoms created at the end of the 19th century. The peculiarity of the coat is, as Morishima explains, is “the vertical orientation of the samurai helmet design, something that is not found in traditional Japanese fashion,” where this design would only be oriented horizontally. Throughout the mid-20th century until the present day, the flatness of the kimono has maintained its role as a source for experimentation in extravagance, complexity, and elegance.
The fascination that the West discovered for Japan in the early 19th century was not confined to fashion. Painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, George Henry, Gustav Klimt, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec fell in love with the powerful colors, the idealized figures and unconventional perspective that were typical of Japanese woodblocks and prints. The impact of Japanese culture on the development of modern Western art through Japonisme was immense and lead to the advent of Pop Art and the emergence of graphic design and contemporary advertising.
We are now accustomed to typically Japanese patterns appearing on Western clothes. The swallow birds on the 2015 Alessandro Dell’Acqua’s coat is an example of this trend. Gucci and John Galliano also used Japanese motifs and shapes and re-applied them to their creations in a liberal yet considerate way. An object like the obi—the sash tied around the waist to keep the kimono in place—is also reinterpreted and adapted for Western fashion. Alexander McQueen’s jumpsuit investigates and challenges the role of the obi/harness in the mid-section of a dress. The Japanese designer Issey Miyake instead took a different direction and explored the bi and tri-dimensional nature of fabrics and clothing. Taking inspiration from the flatness of the kimono, Miyake created an origami-like dress that becomes tri-dimensional when lifted from the center. Once folded, the dress reverts to a bi-dimensional, flat square piece of fabric. Curator Oen stresses that “flatness is considered in a very different way” because Issey Miyake “started from flat and went tri-dimensional.” The dress, Oen explains, “is designed to be packed flat, with no wrinkles. It is a very user-friendly garment. Clearly, the design principles and motifs are based on Japanese tradition.”
Thanks to exhibitions like Kimono Refashioned we are made aware of the influence that kimono had, and still has, on Western fashion and art. Yet, one might ask if Western art had any impact on kimono and Japanese fashion. One possible answer can be found in the kimono created during WWII for propaganda purposes. Between 1900 and 1945, omoshirogara designs—literally amusing, interesting—became popular and many garments were printed with images of war: tanks, planes, and soldiers. From the 1930s, kimono also featured nationalistic themes: Japanese soldiers defeating enemies, conquering Chinese cities, and children doing their part for the defense of the nation. The images on these propaganda kimono were influenced by Western artistic trends such as socialist realism, Art Deco, Dadaism, Cubism, and collage. The planes, trains, and machines that appeared on textiles were based on a futurist approach to life. Modernity was understood not only in the form of Western lifestyles and commodities adopted by the Japanese people but also as the militarization of society.
What emerges from exhibitions like Kimono Refashioned is that fashion is another way through which we can approach history, the evolution of cultures, and the development of identities. The flatness of the kimono favored experimentation, fusing together the art and fashion of different countries. These connections show that the kimono went beyond its primary function as a garment and became the carrier and the bearer of cultures, histories, and art in its wider understanding.