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Kimono: A Modern History

Kimono: A Modern History

September 27, 2014–January 19, 2015

Exhibition Location: Arts of Japan Galleries 225–231

Worn by men and women of all ages, the kimono is a simple garment with a complex history that has been shaped by the evolution of weaving, dyeing, and embroidery techniques as well as cultural changes in Japan. Featuring more than 50 spectacular robes dating from the 18th century to the present day, Kimono: A Modern History will tell the fascinating story of this eloquent garment, whose designs and patterns reflect trends in pictorial and decorative arts of the same period. Opening on September 27, the exhibition will present a range of garments, from sumptuous robes custom-made for wealthy patrons to every-day kimonos worn by the general public. Some 25 robes on loan from private and public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the renowned John C. Weber Collection, and others, will complement examples from the Metropolitan Museum’s own rich collection. Also on view will be paintings, prints, illustrated books, and other objects, including lacquerware and ceramics, with design patterns that mirror those found on kimonos.

The exhibition is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation Fund.

Exhibition Overview

The kimono has long served as a tableau on which to inscribe and describe the effects of modernization on Japan. This aspect of the kimono—its capacity to absorb and reflect cultural change so that it has become a chronicle of the country’s efforts to shape its national identity on the world stage—will be highlighted in the exhibition’s organization. 

The first gallery, with gorgeous Noh robes, will be followed by a section devoted to the development during the Edo period (1615–1867) of what would be considered today as the “fashion industry”; it will focus, for example, on the network that formed among publishers of ukiyo-e prints, woodblock-printed books, and fabric merchants. During this period, woodblock-printed pattern books, called hinagatabon, played a crucial role in transmitting the most fashionable designs, just as fashion magazines and catalogues do today. The objects on view will include a rare example of one of the very earliest woodblock-printed pattern books, the On-hiinagata, published in 1667.

The history of Edo-period kosode fashion will also be discussed, through screens and ukiyo-e paintings. Among the works on view will be the provocatively entitled screen Whose Sleeves (Tagasode) and a selection of elegant kosode, a type of women’s kimono with “small sleeve” openings. 

The next section will focus on the modernization of the kimono in the Meiji period (1868–1912). In an attempt to place Japan on equal footing with Europe and America, Japanese officials began wearing Western-style clothing. In the late 1880s, even Empress Shōken promoted Western gowns to encourage women to adopt modern modes of dress. The kimono gradually became identified as Japan’s national dress, and at the same time became a highly sought-after fashion item in Europe and the United States, coinciding with the Japonisme craze that inspired many Western artists and designers, notably Vincent van Gogh and other Impressionists. 

The importation of Western dyes and machinery had a profound effect on the kimono industry. This section of the exhibition will present a selection of modern kimonos made especially for a Western clientele. During this time, with fabrics being designed to be exhibited at World Expositions, Japan’s domestic textile industry gradually became integrated into world textile markets. The late Meiji period saw the emergence of Japanese department stores, such as Takashimaya, new advertising techniques, the rise of a largely female consumer base, and wide distribution of fashion magazines, often inspired by Western models. The pieces on view will include—from the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute collection—a lavish Takashimaya kimono made for the Western market, as well as Meiji-period woodblock prints to illustrate contemporary fashion trends. A selection of Meiji period decorative arts will complete this section.

The Taishō period (1912–1926) saw great urban growth, particularly in Tokyo. The prosperity and optimism of the period is evident in the colorful and cheerful textile designs, such as a kimono ensemble with brilliant explosions of chrysanthemum blossoms. Although Western-style clothes gained popularity, the kimono continued to be every-day wear. The motifs were dramatically enlarged and new designs appeared, sometimes inspired by Western-style painting. In creating such boldly patterned kimonos, the designers benefited from new types of silk and innovative patterning techniques, making relatively inexpensive, highly fashionable garments available to more people than ever before. These vibrant kimono styles remained popular until the 1950s.

During the Shōwa period (1926–1989), kimono design continued to evolve in response to artistic and political upheaval at the international level. This section will include a selection of war propaganda kimonos with unique designs reflecting contemporary politics of the 1930s and 1940s. Representative of the kind of deluxe garments that were also created during the interwar period is a dramatic 1930s kimono on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that shows a bold composition of brilliantly colored peonies against a mustard-colored background.

Over time, kimono makers evolved from nameless artisans to designated Living National Treasures, and the kimono gradually transformed from an item of every-day clothing to an exclusively ceremonial garment. And today the story continues, with Japan experiencing a “kimono boom” and many eminent fashion designers, both in Japan and the West, creating innovative works inspired by the age-old indigenous garment.

Credits, Publications, and Related Programs

The exhibition is organized by John T. Carpenter, Curator of Japanese Art, and Monika Bincsik, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, both in the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This exhibition is inspired by the research and publications of the late Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, an independent scholar who specialized in the history of Japanese textiles. The exhibition will coincide with the publication of Milhaupt’s book Kimono: A Modern History, published by Reaktion Books.

The Museum will offer education programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including a Sunday at the Met on October 19, 2014, a Friday evening gallery event, exhibition tours, a Drop-in Drawing class, and a studio workshop.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.

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October 10, 2014

Image Caption:
Utagawa Kokunimasa (1874–1944). Swimming at Ōiso, Distant View of Mount Fuji. 1893. Detail from a triptych of polychrome woodblock prints.
Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1960 (JP3382b)
MediaBin: DP147717

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