How Karun Thakar, a passionate collector of textiles, acquired his assortment of kimono is a story in itself. Exposed to fabric techniques in his mother’s couture shop in Delhi, Thakar’s growing curiosity repeatedly took him to Istanbul and Peshawar as he amassed of a seminal collection of Gujarati silk patola saris.

Kimono Meisen: The Karun Thakar Collection, by Anna Jackson and Karun Thakar
208 pages
Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt, Nonfiction.

The objects Thakar sought soon expanded to include Venetian glass, Ghanaian film posters from the 1970s and a unqiue kind of kimono, which resembled the abstract works of modernist Western painters as much as the traditional forms of ancient Japan.

“Kimono Meisen” is essentially a photo book of these garments, an illustrated treasury of richly colored plates. But in these images — in the very thread and patterns of the cloth — are deep and intriguing narratives. The “meisen” of the title refers to a textile making method in which pre-dyed threads are woven in a tie-and-resist technique similar to Japanese kasuri weaving.

Thakar was already a collector of patched indigo-cotton textiles, hemp kasuri kimono and rarified silk items before his interests turned to the popular meisen garments. These kimono became available to a much larger segment of Japanese women with the advent of more affordable silk and modern weaving techniques in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). This factors led to radical changes in prewar female fashions, as fresh designs and the demands of a new consumer base, supported by more liberated women, forced a “very conservative society to embrace modernity, albeit via a highly traditional garment,” writes Anna Jackson, keeper of Japanese textiles and costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Asian Department, in an essay included in the book. Representative samples of this trend form the basis of Thakar’s collection. And, based on the photographs in this book, it is a startling one.

The designs of individual kimono have been inspired partially by well-established patterns, but also the new art movements in Western countries at the time, such art nouveau, constructivism and abstract expressionism. Look even closer and you may be reminded of cubist paintings, or the swirling forms produced by those in Vienna’s secessionist movement. The influence of these hybrid kimono surfaces in some unlikely places. Thakar cites the influence of Japanese tailors based in Hawaii, who used kimono fabrics and designs of the period to make aloha shirts.

Fashion is a gestural language, which we use to deliberately transmit messages about our age, gender, wealth, taste, social status and cultural preferences. Although kimono are often associated with the most conservative of sartorial forms in Japan, there was a moment during the Taisho Era (1912-26) and the years that followed, when designers created radical fashions, by the standards of the day. In Jackson’s essay, she explains how the kimono evolved into these radical forms in the early 20th century.

The importing of looms from France, the drop in the price of silk and the use of bright chemical dyes produced exuberant, less restrained designs that matched the more assertive character and bolder aspirations of the modern Japanese woman, whose natural milieu was now the cafe, dance hall, department store and cinema. After the devastating 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, women were able to replace their wardrobes with more affordable, visually daring, meisen clothing.

Many of the motifs that were common in older designs are enlarged in these newer garments, typified by the engorged shapes of flowers — chrysanthemums, peonies — undulating water-like forms and more contemporary geometric and abstract patterns.

For such assertive and distinctive designs, the designers of the extraordinary kimono featured in this book are surprisingly unknown, a fact that can be considered either a striking oversight or a practice in keeping with the craft tradition of anonymity, of not signing works or claiming authorship of creations.

Thakar, describing the Malaysian ikat textiles that influenced meisen, writes of the blurred edges of the patterns, and how, when such garments are worn, the “body movements of the wearer create an optical illusion that imparts a new shimmering effect.”

Are kimonos of this caliber art or craft objects? Perhaps it is a question of intrinsic quality and expertise. A common definition of crafts is that, however beautiful they may be, they are essentially functional. The kimono, of course, is worn, and therefore, a utility item. But there are also finer specimens that can’t be worn — they live behind glass in galleries and museums.

In his 1981 essay, “The Tongue of Fashion,” Donald Richie compared the traditional kimono to a “molded shell,” a “costume so tight that it hobbles the wearer.”

The more recent breaking of taboos against wearing Japanese and Western costumes in combination — think flower patterned yukata (light summer kimono) and Dr. Martens — did not exist for the women who once wore the kimonos in this collection, but innovation in design was permissible.

With these advances, kimono forms remained essentially stable, but their surfaces now served as design boards, reflecting the shifting tastes and aesthetics of the day. And the message from the women who wore them was clear: We are cosmopolitan, but remain firmly Japanese; we can respect the traditional canons of beauty, but still be chic.Nonfiction

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