NEW YORK - It’s difficult to imagine a more eloquent symbol of Japan than the deceptively simple kimono. Traditional yet ever-changing, the kimono, or “thing to wear” in Japanese, has evolved dramatically over the past 150 years. Its story encompasses the evolution of weaving, dyeing and embroidery techniques, as well as the nation’s aesthetic, social and even political history.
“Kimono: A Modern History,” an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 19, is a tour de force in textiles. As you enter the galleries, you see an elegant red kimono that a wealthy woman donated to a temple, where it was recycled and patched together to make a kimono for an aging priest.
“There’s a wonderful paradox there, and it’s a sort of introduction to the story of the kimono,” said John Carpenter, curator of Japanese art, who organized the exhibit with Monika Bincsik, also of the museum’s Asian art department.
Based on the eponymous book by Japanese textile expert Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, who died in 2012, the show is dedicated to his memory and coincides with the posthumous publication of her book earlier this year. The exhibit consists of over 50 kimono, half on loan and the rest from the museum’s own collection, as well as almost 200 fabric samples, screens, scrolls, lacquer works, ceramics, illustrated books and other items.
It includes glittering, gold-embroidered 18th-century noh robes; cartoonlike, monster-faced firefighter kimono done with free-hand resist dyes in reds and yellows on indigo; political propaganda kimono printed with startling symbols of war; children’s kimono, including one cherished by Frank Lloyd Wright; and, finally, contemporary pieces featuring the futuristic “shibori” pleats of Issey Miyaki, and the rips and angular shaping of Yohji Yamamoto.
Highlights also include three breathtaking kimono made by designers designated as living national treasures by the Japanese government.
The exhibit begins in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when the design, material and style of garments reflected a person’s role, such as samurai, farmer, craftsman or merchant. In addition to the grand textiles embroidered in gold that one might expect, there are thick, quilted firefighters’ robes decorated with bright designs depicting heroes and mythical beasts. Farmers’ robes, meanwhile, were mostly recycled fabric scraps woven together, or patchwork jackets.
At this time, the kimono was an everyday garment. But its design and function were to change. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan looked to Western countries in a quest for rapid modernization, the textile industry, and the kimono, were transformed.
Japanese began using Western woolen and velvet materials, while Japanese silks became popular in the West. Craftsmen in Japan also began using Western chemical dyes and new weaving technologies, combining them with traditional stencil-dyeing techniques to create “katayuzen,” a sophisticated, paste-resist dyeing method using stencils.
As Western design concepts increasingly influenced Japanese kimono, they became bolder and brighter, while Japanese design began inspiring 19th-century Western artists and designers.
A young girl’s silk kimono decorated with a pattern of wisteria flowers and trellises was acquired by Wright on a visit to Japan in around 1905. Its modernity is striking, and it likely inspired some of the architect’s subsequent works.
“It almost looks architectural, and you can see how it inspired him,” Carpenter said.
To preserve traditional crafts in the face of such rapid modernization, the Japanese government began designating some experts as Imperial Household Artists and, later, as living national treasures. The exhibit features works by stencil-dyer Keisuke Serizawa, yuzen-dyer Kako Moriguchi, and his son, Kunihiko Moriguchi. These were precious kimono to be hung as art and not worn.
In the Taisho Era (1912 to 1926), kimono became brighter and bolder still, as department stores promoted new looks to appeal to the masses. Traditional Japanese motifs were combined with new Western design concepts to make some dazzling kimono, many inspired by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.
Designs became more graphic in following decades, especially in unlined summer kimono, which were often resist-dyed or embroidered. A man’s kimono undergarment from the 1930s features cameras and train tickets, and is displayed alongside a woman’s kimono decorated with images of piano keys and libretti from two songs. One kimono even features Mickey Mouse.
Inexpensive, ready-to-wear kimono woven from predyed yarn were so easily mass-produced that customers began to expect new designs every year. At the same time, improved dyeing techniques meant more sharply delineated designs and color gradations.
During World War II, the kimono’s symbolism as a national costume made it a perfect vehicle for war propaganda, particularly for boys’ kimono and men’s kimono undergarments. Battleships and bomber planes took hold as motifs.
Although kimono are now worn mainly only for formal occasions, the exhibit ends with works by leading fashion designers and makes the case that designers, both Japanese and Western alike, keep creating clothing inspired by kimono, pushing its influence further still. The kimono seems not so much a disappearing traditional garment but an evolving art form that continues to adapt to changing lifestyles and textile techniques.