In Junichiro Tanizaki's novel "Naomi" there is a fascinating depiction of kimono culture in the heady days of Taisho Era Japan. The story — a black comedy variation on the Pygmalion myth — begins with the unhealthy fascination of the young engineer Joji for the novel's titular character, a timid but exotically foreign-looking teenage cafe waitress. Obsessed with Western popular culture — and the Hollywood actress Mary Pickford — Joji resolves to take Naomi into his home, educate her as his ideal Westernized woman and then marry her.

Of course, things don't turn out well for Joji. Naomi soon takes charge of her transformation to become a spoiled, sexually adventurous "modern girl," a 1920s flapper and fashion plate, while Joji is downgraded to the status of servant and income provider. Yet her transformation defies easy stereotypes of Westernization: Kimono is as much a part of her flamboyant self-expression as French-designed flapper dresses or Hollywood-style men's suits. She and Joji experiment with bold new patterns and fabrics, and in Joji's mind at least, she becomes a leader of avant-garde kimono style.

There is overt sexuality as well as elegance in Naomi's fashion. Joji's voyeuristic male gaze sometimes dwells on the more traditional eroticism her kimono evokes; the suggestion of her body lines and curves under its drapery, or the nape of her neck above its neckline. Yet Naomi herself revels in a more audacious eroticism, wearing kimono-like gowns loosely and revealingly around the house in front of Joji and her boyfriends, striking poses to titillate and arouse them. There is a wide cultural gap between these scenes and the prim, traditional Japanese image often attached to kimono today.