The term “kimono,” according to the online Fashion Encyclopedia, translates as “thing to wear,” and the kimono certainly was the thing to wear for generations of Japanese men, women and children.
The kimono could be worn at home. It could be worn on ceremonial occasions. It could be relatively plain or highly adorned. It allowed the Japanese, who were part of an ancient and very ordered, traditional society, to express their individuality through subtle combinations of color and design, through different sleeve lengths and even through different ways of tying the sash, or obi, that held the whole thing together.
After the mechanization of the Japanese silk industry in the late 19th century, it became possible to manufacture kimonos much more cheaply and quickly, putting them in reach of every Japanese. In the early 20th century, makers of kimonos incorporated new designs and motifs from Western art, including Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Until the Second World War, the kimono remained a popular mode of dress in Japan, at least for women.
The kimono and the traditional culture it represented would soon be doomed to irrelevancy, however, by the powerful forces of modernity— industrialization; widespread public education; the entry of women into the workforce and their adoption of new social roles; and the profound influence of the West, with its emphasis on individuality. In fact, for Japanese women, the early 20th century would be what textile artisan and scholar Annie Van Assche calls “the last living era of the kimono.”
Despite these changes, the kimono remains a powerful symbol of Japanese culture, both in Japan and in the West. It had a powerful influence on the development of 20th century fashion, a story that is still being written. And the kimono is finding new life now as a fashion statement and symbol of cultural identity among young Japanese women, despite their rejection of the highly ordered culture of their ancestors.
Thanks to Van Assche, there is a lovely traveling exhibit, Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan, that allows viewers to both enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship of vintage kimono and to understand the profound part kimono plays in Japanese cultural identity, especially for women.The exhibit is currently on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art, one of nine stops on its itinerary. The show features nearly 100 kimono from the 19th and 20th centuries, courtesy of the Montgomery Collection in Lugano, Switzerland. The exhibit also features 50 archival photographs from the Hukusai Research Centre in Milan, Italy, that show how kimono were an integral part of nearly every phase of Japanese life.
In a lecture in the BMA’s Steiner Auditorium last Sunday afternoon, Van Assche discussed the exhibit, the interplay of Japanese and Western fashions through the late 19th and early to mid- 20th centuries, the significance of kimono to Japanese identity and the way kimono remains a factor in contemporary Japan.
Van Assche described the fascination with Japan that developed in Europe and the United States after the once-remote land opened itself to outsiders beginning in the 1860s. “There was an enormous interest in the West over the opening of this mysterious little island,” she says. “A respect for Japanese culture and arts [became] embedded in the Western psyche.”
Among those Westerners who shared this fascination, according to Van Assche, were such painters as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who posed often scantily clad models in Japanese silk robes. And in the early 20th century, such Parisian fashion designers as Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel applied the kimono’s straight-line cut to Western dresses, freeing women’s bodies for the first time from corsets and bustles.
According to Van Assche, more women entered the work force in Japan in the 1920s, and their modes of dress became more Western, but the kimono remained popular, with women often combining the kimono with Western clothing. And as Japan geared up for imperial conquest in the 1930s, the kimono assumed new significance. “To wear kimono was to be Japanese,” Van Assche says. “The women became flag bearers in the homeland. Japanese national pride was at its high point.”
This all came crashing down following Japan’s defeat at the hands of the United States in the Second World War, and the kimono suffered terribly. It became associated with this humiliating setback, according to Van Assche. “The disdain for the kimono in the Japanese psyche was very distinct after the war,” she says.
The kimono is making something of a comeback in Japan, according to Van Assche, thanks to young women who are wearing vintage pre-war kimonos, though in very individualistic and idiosyncratic ways, even with a punk or Goth feel. “It’s the total abandonment of tradition,” she says. “They are free to wear kimono in any way they want. They no longer have to go to kimono school to learn how to properly dress themselves.”
Despite this individualistic surface, Van Assche suggests that these hip, young women may find some cultural grounding in their adoption of kimono. “They wear it for costume, for fun, but by wearing kimono, they are confirming their Japanese identity,” she says. “There is so little of the old Japan left, it’s understandable.”
Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan will remain on display through October 10, at the BMA’s Jemison Galleries. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.artsbma.org. The exhibit is organized by Art Services International of Alexandria, Va.
Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The BMA has scheduled numerous other special events during August and September that will highlight Japanese culture, and the Fashioning Kimono exhibit:
A Colorful Tradition: Japanese Dyeing Techniques Tuesday, August 10. Noon. Free. Curatorial assistant Susan Powers will explain Japanese fabric-dyeing techniques and discuss traditional patterns and motifs used to decorate kimono in this Artbreak presentation.
Bart’s Books: Suki’s Kimono. Saturday, August 21. 11 a.m. Free. Just for the kids, a reading of a children’s book about a little girl who reclaims her roots by wearing a traditional kimono.
Lunch and Learn Book Circle: Geisha Wednesday, August 25. Noon. Free. Join Donald Wood, the BMA’s curator of Asian art, in a discussion of the book Geisha, by Liza Dalby, which tells the story of the only Western woman ever trained as a geisha in Japan. RSVP by calling (205) 254-2567.
Family Day: Totally Tanabata Saturday, August 28. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Tanabata is a Japanese star festival that celebrates the once-yearly meeting of two mythological lovers, who are usually kept apart by the Milky Way, a river made from stars that cross the sky. Celebrate this festival in a family-friendly event featuring dance, music, art activities, scavenger hunts and Japanese treats.
Hiden Lecture: The Geisha Inluence On Kimono Fashion Sunday, August 29. 2 p.m. Free. Liza Dalby is an American anthropologist and novelist with an afinity for in Japanese culture. Her book Geisha (ilmed as American Geisha) is based on her experiences with the geisha community in Kyoto in the 1970s. Dalby will discuss the geisha, who remain Japanese cultural icons and who have served as fashion arbiters in the world of kimono, setting trends that ilter down to ordinary women. Reception will follow.
Kimono Culture, Dressing And Sewing Tuesday, September 14. Noon. Free. Kimono consultant Michelle Slagle will discuss kimono and show examples from her collection in this Artbreak presentation.
Bart’s Books: Wabi Sabi Saturday, September 18. 11 a.m. Free. The reading of a children’s book about a cat in Tokyo on a search for the meaning of his name.
Japanese Film Festival September 24–26. All showings free. This festival is inspired by kimono and by Japanese cultural themes from the irst half of the 20th century. Birmingham- Southern College professor Bob Shelton will introduce the ilms.
Gates Of Hell (Jigokumon) Friday, September 24, 6 p.m. This Oscar-winning color epic from 1953, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, tells the story of a doomed love affair between a soldier and a noblewoman in feudal Japan.
Sisters Of The Gion (Gion No Shimai) Saturday, September 25, 11:30 a.m. Kenji Mizoguchi’s gritty 1936 ilm about two sisters working as geishas in a working-class district.
Life Of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna) Saturday, September 25, 1:45 p.m. Another prize-winning Mizoguchi drama from 1952, about a lady-in-waiting in feudal Japan who shames her family by loving a peasant and is exiled to a life of prostitution.
Floating Weeds (Ukikusa) Saturday, September 25, 4:30 p.m. A troupe of traveling players arrive at a Japanese seaport in a 1959 color ilm by Yasujiro Ozu that Roger Ebert called one of his ten favorite ilms of all time.
Kagemusha Sunday, September 26, noon. Akira Kurosawa won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981 for this epic story of a thief in feudal Japan who assumes the identity of a deceased warlord, then leads his clan into battle.
The Makioka Sisters (Sasame-Yuki) Sunday, September 26, 3:30 p.m. This 1983 drama directed by Kon Ichikawa tells the story of four upper-class sisters in Osaka just before World War II.