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The Art of The Kimono  
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
September 27, 2014 - January 19, 2015

"Unlined summer kimono with carp, waterlillies and morning glories," Meiji period, (1868-1912), ca. 1876, paste-resist dyed, painted and embroidered silk gauze with plain-weave patterning; Gift of Naoki Nomura, 2006
Photos copyright Michele Leight, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

By Michele Leight

Morning glories adorn the shoulders, while carp nestle among waterlillies at the hem of the extraordinarily beautiful kimono - a work of art - illustrated above, on view with other magnificent kimonos at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York till January 19, 2015. The detail below gives further insight into the virtoso mediums - stencil paste-resist dyeing, silkscreen printing, embroidery, paint - that became a gown fit for a princess. This kimono was worn in the same family for three generations, gifted to The Metropolitan Museum of art by the third generation to own it. Naoki Nomura, the donor,  wore it to a religious ceremony in Kyoto when she was seventeen years old, where she received blessings.  It is a memorable show, depicting the garments more as works of art or artifacts than utilitarian body covering. "Kimono" means "thing to wear..."

Detail of carp embedded in "Unlined summer kimono with carp, waterlillies and morning glories"

Beginning with classical kimonos from the Edo Period (1615-1868), and ending with one-of-a-kind or limited edition creations by well known contemporary designers such as Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo (of Commes des Garcons), the exhibition is also lavishly illustrated with paintings and prints depicting Japanese and European women in their respective attire, and complementary artifacts like make-up boxes, writing desks and vases from the classical era to the present, notably objects of great beauty in exquisite lacquer work and, of course, the sublime screens for which Japan is famous, one designed as a room-divider, decorated with clothing.


A geisha is celebrated in a silk painting, while a lacquer-work box is laid before it, like an offering

Wall text at the exhibition sheds light on the circumstances that led to the widespread fame and awe generated by these luscious fabrics created into robes, and how they became so familiar to the general public, in the section entitled "Kimonos and Western Fashion in the Meiji Period (1868-1912):

"The opening of Japan's international trade in 1854 and the following historical and social changes of the Meiji Period transformed the textile industry. From the 1880s Empress Skoken (1849-1914) promoted the adoption of Western-style fashion together with  the development of domestic textile manufacture
. High-ranking Japanese ladies for the first time sported imported bustles, corsets and boots. Male government officials and military personnel followed the Meiji Emperor's (1852-1912) lead and quickly adopted Western-style uniforms and suits in order to promote an image of Japan as a modern nation...At the beginning of the Meiji Period, Western woolen material and velvets were prized for their novelty in Japan, while Japan's silk industry earned international acclaim. Cotton production also gradually evolved and expanded in Japan. The Japanese did not merely adopt Western chemical dyes and new weaving technologies, but used them in innovative ways. The combination of Western traditional Japanese stencil-dyeing techniques led to the development of sophisticated stencil paste-resist dyeing (kata yuzen)...Japanese textiles were displayed at World Expositions, and kimonos were sought-after items in Western markets, often worn by Western ladies as dressing gowns. Stores Shinkicki in 1829 produced clothing designed in the "Western taste" for a western clientele. Japanese designs also inspired Western artists during the Japonism craze at the end of the 19th century..."

The artists included the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Whistler, among others, arguably among the most famous and popular artists, of all time. Whistler depicted women wearing kimonos, and Japanese screens and fans in his compositions. Van Gogh's highly individualistic style evolved in no small measure thanks to his admiration of the prints of Utamaro and Hiroshige.


"Noh Costume (karaori) with Court Carriages and Cherry Blossoms" Edo Period (1615-1868), first half of the 19th century, Twill-weave silk brocade, with supplementary weft-patterning in metallic thread; The Howard Mansfield Collection, Gift of Howard Mansfield, 1936

The magnificent kimono illustrated above is from the Edo Period - the earliest form of kimono - a heavily and ornately embroidered "Noh Costume (karaori) depicting Court Carriages and Cherry Blossoms." The label notes "...During the Heian Period (794-1195), carriages were the vehicles of the aristocracy and figured in many works of litearature, such as the Tale of Genji. In an episode in chapter nine, The Battle of the Carriages, they are used to jockey for an advantageous position from which to view Genji's performance at the annual festival dedicated to the Kamo Shrine. The carriages on this karaori are decorated following the festival tradition of decorating the carriages and headdresses with heart-shaped leaves (aoi), which is sacred to the Kamo Shrine."

There are no innovative bells and whistles, besides expert weaving of the silk brocade. It is a product of the imagination and the human hand.


Tools of the trade: "Cosmetic Stand with Pine, Cherry and Bamboo, from a Wedding Set", Edo Period (1615-1868), Early 19th Century. Lacquered wood with gold, silver, takamaki-e, hiramaki-e, cut-out gold foil on nashiji ground


"Overrobe (Uchikaki) with fans and flowers, Edo Period, (1615-1868), second half 18th-first half 19th century; silk and metallic thread embroidery, on resist-dyed satin damask; Purchase, Seymour Fund, Mrs. Donald Oenslager, Gift and Gifs in memory of Gertrude Carp, 1988

The beautiful "Overrobe (Uchikaki) with fans and flowers," illustrated above, from the Edo Period, worn by high-ranking Samurai women, combines the time-honored art of embroidery with persimmon-hued, resist-dyed satin damask, strewn with fans and chrysanthemums, peonies, and cascading wisteria, the florals punctuated by fluttering butterflies.

The kimono worn by a person in public defined their social standing in the four-tiered social system in the Edo Period (1615-1868): samurai, farmers, craftsman and merchants:

"Formal 'Uchikaki,' especially those designed for weddings, were often decorated with auspicious motifs. Wives of elite samurai were taditionally entitled to wear the most gorgeous embroidered silk garments, yet wives of wealthy merchants who created flourishing economies in major urban centers became the most enthusiastic patrons of contemporary fashion, often choosing to conspicuously flaunt their material wealth. Unlike Western garments, the cut of kosode and uchikaki changed little over time." (Wall text)


"Outerrobe (Uchikaki) with Mandarin Oranges and Folded Paper Butterflies," Edo Period (1615-1868). Tie-dyed satin damask with silk embroidery and couched gold thread; Gift of Hse Bischoff

The folded gold paper butterflies that adorn the masterpiece (illustrated above), on richly embroidered black, tie-dyed satin damask, are auspicious motifs, especially for weddings, depicted here in pairs to symbolize the wedded couple:

"The outerrobe, or uchikaki, was worn without a sash over a kosode, on formal occasions. Originating in the Kamakuro Period, (1185-1333) as a robe for high-ranking samurai ladies, it later was used more widely as formal winter attire. In traditional marriages, an uchikaki is worn over a wedding kimono. Extra padding is inserted into the hem to provide a seamless flow of the hem." (Wall Text)


"Overrobe, (Uchikaki), With Design of Bamboo Blinds, Curtain Screens, Decorative Fans and Auspicious Motifs," Taisho Period (1912-1926) or Showa Period (1926-1989), circa 1920s-1930s, Resist-dyed, painted, and embroidered plain-weave silk; Fletcher Fund, 1936


"Court Ladie's Garment (Kosode) With Swallows and Bells on Blossoming Cherry Trees," Edo (1615-1868) to Meiji Period (1868-1912), mid-nineteenth century, Silk crepe (chirimen) with Silk Embroidery and Couched Gold Thread; Julia Meech Collection


Detail of "Court Ladie's Garment (Kosode) With Swallows and Bells on Blossoming Cherry Trees," Julia Meech Collection

The romantic, and exquisitely wrought court garment, illustrated above has no bells and whistles or technological innovations involved in its creation. This stunning kimono relies solely upon the ages-old art of embroidery:

 "The design of this elegant garment, a type favoured by aristorcats and court ladies from the late Edo to the early Meija period, is composed of a single cherry tree. A red string with tiny gold bells is tied to the tree, while birds fly around the delicate branches. The flowers and leaves are embroidered; their bright white, red and green hues form a sharp contrast with the deep purple ground." (Label)

Crysanthemums are created on a purple/blue dyed silk crepe kimono of great beauty and spareness, from the Taisho Period (1912-1926).
They are so lifelike they appear three-dimensional. Increasingly, there is a focus on the lower half of the kimono as we move nearer the 21st century. 


Far left: "Kimono Ensemble with Chrysanthemums," Taisho Period (1912-1926), Dye-patterned silk-crepe with details embroidered in metallic thread;

Gift of Atsuko Irie, in honor of Suga Irie, 1998


Exquisite detail of "Kimono Ensemble with Chrysanthemums," Taisho Period (1912-1926)

"Kimono With Peonies," features one of the most beautiful blossoms in the world on a kimono with a Turner's Yellow background, created more recently in the Showa Period, (1926-1989), circa 1930s, and deploys several techniques to achieve its ethereal effect, including gold paste painted directly onto the fabric:

"This extravagent, richly embroidered kimono (homongi) depicts a garden with flowering peonies of all colors. The realistically depicted petals and leaves are influenced by Western paintings. It is made of silk crepe with occasional weft-patterning of staggered lines in silk and metallic threads, with applied gold paste (kindei gaki). The patterns are stencil paste-resist dyed, (kata yuzen), painted and embroidered with silk metallic threads, with applied gold paste (kindei gaki). It is lined with bright pink silk crepe and has light padding at the hem." (Label)


"Kimono with Peonies," Showa Period (1926-1989), circa 1930s, Weft-patterned silk plain-weave silk, stencil dyed, painted with gold paste, and embroidered with silk and metallic threads; Gift of Gordon Stone, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2005


Detail of "Kimono with Peonies," showing the three-dimensional quality of the gold thread

The two kimonos illustrated below depicting generals,  soldiers, and warplanes were "Ready To Wear Meisen kimono and Wartime 'Propaganda kimono' of the 1930s and 1940s." Wall text explains this unusual phenomenon that produced such unusual motifs on what were usually decorative, natural subject matter:

"Meisen kimonos became popular for everyday wear in the first half of the twentieth century, because Meisen fabric, woven from predyed yarn, was both inexpensive and long-lasting. These garments were mass-produced from plain-weave raw silk, and later rayon, mainly in regions north of Tokyo. Chichibu meisen, produced in Saitamu Prefecture, are the most well known.  Meisen kimonos were marketed in deparment stores and people expected new designs every year. The first Isesake meisen shop opened in Tokyo around 1887, but the origins of meisen go back to the Edo Period (1614-1868), to the inexpensive, hand-woven futo-ori ('thick weave') silk fabric that was primarily used at home. Meisen kimonos are often decorated with large-sized geometric patterns, sometimes inspired by art Deco motifs, usually in vivid colors. Many of the most striking designs were created in the early Showa period (1926-89), as improvments in dyeing techniques led to more sharply delineated designs and color gradations...The Taisho period (1912-1926) saw the birth of the modern metropolis in Japan. Symbols of modernity, such as skyscrapers, high-speed trains, and planes, were used in advertising, graphic design and even on kimonos. With increased militarization in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, war paraphernalis such as battleships and military vehicles, also become iconic subjects for textile design. These propaganda textiles were produced and worn in the context of international political tensions and nationalism that led to conflict in Asia and eventually to World War II. Propaganda imagery appears predominantly on mens under-kimonos and boys garments..."


"Man's Under-Kimono (Nagajuban), with Scene of the Russo-Japanese War Featuring General Nogi," Meiji Period (1868-1912), Early 20th Century, Resist Dyed, hand-painted plainweave silk with traces of gold leaf; Gift of Harumi Takanashi and Akami Ota, in memory of their mother, Yoshiko Hiroumi Shima, 2007


It is not everyday that a General is depicted on sumptuous kimonos or garments of any kind. General Nogi is featured with his troops in "Man's Under-Kimono (Nagajuban) with Scene of the Russo-Japanese War Featuring General Nogi," hand-painted on Resist-Dyed plainweave silk with traces of gold leaf, in the early 20th century:

"A nagajuban is an informal robe often decorated with eye-catching designs. This piece may be a one-of-a-kind commemorative garment related to Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The scene refers to the lengthy Japanese siege of Port Arthur, an engagement lasting from August 1- 1904 to January 2, 1905, when the Russian general, Anatoly Stessel, surrendered to General Nogi Maresuki. After the War General Nogi was celebrated as a national hero. Some scholars see such commemorative clothing as precursors of the more overtly propagandistic garments of the 1930s and World War II years.

"Mans Under-Kimono (Nagajuban), with 'Italy in Ethiopia' Symbols," Showa Period (1926-1989), circa 1935-1940, Printed silk, Purchase Friends of Asia, 2014; Purchase, Friends of Asian Arts Gifts, 2014


Detail of "Mans Under-Kimono (Nagajuban), with 'Italy in Ethiopia' Symbols"

In a gallery focused on "Popular Culture and Textile Design: Garments for Commoners," the beauty continues, even though it is portrayed in more down-to-earth and wearable fabrics. The wall text offers fascinating insights:

"As most of these garments were designed for labor, in Japan, farmers, less affluent townspeople, and craftsmen wore simple, usually homemade clothing in their everyday life both at home and at work. This clothing had to be durable and was often made of hemp and sometimes cotton, although this material was not widely produced till the late nineteenth century. Their material, shape and style were adjusted to meet specific requirements. For example, for farming, sleeves were narrowed at the cuffs. Most clothing was undecorated, however, some have unique designs, often the result of the use of recycled fabrics. The farmers jacket on display in this section was created from textile scraps woven together, while the patchwork jacket (hanten) was stitched from pieces of fabric from the Edo period. This practice of reusing textiles means that few examples of everyday clothing survive...The wood architecture and crowded living conditions in the urban areas of Japan led to frequent fires. Firefighter's coats were made of several layers of thick, quilted cotton fabric. The inside of these coats are decorated with elaborate designs, often inspired by popular contemporary woodblock prints, usually depicting warrior heroes or mythical heroes that instill bravery or are related to water. The coats were soaked in water and worn plain side out when fighting fires, and inside out after putting out a fire or during festivals when the firefighters would demonstrate acrobatic moves on ladders."


"Firemans Jacket with Gods of Wind and Thunder," Meiji Period (1868-1912) , late nineteenth century, Quilted cotton with paste-relief; John C. Weber Collection


Screen, "Farmers Lives In The Twelve Months," Edo Period (1615-1868), late 17th century-early 18th century; One of a pair of six-panel folding screens, ink and color on paper; Gift of Mrs. E.H. Herriman, 1929


Left to right: "Kimono shaped coverlet (Yogi) with lobster and crest," Meiji Period (1868-1912) mid-nineteenth century, Plain-weave cotton, resist-dyed and painted with dyes and pigments (tsutsugaki), Seymour Fund, 1966; "Farmer's Jacket," Showa Period (1926-1989), Plain-weave cotton, silk and mountain wisteria fiber (Yamafuni), John C. Weber Collection; "Jacket (Hanten)," Meiji Period (1868-1912), second half nineteenth century, Crepe silk (chirimen), patchwork with ikat, shibori, komon katazome, paste-resist dyeing, (yuzen), stencil-dyed and patterned damask sections, some dating from the Edo Period (1615-1868), John C. Weber Collection

The "Farmer's Jacket" illustrated center above, has an interesting story :

"Once the property of a well-to-do farmer from Okayama Prefecture, this jacket is made with alternating blue, green, pink, red and orange scraps of fabric of varying widths. Strips of cotton and silk wefts were woven together with mountain wisteria (tree bast fiber) warp in a technique known as sakiyori. This process began as a means of recycling older textiles, which were too valuable for a villager, farmer or fisherman to simply discard. Often elderly family members wove sakiyori textiles by hand on a traditional backstrap loom. The pristine condition of the jacket suggests it was never worn and could have been a precious garment. Very few surviving examples of farmers jackets are known."


Left: "Kimono With Flowing Water Design," by Moriguchi Kunihiko, (born 1941), (Heisei Period, 1989-present), 1992, Paste-resist dyed (yazen) crepe silk; Purchase, Sue Cassidy Clark Gift, In memory of  Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, 2014; Right: "Rakohoku (Northern Kyoto) Kimono" by Moriguchi Kake, (1909-2007), Showa Period (1926-1989), 1985, Paste-resist dyed with crepe silk with gold and silver embroidery 

Spare and gorgeous, "Kimono with Flowing Water Design" by Moriguchi Kunihiko was created in 1992, shown here with another beautiful contemporary kimono:

"The design on this kimono is Moriguchi Kunihiko's unique interpretation of the flowing water, or stream pattern, a long favoured textile design in Japan. He applied the maki nori ('sprinkled rice paste') technique developed by his father, who also created several garments with this theme, most of which relate to the Rinpa tradition. Here, Kunihiko transforms the design into an abstract composition, with the distance between the lines getting narrower and narrower at the bottom of the kimono." (Label)

"Rakohoku (Northern Kyoto) Kimono" by Moriguchi Kake, (1909-2007), is a masterpiece in subtlety with no loss of effect:

"The design on this kimono was inspired by the image of the setting sun in a tranquil garden in Rakohoku, the Northern section of the ancient capital of Kyoto. The kimono's upper section was dyed with onion skin using the 'sprinkled rice paste' (maki nori) technique, which was inspired by the sprinkled picture lacquer technique. The sinuous lines are fine quality gold and silver embroidery."

"Evening Ensemble," by Hanae Mori, (born 1926), Showa Period (1926-1989), ca. 1966-1999; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Brooklyn Museum Collection, 2009

The beautiful ensemble by Hanae Mori looks like a kimono, but it is entirely contemporary in cut and comfort - a hallmark of innovative late 20th and early 21st century American design. The label includes this information:

"This evening ensemble is an early work by Hanae Mori. She employes a double-layer of chiffon and surah printed with multi-colored floral patterns and sections of solid bright orange to create a shadow effect, heightened by the superimposition of fabrics. The piece conciliates European and American fashion and traditional Japanese design. The cape sleeves are reminiscent of the furisode, a kimono worn by young unmarried Japanese women."


"The Rice Bowl Dress," by Carolyn Schnurer, (American, 1908-1988), Manufacturer ABC Fabrics, 1952, Printed Cotton; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of  The Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Carolyn Schnurer, 1952

"During her twenty-year career in fashion, Carolyn Schnurer was a pioneer in the emerging American sportswear industry. She was particularly reknowned for her culturally inspired resort collections, which maintained a classic American silhouette, while incorporating the cultural theme in fabric selection or construction detail. For her 'Flight to Japan Collection,' Schnurer adapted elements of Japanese costumes and textiles, as well as architecture and decorative arts. In this example, the neckline, inspired by a reversed kimono, emphasises the wearers collar bones and delicately frames the face. The geometric pattern is inspired by sekkazome paper, (meaning snow flower or snowflake dyeing), a technique in which mulberry paper is accordion pleated, folded into various patterns, and then dip dyed. The skirt which is vertically boned, was inspired by Japanese oilcloth parasols. This effect creates a graceful A-line silhouette, and was a practical alternative to the cumbersome crinoline petticoats prevalent in the 1950s."


"Coat" by Yojhi Yamamoto, Showa Period (1926-1989), Spring/Summer 1983, Plain-weave cotton; Purchase Gould Family Foundation Gift, in memory of Jo Copeland, 2011

We see outfits like "Coat" by Yojhi Yamamoto everywhere today - jeans with holes have become staples of the young across the globe - so it is important to remember that this amazing designer came up with the idea in 1983, when his collection caused a sensation as much for the designers's innovations as his sense of humor:'

"Yohji Yamamoto's defiance of normative approaches to fashion is grounded in an understanding of traditional methods of pattern cutting and kimono design, which he deconstructs to create unusual pieces that bespeak his skill, humor and innovative mindset. Here, Yamamoto has cut irregularly shaped holes across the surface of this above-knee-length, kimono style jacket." (Label)


"Shirt," by Issey Miyake, 1991, Synthetic fabric; Purchase Caroline Rennolds Milbank, Gift, 2009


Like a blossom unfurling, detail of the sleeve of Issey Miyake's "Shirt"

Issey Miyake needs no introduction. His work is internationally recognized, collected and loved. It is easy to see why from the "Shirt" he designed in 1991, illustrated here, that is reminiscent of a blossom unfurling, ripples in a pond, and luscious Fortuny fabric. It is more sculpture than clothing, and draws on the ancient bodyart of the kimono, while deploying an entirely innovative, manmade, synthetic fabric ingeniusly.

Japanese aesthetics have wowed us for centuries. I went to see this show several times, and there is still so much more I could have added to this review, but I cannot go on forever. The Japanese galleries at the Met are so beautiful, made even more so by this art to wear.


Ancient artifacts including Buddhist textiles, and manifestations of the Buddha, in the Japanese Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Beautiful flowers in the Japanese galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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