Vibrant colors, intricate handiwork and stunning patterns all characterize the collection of early-20th-century Japanese kimono on display the PMA’s Perelman Building, as do historical references, shifting culture and the global exchange of ideas. The 80-some kimono reflect the final era of kimono-wearing, when the kimono still existed as a functional, everyday garment, just before the proliferation of Western wear. Although the exhibition contains a variety of kimono, from formal dress pieces to traditional men’s wear to children’s ensembles, the majority are casual women’s kimono that reveal the dramatic changes in culture and technology that made kimono both affordable and very modern.
The kimono are clustered around the gallery in thematic groupings, highlighting visual trends and design motifs rather than chronology or production technique, a wise curatorial decision that allows the kimono to be in conversation with one another throughout the room. It keeps the exhibit from feeling like a historical display and allows the kimono to exist in all their artistic glory. Beginning with the most traditional imagery of realistically depicted cranes and flora, temples and landscapes, the exhibit explores the diversity of popular motifs that range from organic arrangements of swallows, bamboo and chrysanthemums to abstractions of water; geometric stripes, pinwheels and blocks; polka dots and expressionistic color fields; and newly prevalent modes of transportation. Although many of the pieces in the exhibition might functionally have been the “blue jeans” of kimono, the potential for individual aesthetic expression in the most casual of garments is astounding. One can imagine the stunning visual effect of a room full of kimono-wearers as the distinctive colors and patterns would interweave in the midst of a social gathering, making everyday life perpetually beautiful.
Japanese textile production in the early 20th century benefited from new technologies, as new types of silk, simpler weaving processes and commercial dyes made kimono easier to mass produce and thus more affordable. Designers transformed traditional motifs into large, striking patterns that appealed to modern women, who could now shop for kimono at department stores. Kimono design from this time period reflects a cyclical relationship with Western design, particularly Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements – As North American and European artists and designers drew inspiration from historic Japanese sensibilities, Japanese artisans borrowed back the decorative rhythmic geometry of Art Deco and stylized naturalism of Art Nouveau. Kimono throughout the exhibition point to this international transfer of information, including one piece covered with abstracted Empire State Buildings.
Additionally, several of the kimono seem reminiscent of traditional textiles from other parts of the world, with patterns similar to the brightly dyed boubous of western Africa or geometric Navajo weavings. Clearly globalization and the growing spread of information allowed kimono-makers to pull from a wide range of design possibilities and adapt non-Japanese imagery to their own context.
The striking stylistic differences among the different kinds of kimono (particularly women’s, men’s and boys’ – girls’ kimono look very similar to the women’s kimono, pattern-wise) suggest the gender stratification of society. While the women’s kimono consist of bright colors and decorative patterns, clearly social wear, the men’s kimono are very plain and austere, usually entirely black on the outside, the equivalent of a Western business suit. However, the lining of men’s kimono frequently contains hand-painted mythological scenes or depictions of famous monks, and so in the exhibition the men’s kimono are displayed inside-out to allow the viewer to appreciate the hidden beauty of these functional garments. The boys’ kimono on display suggest a global male fascination with transportation, with several pieces portraying airplanes, automobiles, battleships and tanks in astounding detail (apparently, one kimono is detailed enough to identify the specific models of the depicted airplanes). They also reveal the growing military-industrial might of Japan in the advent of World War II and point to the Japanese patriotism of the time.
Although representing a particular country’s fashion from a specific time-period, the exhibition remains accessible to contemporary North American viewers, who will appreciate the exquisite craft of these textiles (be sure to look as closely as you can at the fabric itself) and who might experience a pervasive nostalgia for bygone eras and vanishing traditions. The method of display removes the human figure from the kimono and flattens them into abstracted fields of color and form, a vibrant tableau of gorgeous design that invites inspection, appreciation and awe.
(Image: Woman’s Kimono, 1920s-30s (late Taisho-early Showa periods). Machine-spun silk plain weave with stencil-printed warp and weft threads (meisen). 61.26×43.25 inches (155.5x110cm). The Montgomery Collection, Lugano, Switzerland. [Cat. no. 90])
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, April 29, 2008