If there were any garment in history that has historically reflected a person's personality, socio-economic status, and identity, it would be the Japanese Kimono. The Kimono is a simply constructed garment that has been around for thousands of years and is a part of the traditional Japanese dress. This garment structure has allowed room for modification throughout the years with patterns and designs that tell stories of the culture and the evolving social structure of Japan since as early as the Heian period. Its peak of influence during the Edo-period has not died down. Kimonos continue to have strong staying power within the fashion industry despite fashion trends and the impact of technology on the industry.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition titled, Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection, available for viewing until February 20, 2023. In this exhibition, pieces by art collector John C. Weber highlights the wide range of traditional kimonos in a beautiful and thoughtful way. To read more about the exhibition and its specific pieces click the link below.
The most notable part about this Met exhibit is how it highlights the important timeline that brings us into the use of the kimono in modern fashion. The garment’s history is vital to understand the longevity of the kimono’s pattern. It also opens up our views on how much traditional dress continues to contribute to our fashion industry today.
The exhibition provides a clear timeline linking the past to the present as we make our way through the history of Kimono fashion. Many might not know the full history of the Kimono and this can cause some disconnection with the garment itself. Although the Kimono dates back to the Heian Period from 745 AD- 1185, the kimono's first documented appearance was during the period right after, called the Kamakura period, dating from 1185-1322. During this time, it appeared as a general name for clothing by the Portuguese settlers, who were the first European settlers that arrived in Japan. In their writings they noted that the words “qimono or qirumono” meant clothes. These observers additionally took note of the different versions like the katabira, designed for summer, and the awase, worn in autumn. The closest to what we now call the kimono was the kosode which was the most common garment worn throughout the Edo period. It came in varying sleeve lengths and the lining underneath helped it transition from season to season. During the Edo period in Japan, the way people wore clothing reflected their knowledge in subjects such as art and history. It also told us about their place in the class system. The kosode is just one of the many types of kimonos seen throughout Japanese history!
Kimonos and the Impact of Technology
As you walk through this exhibition, you slowly start to see the incorporation of garments from the 20th to the 21st century. The intention is to show the incorporation of Japanese culture into our western world. This happened during the late 19th century and influenced our Western fashion. The democratization of Kimonos that occurred during this time was due to the popularity of the textile called meisen and the incorporation of modern technology. Technological innovation helped Japanese manufacturers increase production of not only fabrics and materials but kimono patterns as well.
The image above clearly shows the simplicity of a kimono’s design. Consisting of a single bolt of fabric, the garment is straight-seamed in the sleeves to create a T-shape cut. Viewing the garments up close, you can really see the artisanship and the meaning embedded into each item. Historically, the process of making these garments was not an easy one. It included steps that you now only see in haute couture houses! The garments were cut on undyed fabrics, stitched together into the shape, outlined with blue dye, taken apart and sent to an artisan for them to dye and embroider. Technological advances provide faster ways to produce more garments, making it possible now to own one outside of Japan!
Kimono’s staying power
Kimonos occupy a unique place in the fashion world. Because of the structure of the pattern, there have been so many ways that designers were able to restructure and incorporate the kimono into our contemporary fashion world. In this exhibition, we see garments from fashion houses such as Issey Miyake, Christian Dior, Maison Margiela, Balenciaga,Commes de Garcon, and many more!
The exhibition ends with a walk-through of all the modern garments that take inspiration or have a similar structure to the Kimono. In our current fashion world, trends begin and end so quickly. With social media, fast fashion, and having almost immediate access to material goods, it seems only natural to overlook the small factors that have made the trending garments we wear today possible. The kimono’s timelessness is mainly because designers are able to adapt its structure to fit what their design needs. A great example of this is fashion house Comme De Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo, who is widely known in western fashion as a designer who breaks away from the conventional forms of dress. Her garments displayed in this exhibit are ones inspired by the traditional Japanese dress and yet still stay true to being one of her widely loved avant-garde garments. While we as a society continue to educate ourselves on the social and environmental impact of clothing, I hope visiting this exhibition will open your eyes to how many variations and influences a single garment can hold.
The Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection is available for viewing until February 20, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Students in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have the option to pay what they wish at the MET’s locations with a valid student ID!