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August 3rd, 2007
An Advanced Look At Fashioning Kimono: Dress and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

Fashioning Kimono: Dress and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Japan (May-July 2008)

The kimono, the national dress of Japan, is celebrated worldwide for its elegant, distinctive silhouette. Though quintessentially Japanese, the kimono form has influenced fashion designers in every corner of the globe. In Spring 2008 the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan, an exhibition featuring 100 kimono created in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries – one of the most dynamic periods in the history of Japan’s national costume. The exhibition includes formal, semi-formal, and casual kimono, haori jackets, and under-kimono worn by men, women, and children. While many of these garments reflect historical continuity in designs and techniques, many more illustrate a dramatic break with aspects of kimono tradition, as themes and designs from Western art began to predominate over historical Japanese references.

The exhibition focuses on the final era of the “living” kimono, that is, when kimono still remained the dress of choice, worn daily by the majority of people in Japan, beginning with the 1890s; it continues through the 1940s and 50s, when Western clothes came to replace the kimono for everyday wear and the kimono assumed a largely formal and ceremonial meaning. Drawn from the Montgomery Collection in Lugano, Switzerland, the textiles will be accompanied by a select group of vintage photographs on loan from the International Hokusai Research Centre in Milan, placing the kimono in context.

“There’s a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity evident in the designs of these kimono,” Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles Kristina Haugland said. “It’s very much reflective of the dynamic, cross-cultural dialogue that was taking place, as Western artists working in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, who were themselves inspired by the arts of East Asia, began to have an important impact on early 20th-century Japanese textile design.”

The exhibition is organized into four main areas, beginning with examples of traditional kimono, followed by sections highlighting the different styles of kimono for men, women and children. The first section includes the earliest garments in the exhibition, which date to the late Edo period; these reflect Japan’s longstanding kimono tradition of simple, elegant designs that were hand-painted or stencil-painted onto fabrics handspun and hand-woven at home, and delicately dyed with soft, plant-based colors. Striped kimono were extremely popular, worn by young women for work outside of the home – in cafes, department stores, factories and other places of business. They were also worn as casual everyday wear for school or play.

Men’s kimono fashion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was extremely conservative – typically of solid colors or decorated with small motifs in dark colors. Men’s under-kimono, in contrast, recall the earlier, 18th century “iki” fashion trend that expressed a preference for hidden beauty. While this trend originated in the latter part of the Edo period in reaction to government edicts outlawing the outward display of wealth by the merchant classes, it continued to influence men’s kimono styles well into the 20th century. The exhibition features several examples of exquisitely hand-painted and calligraphed linings for men’s jackets (haura) and under-kimono (juban), with images relating to a wide range of subjects, including folk and religious deities; traditional Nō theater; famous Japanese sites such as the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto; and Christian icons.

The children’s garments in the exhibition include several kimono-haori ensembles, one of which exemplifies the typical school uniform of the time. There are also several extraordinary formal kimonos. Many of the young boy’s under-kimono are decorated with graphically-explicit military designs or other symbols of modern times, such as trains and cars. In contrast, the young girls’ long-sleeved furisode with their bold and colorful, hand-painted floral motifs, evoke an innocent, yet vibrant, charm.

The most visually dynamic garments in the exhibition (comprising the majority) are the fashionable women’s kimono, known in Japan as “taishō modo” and “taishō roman” (shortened from the English word “romantic”). Taishō modo – a general term used for Taishō-period kimono fashion – include women’s ready-made, casual, everyday wear dating from the 1910s-1940s. These garments are typically decorated with large, bold designs – many Western-inspired – in bright colors (using new, imported German aniline dyes) on a machine-spun, plain-weave silk fabric. Each stunning example from this period shows a variation of the most popular motifs of the time – arrow feather, water stream, flowers such as camellia and morning glory, birds and Chinese arabesques, among others.

When Art Nouveau exploded in the 1890s, and spread quickly to major urban centers in Europe and North America, this new, ‘modern’ style incorporated diverse sources and artistic traditions, including the Japanese use of natural forms and strong, undulating lines. This artistic fusion and mutual influence is apparent in the kimono in the exhibition, which feature dramatic lines, powerful energy, and elegant floral forms combined with scrolling arabesques.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when Art Deco style grew to epitomize the glamour, luxury, and hedonism of the Jazz Age, Japanese designers embraced its simplified and flattened pictorial space, and the relationship between pattern and ground became central. Designers found in Art Deco a modern style partly inspired by the East, which, although novel and innovative, was essentially conservative. The Art Deco style took root in Japan because it was able to mediate between these two seemingly conflicting elements in 20th-century culture, and this is seen clearly in kimono design. Dressing in Art Deco kimono allowed Japanese women to retain elements of tradition while embracing bolder colors and designs that reflected a more modern spirit. Constructivism, Cubism, and even Abstract Expressionism were styles of visual art that also found a place in early-to-mid-20th-century kimono design.

After Japan's defeat in the Second World War and the destruction of so many major urban centers, Western clothes quickly came to replace the kimono, being considered more affordable and conducive to the new post-war lifestyle. Kimono eventually took on a purely ceremonial or formal role, worn for the tea ceremony, funerals, and weddings. Today, however, the kimono is experiencing a kind of revival, and young women in urban centers like Tokyo have begun to wear vintage kimono in creative new ways.

About the Montgomery Collection
The internationally renowned Montgomery Collection of Japanese art comprises over one thousand objects. Approximately three hundred of these objects are textiles, the majority of which belong to the genre of mingei (Japanese folk art). While the mingei textiles have been published widely and exhibited around the globe, the outstanding garments in this exhibition have never been seen in North America (their only previous presentation was a brief 2005 installation at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum). The collection of vintage and modern photographs is from the JCII Photo Salon of Tokyo, on loan from the International Hokusai Research Center in Milan, Italy.

Accompanying the exhibition is the full-color catalogue produced for the presentation “Fashioning Kimono: Dress and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Japan” at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Published by 5 Continents Publishers, it contains essays by Guest Curator Annie M. Van Assche, a respected Japanese art historian and textile scholar and formerly Curator of Education for the Japan Society Gallery in New York, NY; Reiko Brandon, former Curator of Textiles at the Honolulu Academy of Arts; Anna Jackson, acting Deputy Keeper of the Asian Department, Victoria & Albert Museum; Akiko Fukai, Chief Curator and Director of the Kyoto Costume Institute in Kyoto; and Elise Kurashige Tipton, Associate Professor and Chair of Japanese and Korean Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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