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March 28th, 2008
Exhibition Highlights Dialogue Between East and West in Kimono Designs from the Early to Mid 20th Century

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 around the globe. The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present an exhibition featuring approximately 80 kimono created in the early-to-mid-twentieth century – one of the most dynamic periods in the history of this dress form. Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan includes formal, semi-formal, and casual kimono, haori jackets, and under-kimono worn by men, women, and children. It will be on view in the Spain Gallery for Costume and Textiles at the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building. While many of these kimono 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 begins by focusing on the early 20th century, the final era of the “living” kimono, when it still remained the dress of choice, worn daily by the majority of people in Japan. It continues through the 1940s and 50s, when Western clothes became everyday wear and the kimono began to assume a largely formal and ceremonial meaning. Drawn from the renowned Montgomery Collection of Japanese art in Lugano, Switzerland, the outstanding examples in this exhibition have never been seen in North America. “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 reflective of the dynamic, cross-cultural dialogue taking place. Western styles of art, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which were in part inspired by the arts of East Asia, were in turn incorporated into 20th-century Japanese textile design.”

The exhibition is organized into four main sections, beginning with traditional kimono, and followed by the different styles of kimono for women, men and children. The first section includes garments reflecting Japan’s longstanding 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. Examples of formal kimono presented in this section include the long-sleeved furisode worn by single women, the shorter-sleeved tomesode worn by married women, and uchikake, the unbelted outer robes worn for ceremonial occasions including bridal wear. These kimono use traditional Japanese textile techniques refined over the centuries, including the complex yūuzen method of surface design, shibori tie-dyeing, and stencil-printing.

The second section highlights men’s kimono fashion, which in the early 20th century was conservative – typically in a solid color 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 (1603-1867) in reaction to government edicts outlawing the outward display of wealth by the merchant classes, it continued to influence men’s styles well into the 20th century. The exhibition features several examples of exquisitely hand-painted linings for men’s jackets (haura) and decorated under-kimono (juban), with images relating to a wide range of subjects, including religious and folk; 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 kimono. Many of the young boys’ under-kimono are decorated with graphically explicit military designs or other symbols of modern times, such as trains, airplanes, and cars. In contrast, the young girls’ long-sleeved furisode with their bold and colorful, hand-painted floral motifs, evoke innocence and charm.

The most visually dynamic garments in the exhibition (comprising the majority) are the fashionable women’s kimono, including ready-made, casual, everyday wear dating from the 1910s-1940s. These are typically decorated with large, bold designs – many Western-inspired – in bright colors using new, imported synthetic dyes on a machine-spun, plain-weave silk fabric. Striking examples from this period show a variation of a traditional motifs –water streams, arrow feathers, flowers such as camellias and morning glories, and birds, among others, reinterpreted to be modern and new.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, Art Nouveau was a new, ‘modern’ style that incorporated diverse sources and artistic traditions, including the Japanese use of natural forms and strong, undulating lines. The style spread throughout Europe and North America, and then to Japan. This artistic fusion and mutual influence is apparent in the exhibition in kimono having 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. 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.

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, considered more affordable and conducive to the new post-war lifestyle. Today, however, the kimono is experiencing a modest revival, and young women in urban centers like Tokyo have begun to wear vintage kimono in creative new ways.

This exhibition is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia.

About the Montgomery Collection

The Montgomery Collection of Japanese art comprises over 1000 objects. Approximately 300 of these 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 rarely been exhibited (a small selection was shown in a brief 2005 installation at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum). Vintage photographs from the JCII Photo Salon of Tokyo, on loan from the International Hokusai Research Center in Milan, Italy, will place the kimono in context.


Accompanying the exhibition is the full-color catalogue “Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan” published by 5 Continents Publishers (327 p.). The book, 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. It is available for purchase in the Museum Store or by calling 800-329-4856, or on the Museum’s website.

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