Forever in Fashion: Kimono Style at the Met Museum

&ASIAN visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art to contemplate the timeless nature of the kimono.
Noh Costume (Karaori) with Dharma Wheels and Clouds. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee
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Forever in Fashion: Kimono Style at the Met Museum

One of the most enduring icons of Japan dating as far back as the late Edo period (1615-1868), the T-shaped garment known as the kimono is one of the rare historical designs that still live on today as a contemporary fashion item and silhouette. With such constant mainstream presence, it’s deceptively easy to mistake the kimono for a static aesthetic symbol. What the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition ‘Kimono Style’ achieves is both the satisfaction and deconstruction of everything you thought you knew about kimono and its transformation over time.

Nestled within the Met’s Asian Wing, the show’s opening rooms scratch your itch for its most opulent and gorgeous kimonos: displayed alongside some of the permanent collection’s Buddhist sculptures under dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, this first taste represents our most instinctive visual associations with kimono and its connections to Japan’s spiritual and theatrical practices.

Kyōgen Suit (Suō) with Rabbits Jumping over Waves. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

An eye-catching painted design of rabbits jumping over waves begins your education: it is one of the earliest artefacts containing Prussian Blue - the same blue used in Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa - a pigment evidence of the beginning of East-West commercial trade, with Prussian Blue having been imported into Japan through Chinese and Dutch intermediaries. This theme of opening borders and trade influencing design and technological possibilities is an important thread through the whole show.

Over Robe (Uchikake) with Willow and Poem. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.
Detail of Over Robe (Uchikake) with Mount Hōrai. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

Assisted by a plethora of prints and paintings on paper, the show retrains one’s eye through its hanging kimonos, strengthening the viewer’s sense of looking with both painterly depth and direction, and to go beyond the perception of mere ornamentation and further into storytelling. 

L-R: Battle Surcoats (Jinbaori) and Battle Flags (Sashimono). Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

Edo period Battle Flags (sashimono) are contextualised as battlefield identifiers, leading into one’s deeper appreciation for how garments such as Battle Surcoats (Jinbaori) not only reaffirmed life and death loyalties, but also cultural sentiments on the transience of life and decay, all encompassed in the most deceptively simplistic negative space designs.

Centre: Daimyo Firefighter’s Ensemble (Kaji shōzoku) for Samurai Woman. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.
Far Left: Ainu Coat (Kaparamip). Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

Representation is also a notable priority for the exhibition, with the inclusion of an early 19th century uniform for samurai women firefighters as well as a traditional early 20th century design from the Ainu, a indigenous people of Northern Japan/Hokkaido that have only been officially recognized by the National Legislature of Japan as late as 2019.

As the exhibition winds through the 20th century, it reflects on the symbiotic influences the East and West had on each other through the medium of the kimono. As the importation of European dyes increased the chromatic possibilities of Japanese kimono, the native philosophical emphasis on nature motifs began to also include those from European Art Nouveau and Art Deco traditions, once again transforming the way the image field can be structured on the body.

L-R: Tea Gown, Kimono, Dressing Gown. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

Likewise, the silhouettes of Western couture began to embrace the flattened angular planes of the kimono, creating new hybrid trends that - in the era of Japonism in Europe - also acted as a new kind of signifier of social and class status. 

The show’s overall curation - which included humorous Japanese woodblock prints that present the lesser-seen Eastern gaze as a sharp counterpoint to our expectations of a Western institution - expresses how the arbitrary dichotomy of “Eastern'' and “Western” design is an inadequate oversimplification of how visual culture is largely and necessarily informed by international dialogues, and one that additionally perpetuates the unjust status quo of one culture having agency over another. 

L-R: Issey Miyake Bodice, Yohji Yamamoto Bustier, Hanae Mori “SUMIE”. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

The exhibition ends with contemplating the space between body and kimono, from the conforming corset to airy delicate silk. One is reminded, through this sensorial experience of clothing ourselves, of how our bodies exist too in relation to our environment and our earth: it’s a wonderful tie-in to the kimono’s material roots in minimising waste, with all of its rectilinear construction panels coming from one complete bolt of cloth.

Comme des Garçons X Rei Kawakubo Dress. Photo: Hyeonwoo Lee.

Thoughtfully curated by Monika Bincsik (Diane and Arthur Abbey Associate Curator for Japanese Decorative Arts) and guest curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven, ‘Kimono Style’ is an educational delight in not only celebrating the garment’s rich story but also for its refreshing and positive take of how global exchange - without hierarchy - forever drives our human ideas of identity, culture and expression through fashion.

Kimono Style is on exhibit until February 20th, 2023, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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