Celebrating the kimono

Special to the Times

The kimono, a fashion classic with a fascinating history, is very much alive.
Right now, fashion-minded shoppers can find "kimono-sleeved" blouses on sale, a hot spring item, while lingerie designers consider the short, kimono-style wrap robe a staple of intimate apparel.

But an up-close look at the beauty of the traditional floor-length kimono, which emerged in Japan in the eighth century as both an all-purpose everyday garment and a robe for special occasions, is a lot harder to come by.

Through July 20, 85 original and breath-taking kimono (the plural is the same as the singular) are on display, in all their brilliance of color and riotous range of pattern, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's new Perelman Building. The exhibit, "Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan," has been brought to U.S. shores for the first time by Swiss collector Jeffrey Montgomery. It dates from the early to mid-20th century, when the kimono was at its height of its creative design, its patterns heavily influenced by Europe's budding Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements.

Included are a wide range of artfully woven and hand-painted silks: from watercolor-like Japanese pastoral scenes, which typically include cranes and bamboo, to oversize florals, abstract patterns and bold geometrics, which jump out at you like 1960s Op Art.

The unusual color combinations and freedom of design are stunning. One typically fanciful stylized floral pattern pits orange and pink rose-like flowers, set inside gold six-pointed stars, against a background of magenta. A 1910 stencil-printed silk weave boasts enormous white and yellow camellias, with long, languorous green or blue leaves, all set against a brilliant red.
A 1930s example looks like intertwined strands of DNA: mingled vertical lines of yellow, red and white, in bold contrast to a black background. The pattern seems totally contemporary, but was actually influenced by European Cubist art of the time.

As the exhibit's title indicates, the explosion of interest in what European artists and designers in the early to mid-20th century called "Orientalism" was matched by the strong influence of European Art Deco and Modernism on Japanese kimono patterns.

Also not to be missed are nine rare men's kimono, with a whole different dynamic. These are each of solemn black silk -- on the outside. But they are propped open to reveal linings covered with calligraphy or gorgeously hand-illustrated scenes: battlefield encounters, processions of feudal lords, boats passing under Mount Fuji.

The idea, explains Kristina Hoagland, the exhibit's curator and the museum's associate curator of textile and design, was to modestly "hide your extravagance" by placing the intricately inked adornment out of sight, inside the kimono.

Japanese sumptuary laws frowning on public display of wealth, she says, encouraged the idea of hidden beauty in male apparel. Hoagland compares the custom to the wearing of designer labels on the inside, as they used to be through the 1950s, lending pride to the owner and his "in the know" class of friends alone.

Montgomery, who gathered the collection over 30 years, recently described his first glimpse of them, at the exhibit's press opening.

"I felt an extraordinary energy, and a relation to both Art Nouveau and Art Deco in many of them. I'm still taken by their beauty, but when I first found them, they were being discarded."
That was the result of changing values after World War II. Prior to that, the kimono was proudly seen as Japan's national costume. After the war, when Japan sought to Westernize, the kimono was no longer welcome. Thousands of kimono were tossed away or burned. The era of the "living" kimono, when the garb was worn routinely, ended.

Yet the kimono's international fashion influence did not. It had started as early as 1910, when French fashion pioneer Paul Poiret helped bring women out of stiff-boned corsets and into softer silhouettes, using wide, loose sleeves, and cocoonlike wrap coats, clearly kimono-inspired. Although the kimono remained in post-war use in Japan for ceremonial occasions alone, at the turn of the 21st century, a new generation of Japanese women rediscovered it. Today, women in their 20s and 30s in Japan are sometimes seen sporting a kimono at graduation ceremonies, or even wearing them as coats.

Meanwhile, a growing interest in vintage kimono has helped unearth precious originals long packed away and preserved.

This gorgeous exhibit shows clearly that while today's high-speed world may be a recent phenomenon, the interplay of cultural influence between nations is hardly brand new.


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