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Proto”Le Smoking” from Maison Beer in 1925?

November 1925 Les Modes Beer Le Smokingcropped

“En Smoking” Tailllure D’Apres-Midi in “Toiles de Beer” photospread in Les Modes at BnF/Gallica, November 1925, page 9.


Fashion Photo: House of Worth in 1907

1907 – At the House of Worth (Via )

Exhibition Review: Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s


Yet again, the fabulous Nadine Stewart is offering us a wonderful review of a current exhibition (at the Museum@FIT, on view through April 18, 2015 (if you are headed to NYC). Be sure to check out Nadine’s photos at the bottom of the post as well!

Photo by Nadine Stewart

“Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

“The Unlovable Decade.” That was what New York Times called the 1970s recently. That certainly the way I’ve felt about the period. I have too many memories of avocado kitchens, orange shag carpeting, huge macramé plant hangers, garish polyester double knits leisure suits, and “conversation pits” upholstered in brown velour. But, the latest exhibit at the Museum @ FIT has helped me to see the period in though a different lens. I may never really like the decade, but I can now see it more objectively.

Yves Saint Laurent + Halston does not attempt to be a retrospective of either designer or a definitive survey of the fashion of the 1970s. It uses the rich resources of the Museum @ FIT’s collection only, but that is enough to show how the two men’s careers paralleled each other. The curators in this well edited show confine themselves to a comparison of the careers of two designers who dominated the decade and come to some interesting conclusions.

The first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a huge timeline between flashing mirrored disco balls. In the clear graphic it is easy to compare the trajectory of the two careers from the early 1950s when both careers began to the mid 1980s when Halston went off the fashion radar and Saint Laurent was no longer a young innovator, but a member of the Parisian establishment. One notable milestone is 1966, four years before the 1970s began, when YSL founded his first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris. Rive Gauche was important to Saint Laurent. This exhibit brings out the fact that the ready-to-wear line was the designer’s incubator for styles that later appeared in his haute couture line—a fact that has been forgotten over time.

Timeline at "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston" Photo by Nadine Stewart

Timeline at “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

1973 is another important date since that was the year of “The Battle of Versailles.” The Americans were declared the winners of this competition based on their simple breezy presentation that made the overly long, tedious French production seem tired and dated. Halston, already a well-known figure, rocketed to fame after this show. In 1975, Esquire magazine declared he has poised to “take over the world.” At this point in the timeline, it’s a good idea to enter the main galley to see how the garments compare.

Both Halston and Saint Laurent drew inspiration from menswear, exotic ethnic and vintage clothing, and previous periods in fashion history especially Art Deco and the Belle Époque. Saint Laurent made history with his menswear—Le Smoking evening suit of 1966, the safari, and “gangster” looks. All this at a time when pants were not something garments women were allowed to wear for evening or in chic restaurants. Indeed, Lauren Bacall in the 1968 American television show, Bacall and the Boys, makes this point as she models a pair of Saint Laurent trousers. “I’ll wear them everywhere,” she enthuses, “Even to restaurants! Just let them try to throw me out!”

Halson’s approach to menswear was less literal. He incorporated elements of men’s clothing into his line. The famous Ultrasuede shirtdress is fine example. It was wildly popular, adopted by women of every age in the wide range of colors. I do remember attending a cocktail party in the early 1970s where it seemed every woman who could afford it had one on.

Ethnic and vintage-inspired fashions were strong in the 1960s. The trend continued in the 1970s, with designers like Giorgio Sant Angelo mining every possible ethnic influence to produce a high end “hippy chic.” Saint Laurent took a more considered approach rooted in French tradition. His most famous collections were the “Ballet Russes” and “Opium” collections of the mid-1970s, which were dripping with Orientalist themes, but also on display are dresses from Rive Gauche, which show how he played with these themes for years. Also on view are pieces that echo Christian Dior and Chanel with influences that range from a medieval lace front velvet, a Belle Époque-inspired gown in shimmering purple and red with huge gigot sleeves, and sweater-skirt ensembles embellished with fur collars and cuffs.

Halston historicized more sparingly. He used eliminated the decorative elements of non-Western dress in favor of minimal garments that were inspired by the simple draping of ethnic clothing like the caftan and sarong.

Another important point. Both designers had very similar ideas in the early 1970s; so similar it can be difficult to tell their work apart. A pleasure of this exhibit is circular platforms on which pairs of garments are mounted. It’s fascinating to see how much alike they can be, especially the flowing gowns influenced by the Art Deco of the interwar years. Curator Patricia Mears has a good eye for important construction techniques and points out that Halston was an innovator in fine couture construction. He eliminated the interior shaping and linings. Inspired by the work of Madeline Vionnet and Claire McCardell, he also eliminated darts and waistbands.[1]

Saint Laurent, in contrast, continued to use interior construction, a remnant of his years of training in Dior’s atelier. His use of flowing materials, like Halson. gives his garments the sleekness of the Art Deco period.

After a walk through the gallery, it’s a good idea to go back to the timeline, which shows where the two men’s careers diverged drastically. In September 1977, both designers were featured on the cover of W magazine. Both were on top of their game with signature perfumes that were adding millions to their bottom line, fabulous apartments that were featured in shelter magazines, and hundreds of lucrative licensing agreements. It seemed they would go on to challenge each other into the next decade and beyond. But fashion is fickle. In 1982, Halston signed a multi-million deal with JC Penney to produce a lower price line called “Halston III.” This probably seemed like a coup for his business. JC Penney, after all, was the first American company to pick up Mary Quant in the 1960s. For Halston, the deal was a disaster. High-end department stores dropped his clothes since they lost their cachet. Saint Laurent continued to hold his place as a leader of the fashion establishment in Paris. He was honored with a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 curated by the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Diana Vreeland. By 1984, Halston had lost control of his company and could no longer design under his own name. The era of joint creativity was over.

This exhibit was extremely satisfying on many levels. It offered fresh insights into the work of two important designers and clarified why they defined their period of fashion history. By doing so, the curators allowed us to view the 1970s with fresh eyes. I may never get over those double knit leisure suits, but now, I’ll never forget the glorious work of these designers I saw on display. This exhibit is one to visit more than once.

Can’t make it to the exhibit? There’s an excellent website complete with the timeline.

– Nadine Stewart

[1] A personal opinion here. Halston got his start as a milliner, a topic the exhibit barely mentions. I feel this training enabled him to think in three dimensions—something a milliner must always do since a hat will be viewed from all angles. He was especially known for his ability to drape a turban, work that requires a fluid ability to work with material without an underlying structure. I think this contributed to his design of gowns that flowed and were wrapped and tied around the body, which became his signature style.

A True #ThrowbackThursday: CSA Western Region Archives

Costume Society of America. Go to home page.

When I became the Archivist for CSA Western Region, I inherited seven boxes of files on our region’s 39 years of history and activities. These boxes have been added to and passed along to each successive Past President/Archivist for many years, and I thought it was high time we digitized them. The board agreed, and I have begun the long scanning process. I’ve just started on “Book 1” (a large three-ring binder), and I’m learning so much.

Here are five fun facts from the Archives:

  • The Western Region was established as the first region of CSA in 1976.
  • Mary Hunt Kalenberg, curator of Costumes and Textiles at LACMA was along with Jack Handford were co-chairmen of the board set in place prior to the first Western Region election. Kalenberg, “was instrumental in the organization of CSA and one of its 15 charter members. She served on the original National Board of Directors.” (CSA-WR Archives, Folder one, “Founding of CSA and the Early Years of Region V—Phylis Specht”). LACMA was generously supportive of the region during this period.
  • During the first 10 years (1976-86), the region hosted a whopping 66 programs. Subjects included:
    Folk/Ethnic (18); Art & Fashion (13); Western History (17), Theatre & Film (10); Conservation (1); Academic (4); and Miscellaneous (3).
  • The region operated solely as a Los Angeles chapter, with programs held bi-monthly, until 1981 when Inez Brooks-Myers was elected to the board and membership expanded to all the western states.
  • The first Symposium was Fashion and the Doll, held in November of 1985 at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach. A ‘mini-symposium’ on costume for work and travel was held in February of the following year at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. An impressive number of these kinds of events were held over the next several years.

As I go through more of the material, I plan to share more information about the impressive history of
the Western Region.

This article was first published in the Newsletter of the Costume Society of America Western Region, Spring 2015 issue. Click here to read the full issue: Spring+2015+CSA-WR.

Fashion History Primary Sources: Les Modes Online

Les Modes Nov 1909

Vicomtesse De Fontenay (Nee Pichon) in Les Modes, November 1909

For some research I’m doing, it has become incredibly helpful to have access to the National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France). They have a vast online collection, including searchable Les Modes (where the above image came from). It’s a marvelous resource for anyone doing research on Haute Couture. Happy Hunting!

Guest Review: “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power” By Nadine Stewart

Rubinstein wearing a 1923 Paul Poiret dress, photographed by Nickolas Muray, c. 1924. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Rubinstein wearing a 1923 Paul Poiret dress, photographed by Nickolas Muray, c. 1924. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.
© Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

“Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power”(at the Jewish Museum in NYC until March 22, 2015)

By Nadine Stewart

It can be argued that Helena Rubinstein was a force of nature—a self-made magnate whose empire, originally based on her skin cream formula, of spanned four continents. But she was much more than the head of a cosmetics firm, she was a tastemaker whose unerring eye for cutting edge art informed her work and in the process changed the image of the modern woman. The Jewish Museum has presented an exhibit that showcases all aspects of this powerful personality who used her Jewish name at a time when it was considered a handicap.


Graham Sutherland Helena Rubinstein in a Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown, 1957 Oil on canvas, 61 3⁄4 × 36 1⁄2 in. (156.9 × 92.7 cm) Daniel Katz Gallery, London © Estate of Graham Sutherland

We get the full force of Rubinstein’s personality in the first gallery where eight portraits by artists as varied as Christian Bérard, Roberto Montenegro, and Graham Sutherland are hung salon style. Rubinstein herself hung her portraits this way as an article from Life magazine in the one of the side cases shows. While the portraits are fascinating, the items on either side of the flanking walls are worth a careful look. They show the beginning of Rubinstein’s career with a rare picture of her family in Poland taken in 1888 to a 1964 article in Life, which described her as the “Tiny, Tireless Tycoon of Beauty.” Advertisements with her image show how she used her image to brand her products. An evening suit of red silk brocade by Balenciaga and a large sunburst necklace of Mexican silver that appear in her portraits give a taste of her sense of the dramatic.

Rubinstein’s passion for art was central to her drive for beauty in all things. The next two galleries display her copious art collection. Rubinstein was not a timid collector. She responded to the sculpture of Elie Nadelman with its mannered classicism, but even more significantly, she loved the art of Africa and Oceania viewing it as fine art, not ethnographic. Nadelman’s work is shown with works from Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Mexico much as she would have displayed them. Nadelman’s work was prominently featured in her salons since Rubinstein believed that her salons should be places where women absorbed beauty and culture along with beauty treatments. “Women who visit the salons on a regular basis develop a sense of discrimination and appreciation. …It will teach her much and give her knowledge about herself.”

The third gallery titled “The Changing Face of Beauty” is the core of the exhibit for it is here one sees the extent of her collection and her vision of beauty. “African art appealed to me greatly. Few of my friends cared for it. ‘How strange,’ they would say, ‘to think of someone who has dedicated her life to beauty buying such ugly things.” Her collection is breathtaking. Rubinstein cared little for conventional opinions of the day. Amid the works by Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró, George Braque, and a legion of African figures are twelve Picasso sketches of Rubinstein. Madame pressured the artist for a portrait for decades. Undeterred by Picasso’s refusal, she showed up at his home on the French Rivera in 1955 unannounced. The resulting sketches show Rubinstein’s many moods and are not all flattering. Picasso never did the long-sought portrait, but his sketches show the many facets of this remarkable personality.

Helena Rubinstein wearing her celebrated Schiaparelli bolero jacket, embroidered with elephants, from the designer’s 1938 Circus collection. © Roger-Viollet / Image Works

Helena Rubinstein wearing her celebrated Schiaparelli bolero jacket, embroidered with elephants, from the designer’s 1938 Circus collection.
© Roger-Viollet / Image Works

Rubinstein also wore what she liked. It might seem that a tiny woman who was only 4 feet 10 inches tall could not carry off couture laden with embroidery and huge jewels in profusion, but Rubinstein made her own style. She adored jewelry, especially large pieces with bright stones and endless strands of pearls. They are part of her “Glittering Armor” as the next gallery is titled. Among the items on view are: an enormous cuff bracelet with flowers of sapphires, emeralds, and yellow and white diamonds, strings of baroque pearls, and large ruby and tourmaline rings. She bought jewelry after quarrels with her husbands, “Buying ‘quarrel’ jewelry is one of my weaknesses,” she admitted. “”Some women buy hats, but I am more extravagant in anger, as I am in most things.” Even more extravagant was her system of jewelry storage. She used a large filing cabinet. Drawers labeled D contained her diamonds. “Under E could readily be found my emeralds, P was for pearls; R for rubies, S for sapphires and T for topaz.” Rubinstein also loved unconventional designers, Poiret, Schiaparelli, and Chanel. On view is a Schiaparelli bolero embroidered with elephants, and trapeze artists from 1938 and a 1923 Poiret tunic embroidered with symbols inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. A photograph of Madame from 1924 shows she wore it well.

Rubinstein not only collected art, she lived with it, decorating her homes in Paris, London, and New York with a profusion of paintings, sculpture, and tapestries by artists from all parts of the world. Pictures in the next gallery show the dramatic spaces. Madame used these apartments in publicity and fashion shoots, which also promoted her image. Another collecting sidelight was miniature rooms. Six are on display from an eighteenth-century French salon to an artist’s studio based one in Montmartre.

Finally, we see the world of the salon, the source of all her wealth. Advertisements and a video of the many treatments offered give a sense of how Rubinstein marketed her won image to project her vision of beauty. She believed that “One’s identity is a matter of choice,” so women should be free to take control of their appearances and express themselves. Before Rubinstein, beauty was considered “inborn,” one could not be attractive unless one was gifted with perfect features at birth. Madame rejected that. This exhibit shows how this very unconventional, powerful woman paved the way for women to re-invent themselves, to become modern.

Exhibition Catalog:

Guest Post: “When Redskin Was the New Black” by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

When Redskin Was the New Black

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Louis-Charles Desnos, “Coëffure à l’Insurgente.”Souvenir à la Hollandoise, enrichi de nouvelles Coëffures les plus galantes, 1780. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (92-B23531)

Louis-Charles Desnos, “Coëffure à l’Insurgente.”Souvenir à la Hollandoise, enrichi de nouvelles Coëffures les plus galantes, 1780. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (92-B23531)

Whether it’s famously blonde Blake Lively wrapped in a Navajo blanket on the cover of Vogue or a Karlie Kloss walking the runway in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show wearing a feathered headdress and little else, high-fashion knockoffs of Native American clothing and textiles inevitably make headlines for all the wrong reasons. Of course, this kind of cultural appropriation is nothing new—a century ago, Paul Poiret and Sonia Delaunay drew modernist inspiration from ancient Native American textile patterns—but it’s been going on even longer than you might think.

The coiffure à l’insurgente was one of many French fashions of the late 1770s and 1780s inspired by the defining philosophical issue of the time: America’s battle for independence, in which France was a key political and military ally. Ship-shaped coiffures à la Belle Poule and gowns of “Franklin gray”—the color of Benjamin Franklin’s hair—adorned the court of Louis XVI; coiffures à l’Americaine and chapeaux à la Pensilvanie appeared in French fashion magazines. At the time, “insurgente”—meaning “rebel”—was a synonym for “American” in French. A habit à l’insurgente appeared in the fashion magazine Gallerie des modes in 1779; it was described as being similar to gowns worn by Anglo-American women. But while its relation to American dress is obscure—and possibly invented to capitalize on the trend—the coiffure à l’insurgente clearly resembles a Native American feathered headdress, or war bonnet.Far from being perceived as offensive or exploitative, the coiffure à l’insurgente and other pro-American fashions advertised their female wearers’ patriotism and political acumen.

This image comes from a rare edition of the 1780 almanac Souvenir à la Hollandoise, enrichi de nouvelles Coëffures les plus galantes in the special collections of the Getty Research Institute (GRI), Los Angeles. The GRI is a research library adjacent to the J. Paul Getty Museum, with its own extensive holdings and exhibition program. Its special collections include rare books, prints, photographs, architectural drawings, correspondence, and archival material, much of it useful to fashion historians. A photo archive of two million images of artworks—housed in boxes sorted by genre and country—is a valuable resource for hard-to-find images, or just idle browsing. The GRI also has a good selection of fashion books, journals, and exhibition catalogues on open shelves, plus a wealth of reference material and extensive online resources like the BHA and ArtStor.

While its changing exhibitions gallery and Plaza Level (which includes Getty publications, recent periodicals, and general reference books) are open to the public, you need to apply for a reader’s card to visit the GRI’s stacks, photo archive, and special collections. It is worth getting one. Although the Getty has recently made its images available to the public free of charge under an open content policy, only a fraction of the GRI’s vast holdings have been photographed, and searching the Digital Collections can be frustrating. But helpful, knowledgeable librarians and an unusually user-friendly environment make the GRI’s embarrassment of research riches manageable.

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an independent scholar and consultant with an impressive background in fashion and history.  She received her B.A. from Stanford University, her M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and her Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen. Chrisman-Campbell has published numerous journal and magazine articles on 18th– and early 19th-century French fashion.  She has also contributed to several books and museum catalogues, including Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915 (Los Angeles: Prestel and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010) and Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Los Angeles: Getty Publishing, 2011).

Her new book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, (Yale University Press) is available as of this week.


Issey Miyake to Western Wear to Amazons at CSA Western Region Symposium


Issey Miyake’s Tattoo (1970)

The Western Region of the Costume Society of America held their symposium this year at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR, on October 11. I was fortunately enough to attend and was treated to seven lovely papers (some works in progress), and two lively discussions with attendees on the papers presented, as well as on the state of the western region and what members want more (and less) of. Attendees were very engaged in the discussions, more than I’d seen at a regional level.

The papers topics were based loosely on the topic “From the Street to the Catwalk, Cultural Influences on Contemporary Fashion” and the Museum of Contemporary Craft made for a wonderful setting (especially because of their exhibit, Fashioning Cascadia, which ended that day.

After opening remarks, the Annual Business meeting, and a short talk by CSA National President, Kathy Mullet (who is a Western Region member), the papers were presented. Given by Brenna Barks, Clara Berg, Meghan Hanson, Jennifer M. Mower, Linda Florence Matheson, Ilana Winter and JoAnn Stabb, the papers were varied – both in their topics, as well as in the progress of research. Topics included

  • Issey Miyake’s use of Japanese revival style,
  • GLBTQ style clothing in a regional museum,
  • a preview of the Michel Arnaud Fashion Photography Archive at FIDM,
  • pre-WWII WPA sewing rooms,
  • Street to runway fashion from the 40s-80s,
  • A history of Rockmount Ranch Wear, and
  • Romaine Brooks’ Amazon/Tuxedo fashions and their influence through history

It was also a good mix of emerging professionals and well –seasoned presenters. Regional diversity was good too – presenters were from Fresno, Los Angeles, Davis, Seattle, and Corvalis, covering three states (California, Oregon, and Washington).

Happily, attendees were also given packets of information with abstracts for all the papers presented, and much discussion was generated by the topics in the symposium wrap-up. I was glad to get to spend such good time, considering these interesting topics. It makes me glad that there is still so much research left to do! Below are some photos I took from the Fashioning Cascadia Exhibition:

Photo Oct 11, 8 26 30 AMwtmkPhoto Oct 11, 8 25 40 AMwtmk  Photo Oct 11, 8 26 45 AMwtmkPhoto Oct 11, 8 26 34 AMwtmk

New #FashionBooks for October: Cartier, Havana style, Haute Couture artisans and Textile tales, !

Fall is always a busy time for books, and this month a number of publishers have provided some unique offerings. Of particular note is a new book on Cartier – a tie-in with an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (opens November 16). Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles, was recently reviewed at, in an overview of her trip to Portland (I’ll have my own wrap up of my recent trip to Portland for the CSA Western Region Symposium soon!) In the meantime, please enjoy these new books!

Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles

by Leanne Prain (Arsenal Pulp Press, October 7, 2014)

From the publisher:

 Through text, the act of weaving a tale or dropping a thread takes on new meaning for those who previously have seen textiles—quilts, blankets, articles of clothing, and more—only as functional objects. This book showcases crafters who take storytelling off the page and into the mediums of batik, stitching, dyeing, fabric painting, knitting, crochet, and weaving, creating objects that bear their messages proudly, from personal memoir and cultural fables to pictorial histories and wearable fictions.”

Havana: Street Style

by Conner Gorry and Gabriel Solomons (Intellect Books, October 15, 2014)

From the Publisher:

When it comes to fashion, few metropolitan areas are more synonymous with style than New York, London, Paris, and Milan. But the couture capitals of tomorrow may be located in less likely locales. Addressing the interplay between the development of fashion centers across the world and their relationship to consumption and street style in both local and global contexts, the books in the Street Style series aim to record emerging fashion capitals and their relationship to the physical landscapes of the street. By examining how particular ecologies of fashion are connected to the formation of gender, class, and generational identities, this series establishes a new methodology for recording and understanding identity and its connection to style. Havana Street Style is the first book that explores and reveals the relationship between culture, city, and street fashion in Cuba’s capital. Matching visual ethnography with critical analysis, the book documents a unique street style few in the United States have yet experienced.”

Haute Couture Ateliers: The Artisans of Fashion

By Hélène Farnault (Vendome Press, October 7, 2014)

From the Publisher:

Haute Couture Ateliers takes the reader on a tour of fashion’s backstage, inhabited not only by exceptional designers but also by lace makers, weavers, textile finishers, pleaters, jewelers, feather workers, leather makers, embroiderers, and many other special­ized craftspeople. With painstaking attention to detail and exceptional workmanship, they can create anything and everything a designer can imagine. Exquisite photogra­phy captures this unchanged world of small workshops where artisans practice ancient trades—though a number have evolved with the times: while some weavers still use looms, others use high-speed precision machines, guided by proprietary software. Hélène Farnault, France’s leading authority on haute couture crafts, explains the rarefied hierarchies and mysteries of these extraordinary artisans, bringing talented milliners and trimming experts into the spotlight.”

Cartier in the 20th Century

By Pierre Painero (Vendome Press, October 14, 2014)

From the Publisher:

Created with the expertise of Cartier Heritage, this exquisite book showcases the rich holdings of the Cartier Collection and archive. It features not only a sumptuous array of rings, bracelets, necklaces, and tiaras, but also cocktail and smoking accessories, mystery clocks, and lavish objects created by Cartier’s ateliers in Paris, London, and New York. Organized thematically, the book features magnificent jewels and accessories owned by such arbiters of taste as Daisy Fellowes, the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace, Barbara Hutton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Throughout, specially commissioned photographs of Cartier’s legendary jewels are accompanied by vintage photographs—drawn from the Condé Nast and Cartier archives—of these royals, socialites, and Hollywood stars in their Cartier finery, including work by Steichen, Horst, Beaton, and Charbonneau.”



The Kimono: Two Exhibits, Two Reviews



Right now two major museums, on opposite coasts of the United States, both have exhibitions on the Kimono. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has Kimono for a Modern Age (through October 19, 2014) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has Kimono: A Modern History (through January 4, 2015). This unique situation requires a unique review. And so, I’m happy to present two simultaneous reviews of the two exhibitions by two experts in the field: Brenna Barks agreed to review the LACMA exhibition, and Nadine Stewart reviewed the Met’s exhibition. Below are their reviews. Happy Reading!

Kimono for a Modern Age

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through October 19, 2014)

Guest Review by Brenna Barks

Little attention is paid to what can be called the decline of the kimono in Japanese fashion. Most museum-goers, and thus most museum exhibitions, concentrate on the “expected”: what is seen as the traditional, soft, delicately patterned kimono that so inspired the Impressionists and the patrons of Japonisme. Indeed, this is the majority of kimono. However, kimono – like all clothing – followed fashion. And the fashion during the last “heyday” of the kimono is the subject of the Kimono for a Modern Age exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Leading up to and immediately after the second World War, while the traditional patterning remained popular, a new style of kimono emerged: the meisen. The fabric for meisen is unusual in that the warp and weft threads were stencil dyed individually before being woven, creating a marvellous faux-ikat pattern. These patterns were typically large and boldly coloured, contrary to the expected tradition.

Woman’s Kimono with Large Dewdrops (mizutama), Japan, early Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1935, purchased with funds provided by Grace Tsao, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Much has been made of the influence that the West had on the patterning of meisen – and LACMA does point out the references to Art Deco motifs or motifs taken from famous Western painters, such as Matisse, in the exhibition. But what LACMA does with their exhibition of over 30 meisen is to properly place them back into context within the Japanese tradition. Yes, there are Western art influences, but predominantly meisen were reinterpretations of Japanese art: landscape paintings, calligraphic motifs, and more often new, bold re-imaginings of traditional Japanese kimono patterns such as arrows or dewdrops.

Some of these re-interpretations can even be seen as forms of protest against American occupation after World War II. At least two meisen in the exhibition feature the Japanese war flag of the rising sun being not-so-subtly worked into the pattern. One in blue as a vague “star” pattern, another into what would otherwise be an image of dawn over a village. Or perhaps instead of open protest, these patterns were a silent message of surviving patriotism and a hope that they would rise again after re-inventing themselves as well as their traditions? LACMA masterfully and tactfully addresses the subject of war and occupation, tradition and fashion head-on through the display of such kimono and their thoughtful, well-written tombstones about each piece.

With the increasing popularity of Western clothing due to ease of wear and maintenance, the kimono declined rather sharply in popularity after the war. The meisen, while largely ignored in the West until now, was in many ways the last hurrah of this beautiful garment. The Kyoto kimono industry closed for good in the early 2000s; so few Japanese people today know how to wear it that schools exist to teach the proper wearing of the kimono, or simply to dress clients when occasion calls for traditional clothing. The LACMA exhibition not only fills this gap in the history of the “symbol of Japan”, but inspires visitors to question what the term “fashion” really means: it does not necessarily mean a shift in shapes and hemlines, but can mean the re-adaptation of tradition and the extended survival of an ancient garment into the modern age.”

Kimono: A Modern History

Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 4, 2015)

Guest Review by Nadine Stewart

Over Robe (Uchikake) with Long-Tailed Birds in a Landscape Period: Edo period (1615–1868) Date: second half of the 18th century Medium: Silk and metallic-thread embroidery and stencil paste-resist dyeing on silk satin damask Credit Line: Gift of Charles Zadok, 1959 Accession Number: 59.46

Kimono: A Modern History is a stunning exhibit, not to be missed. The fifty kimonos on display span the period from the eighteenth century to the present day, a time when the kimono evolved from a garment worn by the nobility and the peasantry. Though “kimono” literally means a “thing to wear,” this exhibit shows how much more this garment has meant to Japanese culture over the centuries and how it has influenced fashion in the rest of the world.

The first things on display are swatch samples from the Edo Period (1615-1868), exquisite examples of tapestry weaving in silk and silver thread. In one piece the fighting dragons are made entirely of tiny French knots. In another, we see Western ships with their flags, a reminder that Japan opened up to the West in this period, which would mean a new set of influences and textiles techniques would come flooding into the country. The kimonos in this section are the elegant silk padded kimonos for ladies of the nobility. The fabric of each one is an example of the highest level of craftsmanship–damask grounds overlaid with couched gold thread and silk embroidery.

Elegant as they are, the kimonos are not the only items featured here. A beautiful inlaid cosmetic box with brushes and combs, a large screen showing dancers whose fluid sleeves accentuate their movement, and an etiquette book on how to dress give a sense of the special place the kimono had in this society. The entire exhibit is full of objects that amplify the kimono story from elegant prints that show members of the Japanese court mingling with Western men and women suits and bustles to a “Basket Derby” from 1880-97, a city style made from simple reeds to be worn by the Japanese dandy with his walking stick.

Working class kimonos are just as beautiful as the kimonos for the nobility. Firemen in Japan wore heavy cotton kimonos with figures painted inside for protection as they fought the many fires in a nation of wooden buildings. The kimonos were soaked with water as the men fought fires. The designs inside were only seen during festivals when they were turned inside out. Even rarer, is a farmer’s kimono of recycled rags and a coverlet kimono worn over a person in bed, painted with image of a lobster, the symbol of longevity.

Woman’s evening coat Date: 1910–20 Culture: France Medium: Silk velvet, silk satin collar, cuffs, and lining Credit Line: Lent by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mr. William B. Gannett

A significant section of the exhibit shows how Japan and the West influenced each other from 1868 to 1912. The Japanese adopted Western chemical dyes and weaving techniques, while the Western fashion was swept up in beautiful images from Japan as these pieces from the collection of the Costume Institute show. A lush pink silk velvet opera cloak by Jean-Charles Worth is displayed next to a kimono robe made by Tashimaya Department Store for the foreign trade. It features short kimono-like sleeves and a simpler printed fabric with Japanese-style motifs. Finally, a light green wool Western-style robe with frog closures features embroidered flowers, which are a fine example of Japanoism.

As Japan moved into the twentieth century, the influences changed, the artistry did not. Modern inventions like cameras, express train tickets, and sheet music appear. Tow kimonos show sobering signs of the nation’s increasing militarism—one shows the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War and another, antiaircraft guns, tanks and planes backing Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Kimonos for the masses appear sold in department stores with design influenced by Art Deco and the De Stijl movement. There is even a child’s kimono treasured by Frank Lloyd Wright with a pattern of wisterias climbing over abstract trellises.

The Exhibition Catalog (Click to purchase)

After World War II, Japan began an effort to preserve its cultural heritage, preserving and honoring the craft of the kimono makers, weavers, and dyers through the Living Treasure Movement. Three kimonos created by these artists give testament to the beauty of their work. At the end of the exhibit are garments from prominent Japanese designers, who have brought the nation to the forefront of fashion while honoring their unique traditions—Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, and Yojhi Yamamoto, and one more designer, Bonnie Cashin. Her simple black wool kimono-style coat shows her love of the Japanese kimono. It was a design she repeated often though her career.

Kimono: A Modern History is tucked into the Arts of Japan Galleries in the Met’s Asian Arts Wing. The galleries surround the lovely basalt Water Stone (1986) by Isamu Noguchi, whose soothing sound pervades the galleries. It underlines the timelessness of the fashions displayed here and their lasting beauty. This is a fashion exhibit from another perspective, a valuable reminder that Western fashion is not the only fashion.”

A very special thanks to Brenna and Nadine for cooperating on these reviews for Fashion Historia. Can’t make it to New York to see their exhibition? You can buy the exhibition catalog, but the Met has all 170 objects from the show available online for you to look at (sans curatorial insights/labels/wall text) . While there isn’t an exhibition catalog to accompany LACMA’s show, they have created this beautiful video:

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*Image: Utagawa Kokunimasa (Japanese, 1874–1944). Swimming at Ōiso, Distant Views of Mount Fuji, 1893. Meiji period (1868–1912). Japan. Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints; ink and color on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1960 (JP3382a–c)

**Image: Woman’s Kimono (kosode) with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, late Taisho+ (1912-1926) – early Sho+wa (1926–1989) period, Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyo+-kasuri meisen), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.2012.130.9.

**Image: Woman’s Kimono (kosode) with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, late Taisho+ (1912-1926) – early Sho+wa (1926–1989) period, Silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyo+-kasuri meisen), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, M.2012.130.9.