The Kimono: Two Exhibits, Two Reviews

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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.

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Tempting finds on the Fashion bookshelf…

It seems to me that the pace of publishing in the fashion history field has been growing exponentially since I left graduate school. At that time, I remember being told by a professor that fashion books were few and far between, and the best place to find them was at The Strand (an amazing used bookstore in Manhattan).

Now though, the books just keep on coming. As readers may have seen over the last few weeks, I’ve been attempting to review many of them. Primarily, these have been coffee table books like Debutantes: When Glamour Was Born, beautifully produced exhibition catalogs like Pearls and Hollywood Costume and much-needed monographs like Jean Patou. For more book reviews check out the  “Books & Resources” subject area on the site.

Of course there are a number of books that I just haven’t had a chance to properly review, and I thought it would be a good idea to mention them here, so people have more of an idea on what’s just come out:

Gilded New York: Design, Fashion & Society (November 2013) of which the Sam Roberts at The New York Times said ““Forget the 1 percent. Consider them gracious and empathetic compared with the denizens of Gilded New York during two decades of excess from 1885 to 1905. This lavishly illustrated volume illuminates the mansions, costumes and other accouterments of the people whose philanthropy helped produce the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera, but whose self-indulgence also gave big money a bad name.”

Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 (September 2013) An exhibition catalog that the Wall Street Journal describes as “the fascinating history of weaving techniques, raw materials and design patterns shared through links of trade between cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa and the New World. . . . Authoritative essays on export routes, textile technology and global trends in taste complement fine photographs of textiles from around the world.”

Colette’s France: Her lives, her loves (October 2013) A heavily illustrated biography, with a beautiful cover, ForeWord Reviews describes by saying “Her beauty and brilliance are captured strikingly in this artful, sensual biography.”

Amazing books in this field continue to surprise, delight, and educate — I’m looking forward to the coming year of reading. And I don’t anticipate that the pace of fashion publishing will slow down anytime soon (especially as the divide between print and digital continues. Fashion books lend themselves well to the physically printed medium — at least for now!)

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Holiday Book tease: “Hollywood Costume”

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Already called out for being “Gift-Worthy” by the Huffington Post and the Associated Press, today’s review is just a teaser for Hollywood Costume (Abrams) edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis.

Hollywood Costume is the lavishly illustrated coffee-table book and exhibition catalog from the Victoria & Albert exhibition of the same name. It frequently juxtaposes film stills with the physical costumes. The above costume was designed by Travis Banton for  Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, 1934. The image below shows Colbert wearing the dress (and showing off much cleavage) For more on the costumes in this film, see my article at Worn Through from 2010.

Another spectacular costume featured in Hollywood Costume (along with installation shots and an essay by Sam Gatley on dressing the mannequin) is this costume for Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) in My Man Godfrey, 1936 by Travis Banton (Page 214-5, Gown and duster jacket designed by Travis Banton. The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum).

My Man Godfrey happens to be one of my favorite movies (hello, William Powell!). The image of this dress is gorgeous in this two-page spread, but seeing all those glass bugle beads in motion in the film is just absolutely stunning. The scene below features the dress, but is also a fairly important point of the plot: (pardon the ad at the beginning of the clip):

For more wonderful insights, be sure to check out the book, Hollywood Costume (Abrams) edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis.

*Page 137  The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design Larry McQueen. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

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Victorian Fashion History (including Embroidery) on Sept. 15

The Costume Society of America, Western Region has an exciting and unique opportunity for members and guests alike: Costumes, Campfires, and Candlelight on Saturday, September 14 at Ft. Vancouver, WA (just a few minutes from Portland, OR).

Seamstress Brigid Nelson lets down the hem of a dress. The dye that produced the color -- chrome orange -- was formulated in the early 1800s.

This full-day event will include a private tour of the Costume Center, a visit to historical Oregon City, (“the end of the Oregon Trail”), a demonstration of Victorian Fish Scale Embroidery, and much more. The registration deadline is August 30, 2013. CSA members cost is $35.00,non-members $40.00, students receive discounts.

I’ve just registered – and hope to see you there!

More Information: Costumes, Campfires, and Candlelight

 

 

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Madame Grès: Sculptural Fashion (Book Review)

The book Madame Grès: Sculptural Fashion commemorates the ever-ephemeral fashion exhibition of the same name (which closed at MoMu Fashion Museum, Province of Antwerp in February of this year) and adds to the growing body of knowledge on this important twentieth-century designer.

Often re-interpreting classical Greek sculptural forms, and best known for her classical draping and pleating, Madame Alix Grès (1903-1993) was inspired by the body and was fiercely dedicated to her work. Though active from the early 1930s (as Alix Barton), her career as Madame Grès began when she opened a couture house under that name in 1942. Her clients included the likes of the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Dolores del Río.

Fitting of an Alix Barton model on mannequin by Mademoiselle Alix, 1933 © Boris Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet

With this volume, Olivier Saillard, director of Galliera, The Paris Museum of Fashion, adds his name to the prestigious list of fashion historians who have documented the work of Grès. Previous books have been penned by such fashion history giants as Richard Martin and Harold Koda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Madame Grès 1994) and Patricia Mears of the Fashion Institute of Technology (Madame Grès: the Sphinx of Fashion, 2007).

Madame Grès: Sculptural Fashion is a wonderful resource for historians already familiar with her history and who are looking to add further to their libraries. It documents the garment and sketch collections held at the Galliera, while offering the best of the details of her career including: insights into her public persona, her relationship with the media, her opinions on exhibitions of her work planned during her lifetime (they weren’t positive), her design process and philosophy, and much more.

Archives Grès, hand drawing from Madame Grès, Spring/Summer 1948 © Collection Galliera, Photo D.R.

The 216-page-book is full of photographic evidence of her work, as well as some photos of work she inspired other modern designers to create (Jean Paul Gaultier and Yogi Yamamoto among them). The “Couture Studio” section of the book presents photographs of some sixty extant garments created between 1933-1988 (with captions at the back of the book), followed by a section of contemporary high fashion photographs of Grès work.  A selection of the 2,800 sketches/illustrations donated by the Pierre Bergere – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation leaves you wanting more and a section called “Biography” presents a sort-of annotated narrative chronology interspersed with illustrative images. Despite all of the material included, I found the book’s small trim size and layout too be somewhat awkward –many images occupied only the top half of a page in a smallish size, making many design details difficult to see. This left the bottom third of the page more-or-less blank, yet captions were at the back of the book. This design made little sense to me.

Despite these few shortcomings, I’d recommend this book for the true fashion historian, museum fashion curator, libraries with strong fashion sections, and the devoted enthusiast.

Look inside the book:

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Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty (Volume 1) Brief Review

Edited by UC Davis professor Susan Kaiser (along with Efrat Tseëlon of the University of Leeds and and Ana Marta González of the University of Navarra); this publication – part book and part journal – seeks to further the Fashion Studies debate with both interdisciplinary and international slants. Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty is a well-illustrated journal that includes exhibition reviews, articles and editorials by a dozen different authors on such topics as “Revisioning the Kimono” (Sheila Cliffe); “Russian Immigrant Women and the Negotiation of Social Class and Feminine Identity through Fashion” (Alexandra Korotchenko and Laura Hurd Clarke); and “Auction Prices of Fashion Collectibles: What do the mean? (Diana Crane).

Crane’s piece on fashion as collectible object was a particularly interesting editorial, especially this:

Aesthetic criteria for evaluating fashionable collectibles and fashionable clothing in general are underdeveloped, as indicated in a recent review of scholarly works on fashion (Gonzalez 2010). Most scholarly discussions of fashion theorize the characteristics and effects of fashion that is in fashion, rather than the aesthetic criteria of fashion collectibles. in fact, most such discussions ignore the possibility and implications of fashion collectibles. Analysing fashion collectibles is different from recounting fashion history. The latter tends to be a description of a succession of creators and styles.” (145-146).

Her piece also discusses the role of ‘celebrity endorsement’ in the valuation of fashion collectibles; the roles museums play; as well as some brief background analysis. It will take me a while to get through the other articles here, but they are valuable and informative works. If you’ve read other articles here, I’d love to know your thoughts on them.

 

 

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