NEW YORK, N.Y. - It's difficult to imagine a more eloquent symbol of Japan than the deceptively simple, T-shaped kimono. Traditional yet ever changing, the kimono ("thing to wear," in Japanese) has evolved dramatically over the past 150 years.
Its story encompasses the evolution of weaving, dyeing and embroidery techniques, as well as Japan's esthetic, social and even political history.
"Kimono: A Modern History," on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 19, 2015, is a tour de force in textiles.
As you enter the galleries, you see an elegant red kimono that a wealthy woman donated to a temple, where it was recycled and patched together to make a kimono for an aging priest.
"There's a wonderful paradox there, and it's a sort of introduction to the story of the kimono," said John Carpenter, curator of Japanese art, who organized the exhibit with Monika Bincsik, also of the museum's Asian Art department.
Based on the book of the same name by Japanese textile expert Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, who died in 2012, the show is dedicated to Milhaupt's memory and coincides with the posthumous publication of her book (Reaktion Books) earlier this year.
The exhibit consists of over 50 kimonos, half on loan and half from the museum's own collection, as well as almost 200 fabric samples, screens, scrolls, lacquer works, ceramics, illustrated books and other objects.
It includes glittering, gold-embroidered, 18th century Noh robes; cartoon-like, monster-faced, firefighter kimonos done with free-hand resist dyes in reds and yellows on indigo; political propaganda kimonos printed with startling symbols of war; children's kimonos — including one cherished by Frank Lloyd Wright; and, finally, contemporary pieces featuring the futuristic shibori pleats of Issey Miyaki, and the rips and angular shaping of Yohji Yamamoto. Highlights also include three breathtaking kimonos made by designers designated as National Living Treasures by the government of Japan.
The exhibit begins in the Edo period (1615 to 1868), when the design, material and style of garments reflected a person's role as samurai, farmer, craftsman or merchant. In addition to the grand textiles embroidered in gold that one might expect, there are thick, quilted firefighters' robes decorated with bright designs depicting heroes and mythical beasts. Farmers' robes, meanwhile, were mostly of recycled fabric scraps woven together, or patchwork jackets.
At this time, the kimono was an everyday garment. But its design and function were to change.
In the Meiji period (1868 to 1912), when Japan looked to Western countries in a quest for rapid modernization, the textile industry — and the kimono — were transformed. Japanese began using Western woolen and velvet materials, while Japanese silks became popular in the West. Japanese also began using Western chemical dyes and new weaving technologies, combining them with traditional stencil-dyeing techniques to create kata-yuzen, a sophisticated, stencil paste-resist dyeing technique.
As Western design concepts increasingly influenced Japanese kimonos, they became bolder and brighter, while Japanese design began inspiring 19th century Western artists and designers.
A young girl's silk kimono decorated with a pattern of wisteria flowers and trellises was acquired by Wright on a visit to Japan in around 1905. Its modernity is striking, and it likely inspired some of the architect's subsequent works.
"It almost looks architectural, and you can see how it inspired him," Carpenter said.
To preserve traditional crafts in the face of such rapid modernization, the Japanese government began designating some experts as Imperial Household Artists and, later, Living National Treasures. Featured in the exhibit are works by stencil-dyer Keisuke Serizawa, yuzen-dyer Kako Moriguchi and his son, Kunihiko Moriguchi. These were precious kimonos to be hung as art and not worn.
In the Taisho period (1912 to 1926), kimonos became brighter and bolder still as department stores promoted new looks to appeal to the masses. Traditional Japanese motifs were combined with new Western design concepts to make some dazzling kimonos, many inspired by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.
Designs became more graphic in following decades, especially in unlined summer kimonos, which were often resist-dyed or embroidered. A man's under-kimono from the 1930s features cameras and train tickets, and is displayed alongside a woman's kimonos decorated with images of piano keys and libretti from two songs. One kimono even features Mickey Mouse.
Inexpensive, ready-to-wear kimonos woven from pre-dyed yarn were so easily mass-produced that customers began to expect new designs every year. At the same time, improved dyeing techniques meant more sharply delineated designs and colour gradations.
During World War II, the kimono's symbolism as a national costume made it a perfect vehicle for war propaganda, particularly for boys' kimonos and mens' under-kimonos. Battleships and bomber planes took hold as motifs.
Although kimonos are now worn mainly only for formal occasions, the show ends with works by leading fashion designers, and make the case that designers, both Japanese and Western, continue to create clothing inspired by kimonos, pushing the art form further still. The kimono seems not so much a disappearing traditional garment but an evolving form that adapts to changing lifestyles and textile techniques.