New Asian Art Exhibition Spotlights Kimono

by Jean Schiffman

“Kimono Refashioned” provides insight into the intersection of fashion and culture.

Amidst a recent local renaissance of museum exhibitions that focus on the fashion of specific cultures (“Couture Korea,” “Fashioning Jewish Dress,” “Contemporary Muslim Fashion”), the Asian Art Museum opens a new show, “Kimono Refashioned,” focusing exclusively on the Japanese kimono and its influence on global fashion from the Victorian era to today.

Consider the oldest costume on display: a white silk dress with a bustle, from about 1875. Only recently had Japan emerged from several centuries of self-imposed isolation. In a trend called Japonism, Western designers’ imaginations were sparked by this unprecedented access to all things Japanese, including the kimono with its unfamiliar, unisex construction and its emphasis on fabric and intricate decoration. The à la mode dress on display, by Misses Turner Court Dress Makers in London, is covered with motifs common to kimono: fans, wisteria, chrysanthemums and peonies.

Next, take a look at the most recent item in the exhibit: a pair of short, elegant boots, created by French designer Christian Laboutin in 2017; similarly, the boots feature distinctly kimono-inspired illustrations of cranes and plum blossoms embroidered in silk on silk grosgrain. (Incongruously, the heels and cuffs are lined with sharp little studs.) Exhibit co-curator Yuki Morishima, the Asian Art Museum’s associate curator of Japanese art, says that only 10 pairs of these boots were made. There is no other footwear in the exhibit, which comprises clothing and accessories by nearly 30 designers (including Coco Chanel, Issy Miyake, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons) and thematically related paintings (by artists such as James Tissot and Renoir).

Organized with the Kyoto Costume Institute, which houses 13,000 garments, the exhibit is divided into four sections, with particular care, says Morishima, to include both Japanese and non-Japanese designers, male and female, and to showcase both men’s and women’s garments. But the exhibit also includes surprises. Morishima cites an example. The 1990, orange “Rhythm Pleats Dress” by Miyake, which Morishima calls the “origami dress,” does not immediately reveal its connection to kimono. But like a kimono, it can be folded completely flat.

Two small sections serve as the show’s bookends. The first, “Kimono in Paintings,” includes such works by American and European artists as Monet’s “Camille Monet in Japanese Costume,” in which his wife poses flirtatiously with a fan, her kimono decorated with a samurai warrior. The final bookend, “Japanese Pop,” shows today’s youthful outfits influenced by anime and manga.

In between are two large sections: “Japonism in Fashion” shows just how besotted Western designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were with what they saw as the exoticism of the East as represented by kimono—its fabric, its dyes, its colorful motifs (typically chrysanthemums, swallows, cherry blossoms, irises, waves), its contours (straight lines not meant to follow the shape of the body), its voluminous sleeves, its trademark obi, or sash. Kimono-style negligees (much looser and roomier than the constricted lines of a classic kimono) proliferated.

And the largest section, “Kimono in Contemporary Fashion,” shows just how pervasive has been the impact of the kimono on current Western and Japanese designers. “The influence of kimono is not something in the past,” Morishima explains. “It’s ongoing. It has a strong presence in the world of fashion today.” She adds that exhibits like this, and the other recent San Francisco fashion exhibits, covering a broad spectrum rather than the work of one designer, provide insight into the intersection of clothing and culture. It’s a San Francisco concept, she says, to “look into diverse cultures and aesthetics and global fashion.”

Kimono Refashioned

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St., San Francisco

Feb. 8-May 5