A revisioning of traditional kimono


The silhouette of a kimono on the body is cylindrical. For women, the waistline disappears under layers of wrappings. A long, stiff obi belt — the formal version may be a 14-foot-long length of brocade — is wound tightly around the midsection and secured with a cord. The breasts are flattened to smooth the front appearance. Men have more leeway; their obi sash is lower slung on the body. Still, the body is concealed by planes of fabric.

Boro/dotera cotton work garment. cotton, indigo-dyed. Meiji period (1868-1912). Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.

The kimono itself is constructed of a series of rectangles. When it is laundered, the entire garment is taken apart, washed and resewn. There are only two sizes of kimono: the male size and the female. Short people pull up the garment skirt and tall wearers let out the excess, concealing the adjustments beneath the belt.

So when the Japanese kimono form, earthbound and cylindrical, is compared to the Western silhouette for women, which emphasizes the curvatures of the body, one can see why Western borrowing of kimono fashion focuses not on the form and construction of the garment, but on the incredible textiles that have evolved into one of Japan’s highest and most appreciated art forms.

That understanding will help you as you go through the galleries at the Asian Art Museum’s “Kimono Refashioned” exhibition in San Francisco, which features oil paintings, woodblocks, textile fragments and examples of how Westerners have fallen in love with their interpretation of the kimono and its textile culture.

For example, the eye-catching pair of high-heeled shoes by Louboutin, which use a highly embroidered silk tacked down with metal studs, are a fun hybrid object, blending Edo-period aesthetics with contemporary footwear.

Short boots by Christian Louboutin, 2017. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.

And a bubble wrap-like outfit, which looks like a sea princess costume from an underwater sci-fi fantasy, looks nothing like a kimono. But the textile is made using a shibori tie-dye resist technique, connecting the dress to Japanese traditions.

It’s enjoyable to stroll through the galleries and view many examples of Japanese textile art applied to Western suits, dresses, T-shirts and accessories. The collection comes from the venerable Kyoto Costume Institute.

There are a few cases in which Japanese designers have taken elements of traditional dress and played with the form. The 1995 evening dress by Yohji Yamamoto has stiff lengths of red-and-gold brocade that waterfall down the front, moving the traditional showiness of an obi sash from the back of a maiko’s kimono to the front of a Western dress.

Dress by Yohji Yamamoto, 1995. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.

Examples of Issey Miyake’s iconic pleats and Rei Kawakubo’s work are also included

The most soulful piece of Japanese clothing in the exhibition, however, is an anonymously-made work garment dating from the late 19th century. It is made of layers of indigo cotton that have been patched, worn, torn and repatched with careful needlework that has been mended by someone who wasted nothing.

The boro rag garment was used as inspiration by Junya Watanabe for a contemporary men’s suit that employs patches. But this is a case where the “refashioned” design is a thin version of the original. This unknown maker’s honest work deserves our study and respect and a more central place in any exploration of kimono and the Japanese spirit.

“Kimono Refashioned” is on display until May 5 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Extended hours on Thursdays.

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