You don’t have to be an expert in fashion to recognize this:
But did you know the kimono — that iconic Japanese T-shaped garment — inspired some of the most famous fashion designers in the world?
Cristóbal Balenciaga. Madeleine Vionnet. Paul Poiret. To name a few.
A new exhibition on Kimono fashion opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art today.
More than 60 kimonos from the late 18th to early 20th century are on display…
alongside Japanese art…
and Western couture.
I got a sneak peek last week… and was gobsmacked by what I learned about this simple garment.
1. The Japanese developed the kimono in the 16th century based on Chinese and Korean garments. What defines a kimono is that it is made from a single bolt of fabric (so you don’t waste any of it) and has a T shape with straight lines. It was originally an undergarment.
2. The kimono was also sustainable. Cotton was hard to grow, especially in the northern part of Japan, so the Japanese bought used cotton clothing from Osaka and repurposed it. Commoners wore kimonos made of cotton and hemp.
3. In medieval times, aristocrats and high-ranking samurai donated kimonos to actors because the garments were so expensive. They were all handmade using high-quality silk and real silver and gold foil. The actors performed by candlelight and the gold and silver picked up the candlelight beautifully.
4. Firefighters, who were held in high regard in Japan, wore kimonos to fight fires. And there were many fires in Japan because of the sheer number of wooden structures.
5. Each kimono tells a story. Women’s history was not recorded in the Edo period (1603-1867); there are no books featuring women during this time. For instance, a red wedding kimono with wisteria was a sign that the wedding took place in May, since that is the month wisteria blooms in Japan.
6. European designers, like Paul Poiret and Madeline Vionnet, were fascinated by the forgiving cut of the kimono. They made garments inspired by the kimono at a time when women were trying to free themselves from the corset.
7. And the Japanese were quick to adapt to new American trends... like polka dots...
And Mickey Mouse.
8. Charles James, one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century, made a coat for his baby based on the kimono.
9. If you bought a kimono in the 17th century, in five years it was out of fashion. You might think of the kimono as an unchanging garment because the shape itself hasn’t changed much. But the fabrics and the colors did.
10. Part of the reason why the kimono has endured is because its simple shape allowed fashion designers to be creative in other areas.