Claiming the spotlight in the center of a large gallery, the “Worcester Wedding Kimono” captivates the eye with its pattern of large interlocking octagons in a variety of rich reds, spring greens and soft yellows. They are stylized maple leaves, inspired by the local landscape over different seasons—but they were not meant to be the centerpiece of “The Kimono in Print: 300 years of Japanese Design,” which explores the ways fashion and printmaking have intersected in Japan. The kimono, commissioned by and for the Worcester Art Museum, was supposed to have appeared in a concurrent show organized in conjunction with Chiso, a kimono-making workshop in Kyoto in operation since 1555.
Covid-19 disrupted that plan, and the museum’s curatorial team deftly adapted. They transformed “Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso” into an online presentation about the history and making of kimonos, each installment pegged to a piece that would have been on display. The final section centers on this garment, the only one to travel here from Japan. In its new venue, surrounded by a selection of some 60 woodblock prints and illustrated books, most from the museum’s permanent collection, the kimono underscores the extent to which these garments act like canvases. Nobody has ever crimped, pleated or ruched their fabric; nobody has ever significantly altered their basic T-cut. All decoration and artistry takes place on their surfaces. In this case, Imai Atsushiro, Chiso’s senior designer, devised the composition, and a team of specialized artisans transferred it onto jacquard silk using five dyeing techniques, embroidery and gold leaf.
The Kimono in Print: 300 years of Japanese Design
Worcester Art Museum
Through May 2
Immediately striking in the printed depictions of kimonos is the endless variety and interplay of motifs—flowers, fruits, leaves and grasses; clouds, waves, butterflies and phoenixes; checks, stripes, bold zigzags, tiny “fawn dots,” and on and on. Occasionally, a full-fledged artwork fills the back of a kimono, the name the garment acquired in the mid-1800s and that translates simply as “thing to wear.” Kikugawa Eizan’s print from around 1830 depicts the courtesan Yoyoyama swiveling to show off the white-on-black brush painting of bamboo that fills the back of her garment, complete with the artist’s signature seals.
The way Yoyoyama gathers her silks creates a deep bend so that the bamboo tilts precariously inward. The kimono might therefore be read as advertising not just her cultural refinement but also her effect on men. After all, ukiyo-e or “floating world” images tended to glamorize brothels as paradises of leisure that doubled as salons where artists, courtesans and Kabuki theater actors mingled with samurai and members of the increasingly prosperous merchant class.
Outside the pleasure quarters, that wealth fueled a desire for fineries, and since women were confined primarily to the domestic sphere, they could indulge themselves without worrying too much about being seen violating sumptuary laws. Ukiyo-e prints offered them virtual fashion shows, creating trendsetters in the process. In Ishikawa Toyonobu’s “Beauties of the Three Capitals,” made around 1740-50, for example, courtesans model styles from Osaka, Kyoto and Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Another contemporaneous Ishikawa print shows the Kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu I wearing a check pattern he introduced on stage in 1741 that later pops up on a courtesan’s sash. And notice the diffusion of stripes, which entered Japanese fashion as expensive imports from India and that local workshops then imitated. Here they appear on kimonos of both high- and low-ranking courtesans as well as that of a housewife.
The show also includes other sources. A dozen or so pattern books give us a taste of the fun that women had mixing and matching motifs, watching styles shift over time, and choosing what mood to express, from dramatic to erudite to whimsical. A 1719 pattern depicts mice negotiating Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. And as risky as it is to include erotica in a show open to families, a tiny grouping about books known as shunpon serves a good purpose. Sex was an acceptable topic as long as it did not cross class lines, and few people other than the “sour lemon-eaters,” as one 1660 text described strict Confucians, disapproved of shunpon. Widely circulated, they were beautifully made and, while artists depicted genitalia with gross exaggeration, they lavished great care and precision on clothing, whether it was being worn or temporarily discarded.
For all the emphasis on heterosexual sex, however, gender seems irrelevant when it comes to kimonos. They are designed to show off their own beauty, not the body inside, so much so that the beautiful woman depicted in a print often turns out to be a Kabuki actor playing a role. Always, surface decoration reigns supreme. This helps explain the refinements in printing techniques we see over the three centuries covered in the show, from monochromatic prints to ever-richer colors and additional accentuating techniques. It also helps explain the puzzling fact that remarkable artists routinely marked, say, the bend of a leg with a realistic crease but then preserved the integrity of a decorative motif across the fold. Like the show and its catalog, the artists had the kimono’s best interest at heart.
—Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal
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