Asian Art Museum’s eye-opening ‘Kimono Refashioned’ is a comprehensive study of cultural influences

Asian Art Museum/Courtesy

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At the Asian Art Museum, “Kimono Refashioned” takes fashion enthusiasts and art lovers alike on an immersive tour of the evolution of the kimono and its influences on Western fashion. This exhibition highlights the cross-pollination of artistic values and the mechanics behind fashion between countries all over the world.

The exhibition features two separate wings. One takes the viewer back in time 150 years, while the other focuses on modern and contemporary kimono and kimono-influenced designs. The former wing displays French couture’s adoption of Japanese styles and embroidery in the mid- to late-19th century. The enduring emphasis on fashion in Paris at this time encouraged experimentation and fusion. As such, many dresses in this wing look culturally ambiguous — they certainly have kimono-like aesthetics (such as the overlapping of fabric in the front fastened by an obi) but they also include European elements (such as a train in the back or a protruding backside).

This innovative fusion indicates the transcontinental exchange of art forms and culturally tethered intellect that influenced kimono designs. The plaques are informative and helpful in educating the visitors on the way that the incorporation of the kimono into international fashion holds not only artistic but also historical significance. As Japan opened its doors to free trade with the West in the 19th century, cultural exchange became expedited both ways. Just as the style of the kimono became a recurring aesthetic in the West, Japanese officials began to wear Western-style clothing.

The exhibition offers a closer look into this trading history through paintings depicting European women in Japanese garb. Even some extremely famous paintings show the kimono in a Western setting, such as “The Astronomer” by Johannes Vermeer. Such instances demonstrate just how desired and precious the kimono was as a commodity outside of Japan before the 1800s, when it became more widely available.

Each exquisite piece on display certainly reflects the diligence of its makers, and the exhibition specifically mentions prominent designers including Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet (whose minimalistic and unique wedding dress is shown). Again, the endorsement of this particular style by internationally renowned designers and artists proves the impact of the kimono worldwide.

The influence does not stop in the 20th century. The second wing of the exhibition displays more contemporary works that include Japanese techniques. This half of the exhibition seems to focus more on the abstract elements of incorporation. For instance, instead of displaying clothing that physically resembles the kimono, the museum fills this section with clothing that emphasizes the practicality of Japanese design. Issey Miyake, for instance, designed a dress that is basically one flat square piece of loosely structured material that unfolds into a three-dimensional masterpiece — much like a paper lantern. Although such pieces do not necessarily look like kimonos, they remind the visitors that hidden beneath the evolved modern appearance are older traditional methods of creation. The influence of the kimono seems almost timeless.

This wing also has a section dedicated to Japanese popular culture — rather fitting for the contemporary side of the spectrum. T-shirt designs displayed in the corner pay homage to Osamu Tezuka, the hailed “father of manga.” Such quirky and fun images really ground this presentation in the understanding of Japanese popular culture, and their peculiar placement within the exhibition was certainly appreciated by museumgoers. Fashion does not always have to be overly stoic and avant-garde; it can be practical while maintaining its character and creativity. This segment of “Kimono Refashioned” successfully relays this message.

Together, these two wings map out an elaborate timeline of the kimono’s role in international fashion design. Seeing the kimono’s journey through history is certainly eye-opening and educational. This exhibition efficiently reminds the viewers that an article of clothing is much more than something to be worn. It exceeds mere practicality; it is an art piece, a time capsule of past and current aesthetic values and an influencer of future fashion.

“Kimono Refashioned” will be showing at the Asian Art Museum through May 5.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].