The kimono is probably the most egalitarian garb in the history of clothing. For 11 centuries in Japan, it was worn by men, women and children, rich or poor, through everyday life and special occasions, spanning wars, changing dynasties and customs.
And then, in a mere 100 years, it evolved into artifact.
"Fashioning Kimono," a beautiful exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, chronicles the final era, from the early to mid 20th century, of the kimono as the daily dress of choice for the Japanese.
Sixty kimono (singular and plural are the same here) are lined up on platforms around the perimeters and centers of two galleries, the garments given form by T-stands. No glass covers separate viewer from viewed and you will probably, as I did, resist a strong urge to stroke the fabrics during your visit.
The show subtly illustrates why the kimono became what is today a ceremonial symbol. When Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1853, forcibly ending a 200-year isolationist policy in Japan, a rich exchange between East and West began. Most of the exhibitions we see examine the influence of Japan on Western, especially European, culture: the export china and woodblock prints, for example, that provided motifs and stylistic flourishes for several generations of artists and craftsmen.
The kimono, too, played its part, especially in fashion. Men adopted it as avant-garde leisure wear and Parisian designers were inspired by its clean lines and simple construction. Seeing for the first time the intricate dying, hand-painting and embroidery such as those on a formal kimono in this show must have been thoroughly seductive.
But the kimono to Westerners was always just a novelty and mostly misunderstood. When a European dandy donned a fancifully decorated one as a robe, he surely didn't realize that he was dressing as a Japanese woman would; men's kimono, except on the highest occasions, were austere and usually black.
These kimono, arranged mostly chronologically, demonstrate that the Japanese, too, were appropriating, learning utilitarian and aesthetic lessons from Europeans. The Japanese economy was booming and, with a new middle class, traditional, expensive methods of silk production were joined by mass-market demand. Machine-loomed, lower-quality silk, silk blends and cotton kimono became available in quantity thanks to imported equipment. Decorative elements borrowed from 20th century art movements became more popular than the chrysanthemums, cranes and pagodas of old.
A strong sense of nationalism in the 1930s also was reflected in kimono fabrics. Men's and boys' kimono were printed with precisely rendered images of battleships and fighter airplanes.
We know how that nationalism ended and we see how the kimono did, too.
Long before World War II, Western dress was common among Japanese. A collection of photographs from the prewar era pictures a population that mixed, with increasing frequency, suits and dresses with kimono in street scenes, social events and family portraits.
After the war, much of the industry that had produced silk and made kimono had been destroyed. Reiko M. Brandon, who was a child during the war, writes a moving memoir in the beautifully illustrated catalog relating how her mother bartered her wardrobe of exquisite kimono for food until none was left, and she began wearing Western dress, never owning another kimono.
The assembly of this collection, by Jeffrey Montgomery of Lugano, Switzerland, is also telling. He was able to purchase them and many more kimono over a 30-year period for relatively small amounts of money because for a long time kimono from this era in Japanese history held little interest to anyone.
These garments are not the breathtaking works of art we have seen in earlier centuries (and in movies such as Memoirs of a Geisha) but they are lovely and diverse. They are part of a story about pride, parochialism and — let's admit it — prejudice among countries with vastly different languages, beliefs and customs. They help us realize that though the world today may seem a smaller and more interrelated place, window dressing never replaces honest communication and mutual understanding.
The exhibition has excellent wall text and documentary photographs but I urge you to splurge on the catalog ($70) not only for the lavish illustrations but also for essays that provide historical context and information about kimono.
If you have time, visit adjoining galleries housing Japanese woodblock prints, most from the Ringling's permanent collection, that chronicle Western influence on another age-old tradition.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.