How the Kimono Changed the Course of Women’s Fashion

How the Kimono Changed the Course of Women’s Fashion

This midsummer season kicked off with the opening of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s special exhibition entitled Kimono: Refashioning Contemporary Style. Open from now until September 15th, this show commemorates the traditional Japanese garment, kimono, and walks viewers through how it shaped Western art, fashion, and culture throughout periods of globalization and into modernity. Split into two parts, the exhibition’s leading section includes paintings, traditional kimonos, and a myriad of Western dresses dating from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. The latter of the two parts tells of how the kimono has shaped styles of today, displaying designer garments from stylists around the world dating from the mid 20th century to today. Upon entering the exhibition, staff emphasized that taking pictures was only allowed within the first half of the show.  

Misses Turner Court Dress Makers,  Dress: Bodice and Overskirt , 1876-8, silk, metallic thread.  Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

Misses Turner Court Dress Makers, Dress: Bodice and Overskirt, 1876-8, silk, metallic thread.

Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

 In the initial portion of the exhibition, viewers can read up on Japanism, a time period in the late 1800’s when there was a sudden increase of excitement about Japanese art and design in the West, and why the kimono and other Japanese objects and symbols had such an impact on Western culture. Curator, Cynthia Amneus, strategically organizes an array of paintings that display the excitement for the rush of Japanese culture to the West at the forefront of the space, acting as an introduction to the concept of Japanism. Among those is a painting by Jacques-Joseph James Tissot entitled Young Women Looking at Japanese Articles (1869). The painting depicts two Parisian women marveling at a traditional Japanese ship model, which lies on top of a traditional Japanese kimono. The women, who are dressed in contemporary, upper class French attire, stick out drastically from their surroundings, which are full of an assortment of different Japanese items. Tissot was notorious for his extensive collection of Japanese “collectables” and was one of the many artists in the last 19th century who became enthralled with the style of traditional Japanese dress. 

Like the women in Tissot’s painting, women from all over the Western world marveled at the style of Japanese kimono during this time. The exhibition provides examples of how the women of the time were integrating Japanese style into their daily Western wardrobe. One way that women and designers of the 19th century chose to combine the two styles was to create a Western style dress out of kimono material. One of many examples in this exhibition is a dress from Misses Turner Court Dress Makers circa 1876-78, created from a the cloth of a kosode (small sleeved kimono), and is embroidered with silk and metallic thread that stitches out traditional Japanese textile symbols such as chrysanthemums, peonies, fans, and wisteria. Although the shape of the dress is very French contemporary for the time, the material and dress pattern would have been seen as extremely exotic and high class.  

Paul Poiret,  Dress and Belt , 1920-30, silk.  Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

Paul Poiret, Dress and Belt, 1920-30, silk.

Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

            It wasn’t until the turn of the century that women and designers began to incorporate the shape and style of the kimono into women’s dresses. As you follow the lines of many garments laid out in the gallery space, the dresses become thinner and more functional, indicating the movement through the decades and the shifts in women’s fashion. As women became more progressive in working and voting, their outfits needed to reflect the mobility needed to pursue the newfound freedoms. As a result, the Japanism styles of the West shifted from kosode to haori (a short coat), furisode (swinging sleeves), and obi (a silk waistband). French designer Paul Poiret’s Dress and Belt circa 1920-30 exemplified all of those newfound styles. Known to be outlandish in his styles, Poiret created this kimono-like dress to be worn without a corset, one of the first of its kind in France at the time.

            The kimono became so acceptable for Western women that they even adapted them into their not-so-flashy private lives as dressing gowns. In the early 20th century, dressing gowns were robes or dresses that women wore when relaxing around the house, worn maybe after they woke up or in between activities. The exhibition shows one dressing gown in particular entitled Komono and Sash, which was purchased by Cincinnati woman Alice Jones Page on a trip she took to Japan in the year 1923. This piece probably resembles a kimono more than most in the gallery as it did not just incorporate one element of the kimono, but many overlapping elements. These include the material of the piece, the floral design, the shape of the robe, and the longevity of the sleeves. However, when one takes a closer look, it is apparent that the robe was tailored to the liking of Western women. For example, the sash on the waist of the kimono is much thinner and is placed much lower than traditional obi. Also, the hand embroidered flower pattern along the back of the piece look to be of Japanese origin, however are cited by the show organizers as American Beauty-style roses which are placed and executed to look more Japanese.

            The final section of the first half of the exhibition focuses on the style for the modern woman in a post World War I society. While skirts became shorter and silhouettes became straighter, it didn’t hinder women from continuing to include elements of the kimono in their dress. In the first quarter of the 20th century, many designers were starting to pick up on the motifs of the kimono and aimed to start including aspects of them into their new designs. One of these designers was Madeleine Vionnet who designed Wedding Dress in 1922. This dress is all ivory silk with a lace overlay on the front skirt and sleeves. In kimono fashion, the dress was made by constructing many panels of cloth together to make a round “tube-like” silhouette. Another kimono aspect of the dress is the rectangular train that flows behind the dress. Perhaps the most noticeable Japaneseque element of Wedding Dress is the draping silk in the back of the dress that has an uncanny resemblance to the way Japanese obi would be tied and tucked in the back of a traditional kimono.

Kimono and Sash , 1923, silk.  Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

Kimono and Sash, 1923, silk.

Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

           While the first part of the show was informative and displayed points of history from decades, the second part of the show was colorful, creative, beautiful, and very abstract. The pieces dated from mid 20th century to modern day but weren’t placed in chronological order, as the first part of the show loosely was. The spread ranged from ball gowns to suits, and sweaters to lingerie. At first glance it was easy to recognize how some pieces related to the kimono, and others took some convincing. Nonetheless, the pieces in the second half of the show were extremely diverse.

            Some of the designers of the kimono-esque garments were Japanese and some were not. This could spark the question of whether or not non-Japanese designers are entitled to create the work that was (in some cases) so obviously a rendition of the kimono style. One of the first pieces in the second side of the show was a garment entitled Jumpsuit, Harness, and Gladiator Sandals from Alexander McQueen’s 2015 Spring/Summer collection. It incorporated many traits of a traditional kimono, but was shown in Paris and was designed by an English designer. Many of the pieces that were non-Japanese and kimono-like seem to have been made out of respect for the artistry of the kimono. One example of such work is Mauizio Galante’s piece Pullover Blouse (1994), which sounds exactly like what it looks like. The piece is a green turtleneck that is made from heavy silk. Instead of resembling any type of kimono, the piece has its ties to the kimono with the process in which is was made. The exhibition cites the term shibori as “a broad term for various types of resisting dyes.” In the Western world, an example would be tie dye. However, more broadly the term is just a way that the material is tied, scrunched, or pinched in a way that inhibits the dye from affecting those sections of cloth. Traditionally, many Japanese garments are dyed this way and afterwards undergo a process of flattening to even out the material. However, Galante’s sweater explores what happens to a piece of clothing when the fabric is not flattened. As a result, the sweater is full of tiny peaks that give a bumpy pattern that almost appears to be a polka-dot texture. To the casual eye, the connection from this piece to the kimono is extremely unclear—although, the process of constructing the piece is what bound the two art forms.

Madeleine Vionnet,  Wedding Dress , 1922, silk.  Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

Madeleine Vionnet, Wedding Dress, 1922, silk.

Photo Courtesy of Emilie King

            The exhibition ends with a section of pieces dedicated as an ode to Japanese pop culture. These include T-shirts, dresses, and many other garments that are decorated with symbols and designs that pay homage to the rise in popularity of Japanese contemporary culture. Many of the clothes were printed or stitched with anime or manga imagery, one of the leading insights the rest of the world has into Japanese pop culture. One of the pieces by Jonathan William Anderson entitied Tunic, Jacket, Trousers and Sneakers (2016) shows a mix of many different classic anime images printed onto a jacket constructed out of a myriad of creative materials such as nylon and cow leather. The images are from the 1979 anime Mobile Suit Gundam, which follows a futuristic, robotic plot. It built up a fanbase quickly, as it hit all of the hot topic of pop culture at a time where pop culture was heavily dictated by the Star Wars film that had been released a few years prior. From then on, Mobile Suit Gundam has picked up a cult following that designer Jonathan William Anderson has tapped into with his 2016 suit.

            The kimono’s influence is often overlooked when examining Japanese culture. As for showing how it affected art and fashion of the Western world, exhibition organizers showed examples from decades in the form of Western dress, paintings, and many traditional kimonos as well. The separation of the “old vs. new” two parts of the show allow viewers to distinguish between fashion eras and also see how the kimono still plays a part in today's fashion scene. This show demonstrates how the world becomes a little bit smaller when cultural exchanges like this happen. Though just a small example, the kimono is a symbol of how two hemispheres separated by language, seas, and numerous cultural differences can share something and make it meaningful in their own ways.
            The Cincinnati Art Museum’s Kimono: Refashioning Contemporary Style is up from now to September 15th. For further viewing information check out their website at

Written by Emilie King 

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