Performing the Kimono in the 19th Century

Gustave Leonard de Jonghe (Belgian, 1829 – 1893), (L’admiratrice du Japon), The Japanese Fan, c. 1865, oil on canvas, 44 ¼ x 34 1/16 in., Gift of the Francis & Miranda Childress Foundation, AG.1988.3.1. Cummer Museum. 

With the Americans’ forceful opening of Japanese markets in 1853, waves of ‘Japonisme’ washed over the West until well into the 20th century. One of Japan’s key exports during this period was the kimono, which was not produced in the West until around the fin de siècle. In an attempt to maintain and increase demand for the kimono, Japan did not export part of its own kimono stock, but rather created kimonos with what the Japanese considered to be a Western cut and textile patterns. Nonetheless, the exoticism of these garments became immensely popular in the West, whilst simultaneously the kimono was considered Oriental indecorum. Therefore, for most of the 19th century, wearing a kimono became a performance. Through the performance, an ‘othering’ took place that allowed a ‘respectable Western woman’ to wear a kimono without it being considered inappropriate.

Alfred Stevens (Belgian 1823-1906), La Parisienne japonaise, c. 1872, oil on canvas, 105 × 150 cm (41.3 × 59.1 in), AM 526/183. © Liège, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Boverie.

This performance was not only presented in 19th century Western paintings, but also perfectly expressed by a reader’s letter published by Good Housekeeping in May 1904. The publication, founded in 1885 by Clark W. Bryan, was as one of the first women’s magazines “conducted in the interests of the higher life of the household.” As such, rather than expressing the fashions and ideas of the wealthy, it focussed on general information for the influential new middle class. The reader’s letter describes a Japanese tea party that was hosted the year before and sets out an approach to giving your own:

“Write the invitations on a Japanese napkin, then tuck each one into a tiny Japanese lantern on which the guest’s name has been printed with India ink. […] The reception rooms may be adorned by lanterns, fans, parasols, screens, all of Japanesy style. Scatter cherry blossoms in great snowy masses to light up shadowy corners. […] The hostess may quite properly receive her guests – who of course are all ladies – in a graceful, gorgeous, silky kimono. Her hair should be dressed Japanese style, adorned with half a dozen tiny bright fans, and she should wear pointed, embroidered slippers.”

John Atkinson Grimshaw (British 1836-1893), Spring, c. 1875, oil on canvas. Private Collection.

As the reader’s description makes clear, rather than just dressing up in a kimono, the hostess needs to imitate Japanese style as thoroughly as possible, including in her hair and shoes. Her home, too, should be decorated with as many Japanese objects as possible and even the invitations should look decidedly Japanese. Through recreating this little Japanese scene, rather than just hosting a party, she is clad in a costume and her home becomes a kind of set design. In that way, the performance allows a Western woman enough distance from her normal self to wear an ‘oriental’ garment without it affecting her status. Many Western painters were interested in the theme or ‘Orientalism’ and painted women in kimonos surrounded by Japanese art objects and furniture.

Frans Verhas (Belgian 1827 – 1897), Le Kimono Japonais, painting on panel, 75 x 47.5 cm. (29.5 x 18.7 in.). Private Collection.

William Merritt Chase (American 1849-1916), A Comfortable Corner (At Her Ease; The Blue Kimona [sic}; The Blue Kimono), c. 1888, oil on canvas, 57 x 44 1/2 inches, Littlejohn Collection, 1961.5.21. Parrish Art Museum.

Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (American 1840-1896), (La Japonaise), The Japanese Lady, oil on canvas, 114.2 x 76.1 cm (44.96″ x 29.96″). Private collection.

Sources:

Good Housekeeping c. 1904. Discoveries by Our Observers and Experimenters. Good Housekeeping, 38(5), p. 527.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Online]. 2016. Dressing Gown. [Accessed 14 February 2017]. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/155954.

Wood, J. P. 1949. Magazines in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: The Ronald Press Company.