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.

How to Get In and Out of Taxis Wearing a Kimono

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Kimono etiquette – from entering and exiting taxis, to sitting on a Western-style sofa

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A guide to stairs, tea and doors

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A variety of undergarments

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To a certain degree the way we move is dictated by our choice in dress and clothing. The way we walk is governed by our choice in footwear. The way we carry our bodies is guided by the way we carry our bags. Or our length of skirt dictates the way we pick something up off the floor. But this is something that we learn for ourselves through experience, knowledge of one’s own clothing, or perhaps from embarrassing knicker-flashing mishaps. It is not taught to us, which is why, finding an instructional manual detailing how a woman should move in a kimono in contemporary situations, was entirely fascinating to me.

Upon going through my grandmother’s kimonos and possessions, I found in among the miscellaneous objects a brochure from 1969. The contents of the brochure seem bizarre and paradoxical: a clash of temporalities between the ancient traditions of the kimono and the modern Japanese woman.

The reader is instructed how to wear the kimono, showing the various undergarments and steps that build up towards the final image of the kimono we are accustomed to. However, there are also pages where the reader is taught how to move and function in modern social situations, whilst wearing a traditional kimono. One image educates a woman on how to enter and exit a taxi in the correct manner. Another shows the reader how to sit on a Western-style sofa. There are also instructions on how to conduct more traditionally Japanese activities: bowing, opening sliding doors and drinking tea without splashing hot water all up your sleeves. These instructions seem bizarre and comical in their simplicity, but demonstrate the change in the body’s movement when wearing a kimono, and how one is constantly aware of one’s actions in garments that are unfamiliar.

These instructional images and descriptions jar with our autonomous understanding of our own body’s movements and how clothes affect them. The fact that women were shown how to move, when they wore this clothing is symptomatic of the problematic position of the kimono in Japanese society, as it is a form of dress that is slowly dying, becoming a cultural relic of Japan. As the roles of modern women have changed in Japanese society, the multi-layered and restrictive kimono is worn less and less. In modern Japan, the average person will wear ‘Western’ clothing, whilst the Kimono has been sidelined to a role denoting national identity and old-world traditions. This has not only led to a decline in the silk industry and the artistry of the kimono, but has led to a loss of understanding of how a kimono is worn, something that was traditionally passed down from mother to daughter.

The brochure is revealing of attempts in the 60s and 70s to reposition the kimono in a modern society, so as to preserve its significance in Japan. The depicted alterations and accessories that create comfort and ease highlight the tensions between old and modern post-war Japan. An attempt that is still being made today with efforts to reinvigorate the Japanese silk industry, and the wearing of the kimono at important events. However, without education in how a kimono is worn, these anxieties and tensions will endure.

Sources:

Kennedy, Alan. “Kimono.” The Berg Fashion Library. 2005. http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bazf/bazf00343.xml (accessed 15 Nov. 2014).

Milhaupt, Terry. “Kimono.” The Berg Fashion Library. Sept. http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bewdf/BEWDF-v6/EDch6057.xml (accessed 15 Nov. 2014).