It is not easy to achieve serenity in Manhattan, but after living in a hectic part of Midtown, I have managed to find a few peaceful places dotted around the island. Central Park’s well-groomed Conservatory Garden makes the cut, as does Gramercy Park (if you can find a key), but perhaps the most tranquil destination of all is the Asian Wing at the otherwise bustling Metropolitan Museum. One Saturday several months ago, as hordes of visitors clobbered up the Grand Staircase in pursuit of European masterworks such as “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer”and “The Death of Socrates,” I spent an idyllic hour admiring delicately painted handscrolls, ceramics and sacred sculptures, with only the sound of Isamu Noguchi’s “Water Stone” (1986), a small indoor fountain, trickling softly in the background.
A new kimono exhibition, however, might liven up this urban oasis. Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection is a grand tour across three centuries of Japanese clothing and modern European couture. Displaying over sixty historic kimonos amassed by the collector John C. Weber, who has promised forty of them to the museum, as well as gowns from the Met’s own Costume Institute, Kimono Style is more than just an East-meets-West fashion extravaganza — it is also a glimpse into a mystifying period of Japanese history.
The first rooms thrust us into a vanished world of ornately attired samurai, firefighters, merchants and princesses. From 1603 to 1867, Japan was ruled by a military government, known as the Tokugawa shogunate, based in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). To maintain political stability, the shogunate enforced a policy of isolation that restricted international trade and travel. Strict sumptuary laws, enacted for similar reasons, dictated precisely what each social class could wear, down to the color, pattern and cut of every kosode, the narrow-sleeved ancestor of the kimono and the most popular garment in the Edo period. Laborious decorative techniques and fine silks were reserved for members of the elite samurai class, while farmers, artisans and merchants made do with cottons, bast fibers and low-quality pongee silk.
Some of the oldest and most luxurious items in the exhibition, dating to the eighteenth century but preserving earlier motifs, are stage costumes. A golden twill-weave silk robe, for instance, with striking raised patterns of stylized clouds and Buddhist dharma wheels, would have been worn by an actor playing a nobleman. Theater, especially Noh (solemn drama), was held in high regard: elite women who wished to appear cultured often wore clothing decorated with motifs from literature, including plays. On view nearby is a pale- blue summer robe (hito-e) made of thin crepe silk, which references The Cormorant Fisher, a piece of Noh theater. Black birds, thin reeds, cherry blossoms and fishing nets are achieved with tiny stitches, stencil-dyed dots and hand paintings, while the blue base fabric stands in for the sea.
By the mid-nineteenth century, changes were afoot. In 1858, Japan began trading with America, France, Russia, Britain and the Netherlands. Within a decade, the Edo government was overthrown and a modernizing monarch — Emperor Meiji — instated. The rigid class system, which had already started to crumble, was officially abolished, as was the ban on foreign visitors. A fascinating series of Japanese woodcuts depict European merchants at the newly opened port of Yokohama. Fashion in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, would never be the same.
Imported power looms and chemical dyes enabled Japanese manufacturers to create affordable kimonos in meisen silk for the masses. Saccharine kimonos featuring abstract patterns of dots, swirls and checks, as well as images of Mount Fuji and Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave,” were embraced by both men and a new generation of women entering the workforce. Among the new imports was American pop culture: a tiny padded kimono from the 1930s, worn by a small child in winter, features a print of Mickey Mouse dodging a mosquito, a scene from the 1934 film Camping Out.
In the twentieth century, European designers looked to Japan’s T-shaped garment for ways to liberate women from corseted Edwardian silhouettes. The French designer Paul Poiret began making loose-fitting garments — including a draped velvet opera coat from 1919 — that abstracted the shape of the body much like kimonos. Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobel Balenciaga, also enamored with Japanese fashion, played with the concept of ma, the empty space between clothing and skin, in their designs.
The exhibition ends with recent couture that riffs on traditional Japanese fashion. A white dress by John Galliano for Maison Margiela features a blue bow in the back alluding to the kimono’s obi sash, while a roomy sweater by Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese founder of Comme des Garçons, is made of one straight panel with kimono-like folds.
I left wondering whether the kimono has found its way into today’s streetwear. As skinny jeans and tight tops are being ditched in favor of wide-leg pants, square shirts and loose midi dresses, I reckon we’ve witnessed a resurgence of ma, and the influence of the kimono — perhaps without even realizing it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.