In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry and his famous black ships arrived in Japan and kicked off the beginning of Western trade. Although Japan was forcefully reopened to the West after having been closed for over 200 years, there is some debate as to whether or not this was ultimately a good thing for Japan. But in this article, we are merely tracing the consequences of its opening and the creation of “Japonisme” in the West.
The French term “Japonisme” emerged to describe the powerful fascination with Japanese art and design that occurred in the West during the late 19th century. Japan was reintroduced to the world, and the world was loving it. The term also refers to the works created by Western artists and designers who were inspired by Japan. While the phenomenon is present in a range of art movements, it is most closely associated with Impressionism, as the Impressionists were influenced by the subject matter, composition, and perspective of Japanese ukiyo-e prints.
Image via artelino
Claude Monet was particularly inspired by Japonisme and had amassed quite the large collection of ukiyo-e prints during his lifetime. I have had the privilege to visit his home in Giverny and saw his impressive collection hanging up on the walls of his old home.
In tune with the popular theme of Japonisme, Monet painted a striking portrait of his first wife Camille in Japanese costume. Camille is wearing a padded and heavily decorated red kimono, standing on a tatami-inspired mat, in front of a wall decorated by Japanese fans. Being a natural brunette, she is shown wearing a blonde wig—perhaps to emphasize the contrast of her as a European woman over the Japanese environment she’s been placed in. The painting evokes a kind of performative appropriation of Japanese culture, rather than an authentic Japanese climate.
One of my favorite painters, Vincent Van Gogh, was also influenced by, and collected, Japanese ukiyo-e prints. In 1887 he produced the work “The Courtesan (after Eisen)”, which was based on the woodcut print of the artist Kesai Eisen. The image had been reproduced on the cover of Paris illustré in 1886. Van Gogh enlarged the figure and used bright colors and bold outlines, in imitation of the ukiyo-e woodcut style.
During the seclusion of the Edo period, the Japanese maintained a strict trade policy with the Dutch through the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki. In the late sixteenth century, the director of the company and his companions received a “shogun’s gown” as a gift from the shogun. The robe was padded with silk wadding, generous in cut, made of exquisite materials, and very comfortable to wear. The Dutch took these home to Holland, where they became prized as “Japonse rok” (Japanese dressing gowns). They became very popular, appearing in portraits of the time and were even manufactured in other countries.
Image via Huis Van Gjin
Look at my expensive gown! Amsterdam merchant Steven Wolters had himself depicted around 1683 by society artist Caspar Netcher to show off his expensive “Japonse rok” (Japanese gown). pic.twitter.com/C8qniYpcCz
— Rembrandt’s R👀m 🖌 (@RembrandtsRoom) November 29, 2018
Even with the Japonse rok and the opening of Western trade, it was the advent of international expositions in the mid-nineteenth century that thrust Japan into the spotlight. Many Europeans and Americans first saw Japanese artwork and design at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, 1867 in Paris, and 1876 in Philadelphia. Shops selling Japanese wares sprung up in Paris and London during the 1860s and became gathering places for artists and art dealers. Artists began incorporating these “exotic objects” in their paintings, with kimono making its way to the forefront of popularity.
In 1867, the year of the exposition universelle in Paris, Japonisme made its debut in fashion magazines. The October edition of the Journal des demoiselles contained an illustration of clothes labelled “Japanese style”. The June 1 issue of Petit Courrier des dames mentioned “dresses of Japanese silk” purchased by Empress Eugénie, which may have been Japanese kimono. Dresses fashioned from pieces of kimono or made of kimono material began appearing in England and France in the 1860s and 1870s.
The most popular item of dress exported to the West was a modified version of the kimono worn as a dressing gown. Kimono had graduated from an exotic Japanese object to a fashionable at-home dress. Western women saw liberation and ease, as well as exoticism, in kimono garments, which consequently saw them adopting them as dressing gowns. Beginning in the 1880s, women’s magazines like Harper’s Bazaar were promoting “Japanese matinees” and dressing gowns of Japanese silk from Liberty and Company of London. It was only until the turn of the century when the word “kimono” came into use.
A large contributing factor to the late nineteenth century’s momentum of the kimono was the performing arts. Opera and theater were popular in France, with Japan being quite a popular theme for the stage. In 1885, the Mikado, a performance in which Japanese dress plays a significant role, premiered in London. Through this medium, the knowledge of Japanese kimono gradually spread.
In 1900, Sada Yacco, the famous Japanese actress, performed in Paris and bewitched the city. Paris was entranced with both her beauty and her skill in wearing kimono, a skill that came naturally to her because of her previous life as a former geisha. She became a sensation and inspiration to many people of influence in the arts—Picasso even sketched her!
Sada Yacco became the star of Paris—the boutique Au Mikado began selling “Kimono Sada Yacco”, and in 1903, every issue of Femina contained an advertisement for them. From around 1905, Le Figaro-Madame often carried advertisements from the House of Babani for “robes japonaises”, Japanese-style garments or dressing gowns. These items were considered the newest addition to an upper-class lady’s peignoir selection and the House of Babani became very successful by selling them.
In 1907, Sada Yacco visited Paris for a second time, and consequently influenced and expanded the role of kimono in the Paris fashion world even further. Her return prompted the emergence of nukiemon (the revealing of the nape of the neck). It soon became the fashionable way to wear kimono. In Paris, kimono were worn as unbelted, sweeping outer robes, similar to the ones seen in ukiyo-e prints. The mikaeri bijin pose (a beautiful woman looking back over her shoulder) became popular motifs found in the pages of fashion magazines.
Charles Frederick Worth, an English couturier and fashion designer, was one of the influential forces in fashion drawn to Japonisme. Beginning in the late 1880s, he started incorporating various elements into his creations through a painterly approach to pattern design, embroidered Japanese motifs, and asymmetrical placement of these motifs. Before Worth, the father of haute couture, asymmetry was rarely found in Western clothes. However, Worth’s fabulous asymmetrical dress changed that.
Beginning in 1890, the Japanese motifs typically favored by the West were chrysanthemums, flowing water, flowers, birds, waves, and various grasses. Chrysanthemums were especially popular, and until the 1920s, they appeared over and over in fashion as a symbol of Japan. Similar, perhaps, to Hokusai’s “Great Wave” iconography, which developed into an emblem of Japan in contemporary times.
Up until the appearance of Paul Poiret on the Paris fashion scene, Japonisme in fashion was limited to Japanese-style motifs and silk weaving techniques, while the clothes themselves remained Western in shape and form. In 1903, Poiret began to create clothes inspired by the cut, look, and drapery-like quality of a kimono. This inspired a new concept of clothing that emphasized the shoulders, not the waist, and incorporated loosely-cut sleeves and crossed bodices into evening dresses. Evening coats began to swathe the body like comfy cocoons, with their loose-fitting silhouettes and straight cuts. Say goodbye to the corset! Goodbye, corset.
Madeleine Vionnet, a French fashion designer and couturier, is remembered for liberating women’s bodies through her clothes (alongside Coco Chanel). Vive la libération! She was inspired by the straight form of Japanese kimono and began creating dresses that were focused on a kimono’s structure in the late 1910s. She abandoned the traditional practice of tailoring body-fitted pieces from numerous and complex pattern pieces and embarked upon a more minimalist approach. She minimized the cutting of fabric and relied on surface ornamentation by manipulating the fabric itself. Vionnet created clothes that flowed over the body from pieces cut along straight lines. She is known for pioneering the idea of the bias cut, which was partly based on the rectangular cut of the kimono. Bias cut fabric stretches as it hangs and clings to the body, draping beautifully, and creating an ethereal rippling effect as the wearer moves.
Because pioneering designers like Poiret and Vionnet incorporated the straight cut construction of the kimono into their designs, 1920s fashion was increasingly marked by the popular cylindrical dresses we are familiar with today. These silhouettes have come to define this decade for us through film, television, and other costume-related media. Ideas of volume and three-dimensionality were brought to the forefront of dressmaking, as a freer range of form became all the rage. I was surprised myself to find this connection between the iconic kimono and the iconic “flapper” dresses of the 1920s. Another surprising connection is the scale pattern, or seigaiha (blue ocean waves), pattern that was widely used as a popular motif of the Art Deco school.
The influence of Japonisme and other “exotic” cultures began to wane in the late 1930s. American and European designers began to create modern versions of historical Western dress that dominated the fashion scene through the 1950s. The revival of familiar historical styles offered up an escape from the stress of the Great Depression and the impending sense of doom with the growing power of nationalism in Europe. Japonisme was abandoned.
Today, although Japonisme has retired from its previous larger-than-life presence, the influence of Japanese design and aesthetics continues on in the fashion industry. Fashion greats like Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Kenzo Takada, and Hanae Mori still define the fashion landscape today. Whether it be Kawakubo’s consistent defiance of dress stereotypes, or Miyake’s famous pleats collection, it is certain that Japan has more than made its mark on the fashion world. Why else would Kim Kardashian have tried (and failed) to trademark the word “kimono” for herself?
Sources: “Japonisme”; “Japonism in Fashion”; Brooklyn Museum “Japonism in Fashion”; “How the Kimono has influenced the World of Fashion”; “Japonism’s Influence in Fashion & Art”; Google Arts & Culture “Japonism in Fashion”; “Japonisme”; “Japonism: A Rich History of Artistic Inspiration”; “How Japanese Art Influenced and Inspired European Impressionist Artists”; “7 Things you Need to Know about Japonisme”;
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