Never Assume, aka Discoveries at the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture

It is never a good idea to have assumptions in research. About a year ago I was forced to confront assumptions not only about a particular museum, but about my knowledge of Japanese dress history which, until then, I didn’t know I had. The results of which were as wonderful as they were surprising.

I have been visiting the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture for over ten years. It is located just outside the small California farm town of Hanford, in the middle of a walnut orchard. The layout for the museum and its architectural style are designed to mimic Buddhist temples in Japan. The museum was founded in 1995 by Willard G. (Bill) Clark and his wife Elizabeth, who have been collecting Japanese art since 1956. They became more serious about the collection in the 1970s and have always shared it with the public, first out of their home, before deciding to create a public museum — even donating the land on which the museum sits for the purpose.

My hometown is only an hour and a half away from Hanford by car, and having majored in Japanese Language and Culture until program budget cuts sent me into Linguistics as an undergrad, I was a frequent visitor throughout my degree, and I have continued my visits as my schedule allows. Which is why, when the call for papers for the CSA Western Region symposium last year came out, I proposed a survey of their kimono and textile collection — it seemed a great way to give a small museum I have long loved some attention and publicity … and I foolishly thought that after ten years of patronage I “knew” what was in their collection.

To quote my favourite line in the 1957 Hepburn-Tracy comedy, Desk Set, Never Assume.

Yuzen Uchikake, Date Unknown
Collection of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

Much of the collection is, indeed, what one would expect from a kimono collection, such as the uchikake above, and the furisode I opened the piece with. The uchikake is the most formal of kimono, now typically worn only for weddings. Both kimono are made using the yuzen dyeing process, a paste-resist technique which was developed during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) to circumvent sumptuary laws and replicate expensive brocades. The silk is then hand painted to give the designs depth. The yuzen technique is now considered a highly respected traditional art form in Japan which bears similarities to couture in its exclusivity and craftsmanship, as can be seen in Judith Thurman’s 2005 article for The New Yorker, ‘The Kimono Painter’.

Detail of embroidery embellishment to the painted designs.
Design detail.

The padded hem (seen in red in the first photograph) is cotton, with cotton stuffing to prevent the actual silk from damage, since the uchikake is long enough to drag on the floor. The shortness of the sleeves indicates it is for a married woman, as opposed to the furisode (literally ‘swinging sleeves’), which have long sleeves that are considered flirtatious. The colour scheme in the uchikake is far more subdued as well, while the bright red of the furisode is again a young, unmarried woman’s colour as it intentionally attracts attention.

Furisode detail

Other things in the collection are simply rare, such as the undyed, tied shibori fabric below. This is a fabric that was prepared for the shibori dyeing process but never finished.

Undyed, Tied Shibori Fabric, 20th Century
Clark Family Collection
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

But pieces such as these are only a small portion of the Clark Center collection. What I discovered upon looking into their records, and delving into the collection for my presentation was that the majority of their collection is an extremely unique style of kimono that is rarely if ever shown to the public: heiyou-gasuri meisen (meisen). The meisen style was popular only for a short period of time from the late Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) until circa 1955, with the height of its popularity and manufacture between 1910 and the early 1940s.

Woman’s kimono, meisen leaf motif on hand-spun silk, 1920 – 1950
Partial Gift/Partial Purchase from Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Collection
of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

Meisen involves stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads prior to weaving. Weaving the fabric produces an ikat-style fabric with (arguably) far less work. Never having woven anything, let alone designed textiles, the perspective and maths involved for creating the stencils, and dyeing the threads prior to weaving to end up with the desired pattern boggles my mind. And the results are beautiful.

Detail, you can see the feathering around the lines of the design.

What startled me most about the kimono was how large the designs were and how modern they appeared. Many of them reminded me of pre- and post-World War II decorating fabrics seen in America and Europe, and I found myself wondering if I wasn’t looking at what I like to think of as ‘Occidentalism’, or the Eastern answer to Western ‘Orientalism’ — borrowing of aesthetics and motifs from America and Europe into Japanese clothing. I wanted to know how rare these designs actually were, so I emailed several of my friends from Japan, asking if they had seen anything like this. They said they had, but they were the type of kimono my friends would expect to see in a museum, not in the streets.

Further research revealed that the meisen designs were indeed interpretations and borrowings from western art movements such as Art Deco, Cubism, and Surrealism.

Leaf motif meisen kimono, front
Art Deco textile sample of the same time period.
Woman’s kimono, meisen marbelized pattern, 1920 – 1950
Partial Gift/Partial Purchase from Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Collection
of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture
The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso, 1910
Detail from marbelized meisen kimono.
Woman’s kimono, penguins on ice meisen motif, 1920 – 1950
Partial Gift/Partial Purchase from Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Collection
of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

This last one is my favourite. I absolutely adore this kimono. It reminds me of Schiaparelli’s Surrealist and whimsical fashions, such as the Lobster Dress. Wearing a kimono covered in penguins seems to be the closest thing to a Japanese version of Schiaparelli’s famous dress. Are these kimono not only ethnographic dress, but fashion?

Needless to say the Clark Center had managed not only to challenge my perceptions of what a museum collection might contain, even when it is not on display, it challenged my perceptions of Japanese kimono and their patterns. I had seen more “modern” designs when I was living Osaka, mostly in the shops and magazines rather than on people, as kimono wearing has become so rare that schools have been created to teach people how to wear them. But these were usually children’s kimono that had their favourite anime characters as the design.

I also wondered why these kimono had not been included in a recent exhibit the Clark Center had done on Japanese dress, why they hadn’t ever been displayed as all as far as I can tell. Is it because they do not conform to the ‘expected’ patterns of Japanese textiles? Or is it because very little research is actually available on meisen? The V&A has a book, a few papers have been written, and there was a Japanese Art Deco exhibit in New York only last year, but they do not say much more than I have said here. There is one Japanese book available, but aside from its expense, I am (embarrassingly) deterred by its revealing to me just how bad my Japanese has gotten (which I am now remedying).

The meisen do not abandon the traditional patterns entirely, though. The woman’shaori (formal jacket worn open over a kimono) below, is a traditional flowering plum branch design, that has been reinterpreted through the new medium. I would love to look at not only this piece, but Western interpretations and adaptations of it, as well as the traditional garments. I think a lot could be learned from such a comparison about what our cultures looks for in the other.

Woman’s haori, meisen, 1920 – 1950
Partial Gift/Partial Purchase from Natalie Fitz-Gerald. Collection
of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

What is so fascinating about these is that they were created at the same time that the Japanese Military Industrial Complex was gaining power and putting pressure on the people to reject anything Western in origin. I cannot help wondering how that manifests itself in these kimono if at all. In many of my classes ten years ago, the focus was largely on the Orientalists, not the Occidentalists. I read quite a lot about Japan’s influence on the West through the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Impressionists’ adoration of ukiyo-e block prints, and the Victorian Aesthetic Movement’s home décor. The discussion of the West’s influence on Japan only comes up in their adoption of Western clothes beginning in the Meiji Period, or during the American occupation post-World War II. I think these kimono are evidence that between 1910 and 1945 Japan wasn’t simply influencing Western Orientalists, they were learning from them. There was a genuine exchange of ideas going on. But between whom?

Who wore these kimono and where did they wear them? Was it a general fashion or a select group? Japanese kimono until this point (and since) have had small, subtle patterns, why were the patterns on meisen so large and ostentatious? How did it start, why did it start? And how and why did it stop when it did? How does the fact that Japan was an imperial power itself, not a colony, affect the conversation? Or is colonialism irrelevant here? As always, I have more questions than answers.

Time restrictions and financial limitations have made further research until now impossible, but I’m hoping to turn more of my attention to it this year. If anyone has any insights they would like to share, or reading and research suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Have any of you seen or studied meisen? Do you know of any collections I should check out?

Please share your thoughts!

Opening Image:
Furisode, hand-painted silk, undated
Collection of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture
© Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

Further Reading:

Atkins, Jacqueline M. Ed. 2005. Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931 – 1945. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Brown, Kendall H. Ed. 2012. Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920 – 1945. Alexandria: Art Services International.

Thurman, Judith. 2011. ‘The Kimono Painter’ Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire. pp. 287 – 302. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kimono of the Interwar Years‘, Victoria & Albert Museum website.

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