Domestic Affairs: Kimono for a Modern Age at LACMA

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I have eagerly anticipated the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) Kimono for a Modern Age exhibition for over a year. I started out as a Japanese language and culture scholar, and while my research focuses since I entered the field of dress history have drifted westward, I still have a love for and fascination with Japan and Korea. I had also become very interested in the type of kimono this exhibition explores — meisen — through a paper of my own delivered at the CSA Western Region symposium in 2012, which I reiterated in a post for Worn Through.

As mentioned on Unframed, the LACMA blog, the kimono in many ways symbolizes Japan itself. However, people have a very distinct impression of what kimono should look like — a stereotype, if you will — which this exhibition challenges and challenges well.

Instead of small, delicate patterns we are accustomed to in kimono fabric, meisen kimono popular between the end of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), through the Taisho (1912 – 1926), and up to the post-war period of the Showa period (1926 – 1989) had large, bold patterns in bright colors. In my previous post, I discussed the methods of creating the most distinctive feature of meisen: the ikat-imitation effect of stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads before the fabric is woven. The other distinguishing feature is that much of the meisen designs can be seen as borrowing from art and artistic movements in the West at the same time that Japan was influencing these same Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, as well as modernizing their own traditions such as screen painting and calligraphy (examples below).

Now that we’ve gone over how meisen are unexpected, let’s examine this particular exhibition, which features of 30 kimono spanning the period from approximately 1920 to 1960.

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The exhibition is located in LACMA’s pavilion of Japanese Art, and is brilliantly laid out to take full advantage of the unusual exhibition space, the permanent Japanese art collection, and the other exhibition in the pavilion, Zuan: Japanese Design Books. The pavilion’s layout requires that visitors take an elevator to the top — where they can see both the permanent collection and Zuan off to the right — and then perambulate down various ramps to the display spaces on each floor to make their way to the basement and then up the elevator again to the ground floor. The space is designed to compliment Japanese art which traditionally was created with the intent of inspiring contemplation rather than intense emotion or awe. In many ways the pavilion also mimics an Indian stupa, which became the pagoda in the far east, encouraging walking in a circular or spiral pattern as a form of moving meditation. This enables the visitor to take in each of the ten or so displays of three kimono each, in a calm, contemplative manner similar to the way in which you are encouraged to appreciate the traditional arts in Japan.

It worked very, very well. The slow pace that the building’s ramps encouraged and the pause at each landing allowed me to see subtle similarities of patterning I otherwise might not have noticed had the display been set up in the usual single-floor manner of fashion and dress exhibitions. The open-plan layout, with clear, perspex railings so you could see through to the next level below you, also leant a sense of anticipation to the exhibition as you could see glimpses of kimono to come, and compare the patterning to those you were currently appreciating.

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What I appreciated most about this particular exhibition was the emphasis on re-interpretations of traditional Japanese art and kimono patterns in meisen, instead of the usual focus on cross-cultural references. For example, in the blue kimono above you could interpret the design as simply “polka dots” on a blue background, but thanks to the well-written tombstones that accompanied each kimono, it was revealed that multi-coloured dots had long been used in kimono as well as paintings to emphasize sun- or moon-dappled dew drops and had specific symbolism within Japanese art.

This is indeed how the exhibition starts, with three kimono featuring three very different uses of an enlarged, traditional arrow patterning. Each kimono is in a different color scheme, each reinterprets this symbol of samurai status in a new way, sometimes emphasizing it with palm fronds that were connected with sixteenth-century warlord, Oda Nobunaga, sometimes simply using the pattern in bold red, yellow, and gray colors. This also adds more layers to the meisen of both overt and subversive political messages.

For example, the “star-patterned” kimono at the beginning of the post also resembles the Japanese war flag of the rising sun with red rays. This kimono was made around 1940 and so while not as overt as some “propaganda” kimono of the same time period is a piece that might have been gotten away with post-war during the occupation. Another kimono from the 1950s or 1960s later on in the exhibition seems to depict a city scene at dawn, but while the sun isn’t visible the red rays associated with the war flag are seen beyond the mountains. Was this a quiet protest against American occupation, or a decree of loyalty even in the midst of defeat?

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I have often wondered if there were or weren’t political elements to meisen kimono. The height of their popularity coming in midst of patriotic and nationalistic fervor in the lead of to the second World War, while taking much of their inspiration from Western art movements is full of contradictions. On the one hand, the military industrial complex (bakufu) was very keen on adopting Western ways as a way of defeating both the West and Japan’s neighbors in battle. On the other hand, were the wearers of these kimono making political statements against war through their clothing? If so, is it not possible that those who had different political leanings might not do the same with their meisen?

I consider exhibitions that not only teach you something, but encourage you to re-evaluate perceptions of a particular art form and to ask questions to be the absolute best. Through the display, layout, grouping of various kimono, and informative tombstones, LACMA did just that.

They did not altogether ignore the Western influence, either. On many pieces, such as the third kimono featured in this review, they referenced not only the traditional art of screen paintings of landscapes, but the works of Impressionists and modern painters in the LACMA collection such as Matisse or Cezanne that might equally have influenced the design.

My only critique would be that all the kimono were displayed as you see in the images, none were mounted on mannequins. This however is a critique I have often of all kimono exhibitions, not LACMA in particular. I fully understand that this is the traditional method for displaying kimono in Japan, where they are admired as individual works of art in their own right; I also deeply admire LACMA’s conservation department turning to Japanese tradition when they were looking for new methods to store their kimono collection. However, since my personal fascination is with how such pieces were worn and who they were worn by, I would have loved to see at least one kimono dressed on a mannequin. Though I understand there might be conservation issues with displaying kimono this way.

This however, did not in any way diminish the exhibition. The display, use of the pavilion — even the touch of displaying one of the design books in Zuan on the pages the showed kimono designs — were magnificent. All of which combined to challenge perceptions of not only kimono, but perceptions I had about meisen kimono.

Kimono for a Modern Age will be on display in the pavilion for Japanese art at LACMA until October 12, 2014.

As always, if you have any thoughts, contributions, or want to notify me of an exhibition or events in your area please feel free to leave them in the comments, or to email me.

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