Selection of the Month
Recognized around the world as a symbol of Japanese culture, kimonos trace their ancestry back more than a thousand years to a garment known as a kosode (“small sleeve”), which was first worn by courtiers in the eighth century as the innermost of as many as twelve layers of ceremonial clothing. By the fifteenth century, the kosode had developed into an outer garment and was worn by ordinary people, not just the rich. The modern kimono had been born. For Japanese men, it would remain the standard form of dress until the late nineteenth century, when government reforms mandated that men adopt Western dress. For women, kimonos would continue to be worn for everyday purposes well into the twentieth century.
Unlike Western garments, kimonos are not tailored to the wearer’s body. Instead, they use color, decoration, and the natural texture of the fabric to impress the eye, essentially turning the human body into a moveable canvas for artistic expression. As writers Shojiro Nomura and Tsutomu Ema observe in their book Japanese Kimono Designs, “The demarcation between art and craft, so clear in the West, is non-existent in Japan, and an article of clothing is as worthy of artistic endeavor as a painting. Many well-known artists in other fields designed kimonos and other textiles as well.”
Special Collections recently acquired a colorful book of kimono designs published in Kyoto in 1902. Titled Yachigusa Maki no Shichi, it is a descendant of the black-and-white woodblock-printed pattern books, known as hinagata bon, which would have been available for perusal in kimono shops as early as the seventeenth century. Some such books contained up to 200 designs. This one contains 30. A work of art in its own right, it may have been used not just to advertise kimonos, which were becoming even more vibrant at the turn of the twentieth century thanks to the use of new chemical dyes developed in the West, but also as a general expression of Japanese artistry at a time when European and American artists were looking to the East for inspiration.
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Special Collections Librarian