A Brief History of Kimonos

To be fully alive is to have an aesthetic perception of life because a major part of the world’s goodness lies in its often unspeakable beauty.

~~Yukitaka Yamamoto

[An old triptych of three women wearing kimonos. Source: Google Search.]

Recently, my wife and I spent an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). She wanted to see the Tudor exhibition. I went through it quickly…I love English period decorative and portraiture art but that interest peaked with the final season of Downton Abbey. The newly restored (and painted!) ancient Greek and Egyptian statuary was where I wanted to spend more time. So we did both. We then visited the Asian art wing and saw the Kimono Style exhibition. From there we retired to the Member’s Lounge for a glass of white wine ($17.00) and a bottle of Pellegrino. While eating our Hummus and Pita plate, we discussed what we had seen and I mentioned that I would like to revisit the Kimonos once more before it closed. We finished our visit to the Hall of Medieval Art to see the Christmas Creche.

The Kimono Style (which closes in February) was more than fascinating. Within three minutes of entering the gallery, I realized that my concept of Kimonos was, to put it mildly, somewhat simplistic. The background, styles and fabrics were intricate and beautiful. So, I did what every good blogger does in such a situation…I ran straight to Google to find out as much background as I could. And, like yours truly, I fell asleep before I could get to the Edo Period. I awoke after a brief nap, shoved my laptop aside and headed for the bed. I slept the sleep of an opium smoker.

My dream came quickly. There were cherry blossoms everywhere. I was standing at the edge of a Dark Forest. “Don’t go in there”, I was told. “Those who do often end up as suicides. It was the Aokigahara, where the ghosts of Japanese mythology are said to dwell. I was not alone. Her name was Akari, which translates to ‘vermillion red’. Her beauty was heavy with gravity. A deep, peaceful and somehow alluring aura made the air around her radiate a golden light. Her face was as while as the first snowfall of winter.

She was a Geisha. But unlike western stereotypes, she was not for sale. A Geisha is not a prostitute but instead is a highly educaated woman trained in the Art of the Tea Ceremony, music, literature and calligraphy. She was one of about 1,000 active Gheishas in Japan today.

In my unenlightened world, I thought she would take care of my every need, even before I knew I had it. She took my hand and led me to a low desk. She mixed the ink and began making brush strokes. She made me try to copy her bamboo leaves. My attempts were embarrassing. She smiled and led me back to edge of the forest. I took a step toward the trees…

I woke up.

I’ve digressed.

Kimonos were first reported in the Kofun Period (300-538 CE). Over the centuries, the style has changed in many ways. The first Kimonos were of Chinese design. The trade between Japan and China brought new styles to Japan. In 718 CE, the Youo Clothing Code was enacted. This determined who was eligable to wear one, the kind of material and even the fact that the robe opening was to be Left to Right. The opposite closure was reserved for the deceased.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the obi was added. Length of sleeves and multiple layers were common.

By the early 20th Century, many class distincions were abololished. Western clothing came into style. But the Kimonos remained popular. After an earthquake in Kanto in 1923, a shortage of fabrics became available from unused clothing. In recent years, the Kimono has grown in popularity. Men are wearing western suits to work and changing into a Kimono robe in the evening.

[A present-day mother and child with modern Kimonos. Source: Google Search.]

What follows is a gallery of Kimono photos I took at the MET. I regret that I can not give you the style name, fabric or historical context of each one. Just marvel at the subtle striking beauty of this small sample of Kimonos:


[My personal favorite.]

A few days later we returned to the MET. I headed straight to the Kimono Style exhibit. I took a few more photos and went further into the Asian Art wing. I wanted to sit in my favorite place. It’s a replica of a Chinese (or Japanese) Courtyard. I sat and listened. In years past, there was a small trickle of water from a fountain. I loved the tranquility of the murrmering water.

It was silent in the room. For some reason the fountain had been turned off. I was disappointed. But, if nothing else, I am a resourceful guy. I pulled out my ear buds and plugged into my iPhone. I went to my Calm app and found “babbling brook”.

I think you can work out the rest of the story…

[Sources: the historical material is from Wikipedia. All the MET Kimono photos are mine. The rest are the result of Google Searching. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I did not have the aforementioned dream.]