When clothing appears at the Metropolitan Museum, it’s typically a big to-do involving the Costume Institute, haute couture and numerous theatrical set pieces. (See, for instance, the current exhibition of Victorian mourning attire.) But “Kimono: A Modern History,” quietly folded into the museum’s Arts of Japan Galleries, is a different kind of fashion show.
It’s as stunning as anything the Costume Institute has to offer, with case after case of richly embroidered, dyed and printed robes. Its point of view, however, is more scholarly than sartorial. Really it’s a history of modern Japan, told through a garment with a simple T-shaped cut and a name that translates, simply, as “thing to wear.”
Despite its ceremonial, traditional reputation, the kimono belongs (and has always belonged) to a wider material culture that runs high to low and includes hanging scrolls, prints, books, magazines and decorative objects. Kimonos have even served as home décor, as seen in a pair of six-panel folding screens from the late 16th century that show pictures of robes draped over stands to form a makeshift room divider.
Edo period kimono pattern books, displayed alongside contemporaneous woodblock prints of kimono-wearing actors and glamour girls, link kimonos to the theater and to a flourishing publishing industry. Men’s kimonos from the 1930s and ’40s, printed with airplanes and battleships, meanwhile, do double duty as war propaganda.
Throughout, the show revels in the versatility of the kimono — a garment worn by men and women, commoners and elite samurai, Westerners and the Japanese alike. Although the curators include some incredibly luxurious examples, like the sky-blue silk satin robe embroidered with gold shells that may have been part of a wealthy young woman’s trousseau, they also make room for coats worn by farmers and firefighters (which, to a contemporary eye, are just as fabulous with their patchworks of recycled fabric and printed figures from Japanese folklore).
Although the most sumptuous textiles in the exhibition date from the Edo period (1615-1868), the section on the subsequent Meiji period (1868-1912) is even more stimulating. It unfolds as a lively back-and-forth between Japanese kimono designers and their Western counterparts, made possible by the opening of Japan’s ports to international trade. Prints by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi set the scene, showing a mix of Western-style dresses and kimonos in of Yokohama, a port city.
A coral silk velvet evening coat by Jean-Charles Worth, a great-grandson of the Paris-based English designer Charles Frederick Worth, attests to the kimono’s appeal for fashionable Western women (especially those who had tired of the corset). Corsets and bustles, meanwhile, found their way into the wardrobes of high-ranking Japanese women.
Materials and techniques were exchanged along with designs; wool traveled east and silk west, and a new, hybrid method of stencil dyeing, called kata-yuzen, evolved, enabling such gorgeous creations as a silk gauze kimono bordered by a summery scene of carp and waterlilies.
Synthetic Western dyes are responsible for the deep purples and other brilliant colors of kimonos of the Taisho period (1912-1926). And some early Showa period robes, from the 1920s and ’30s, borrow liberally from the stylized, swirling patterns of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.
Other Showa kimonos flaunt aggressively modern, representational motifs: Leicas and Rolleiflex cameras, in a men’s under-kimono from 1955, or Mickey Mouse, in a midcentury child’s kimono. These mass-produced items, sold in department stores and suitable for everyday wear, stand in vivid contrast to the show’s older, handmade kimonos (which, by midcentury, had become sought-after collector’s items).
Inspired by and dedicated to the independent textile historian and scholar Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, who wrote the detailed and insightful book that is the show’s catalog, “Kimono” was organized by the Met’s curator of Japanese art, John T. Carpenter, and the curatorial fellow Monika Bincsik.
It concludes with kimono-inspired fashions from the 1950s through the early 1990s, by designers such as Bonnie Cashin, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, displayed alongside traditional kimonos made by Japanese artists who have been designated Living National Treasures. The show might have benefited from some more current examples; Mr. Miyake’s persimmon-colored shirt with long, spiraling sleeves, from 1991, is the most recent piece on view.
Fortunately, Ms. Milhaupt’s book (edited, after her death, by her widower, Curtis J. Milhaupt) offers an up-to-the-minute account of kimonos in contemporary culture, with nods to gatherings of kimono devotees in Ginza and Kyoto and kimono-promoting pop stars like Puffy AmiYumi. It also quotes some sage advice on kimono styling from Mr. Yamamoto, who reminds us not to get too fussy: “It’s only a kimono (meaning ‘material for wearing’).”