Kimono of the interwar years
The Taishō period (1912-1926) was one of confidence and optimism in Japan. Industrial development was stimulated by the First World War, economic prosperity being matched by political democratisation. It was a period of great urban growth, particularly in the capital, Tokyo. People moved to the suburbs, commuting on expanding railway networks to new types of office and factory jobs. Women entered the work force in large numbers, employed as typists, bank clerks, bus conductors and shop assistants. These workers were the consumers of a new mass urban culture that centred on the café, the cinema and the department store.
Although western-style clothes gained popularity among women, the kimono continued to be worn. The traditional cut of the garment remained the same, but the motifs were dramatically enlarged and new designs appeared, inspired by western styles such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Their striking patterns reflected the confident spirit of the age and provided an exuberant visual statement for the modern, independent, urban woman of the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1926-1989).
In creating these boldly patterned and brilliantly coloured kimono, textile designers benefited from technological advances made during the late 19th century. Power-operated spinning machines and jacquard looms introduced from Europe had speeded up production and lowered costs, while chemical dyes allowed for the creation of dazzling colours. In the early 20th century new types of silk and innovative patterning techniques were also developed, making relatively inexpensive, highly fashionable garments available to more people than ever before. These vibrant kimono styles remained popular until the 1950s.
Figure 1 The striking pattern of this kimono reveals the dynamism of Japanese textile design in the early 20th century. A traditional motif of pine trees, plum blossoms and clouds has been dramatically enlarged, the bold design reflecting the confident spirit of the period. The pine trees have been executed in a method of tie-dyeing called shibori, while the plum blossoms are lavishly embroidered in orange, yellow and gold. These auspicious motifs and expensive techniques suggest this may have been a garment for a very special occasion, or perhaps that the young woman who wore it was a geisha.
Figure 2 Many early 20th-century kimono are made from meisen, a fabric woven from silk obtained from defective cocoons. The introduction of mechanised spinning technology meant it was possible to use this lower-quality silk to create a thick, lustrous material that was both long-lasting and relatively inexpensive. Patterned with chemical dyes using an innovative direct-dyeing technique, meisen became the fabric of choice for women's fashionable, casual kimono. In this garment a western and thus quite exotic motif, the tulip, has been rendered with limited but striking colours in a bold arabesque design.
Figure 3 The early 20th century saw the introduction of new textile techniques in Japan which speeded up traditional hand-tied resist-dyeing methods. Chemical dyes mixed with rice-paste were applied through stencils to the warp (longitudinal) and/or weft (horizontal) threads prior to weaving. Stencil-printing both warp and weft allowed for the creation of complex images such as the buildings that decorate this kimono. The dense pattern and limited colours create a very modern, almost abstract effect.