The Kimono in Japanese Prints


The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design is the first show by the Worcester Art Museum devoted to examining the kimono as a major source of inspiration, style, and experimentation in Japanese prints, from the Edo (1603-1868) to the Meiji period (1868-1912). This dialogue between print and kimono design is shown in approximately 70 Japanese prints, as well as a selection of illustrated woodblock printed books and paintings, primarily drawn from the museum’s 3,000 Japanese ukiyo-e, and nishiki-e woodblock prints, from John Chandler Bancroft (1835–1901), gifted in 1901.

In Japan, artists from the 17th to 20th century documented ever-evolving trends in fashion, popularised by the many trends and styles of dress and accoutrements. The exhibition on The Kimono in Japanese Prints begins with prints from the late 17th century, when a more complex and sophisticated attitude towards clothing first appeared, as can be seen in the lavish prints of the Floating World’s famous kabuki actors and geisha courtesans. At the other end of the spectrum, modern design books and prints from the early 20th century, inspired by or made for kimono, demonstrate how the boundaries between print and textile fashion and design became more fluid.

Kimono in Japanese Prints Fashion Books

Among the earliest works in the exhibition are a number of different textile pattern books by, or attributed to, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-94) that date to the 1680s. Moronobu, was the son of a dyer and brocade artisan who not only learnt his father’s craft of dyeing and gold and silver-thread brocade making, but also studied Tosa and Kano-style painting. His first works were illustrations for books, but by the mid 1670s he had become an important ukiyo-e master.

These woodblock- printed books, such as Kimono in a Looking Glass (Kosode no sugatami) from 1682, were popular for their imaginative depictions of people and designs, but also served as the illustrated catalogues for potential buyers to select fabrics, patterns, and adornments in vogue for their own kimonos. The sumptuous kimono designs that appear on the left-hand pages of Moronobu’s book follow the diagonal sweeping kanbun style popular (a form of classical Chinese writing) at the time the book was published, while figures of women and young men on the right-side pages serve as models to help the reader visualise themselves in the latest fashions.

Moronobu: Mirror of Patterns of the Four Seasons

Similarly, Moronobu’s Mirror of Patterns of the Four Seasons for Various Activities (Shiki moyo shorei e-kagami), also from the early 1680s, shows kimonos appropriate for each season. In one page spread, two kimono designs on facing pages represent winter and spring – in the kimono on the right-hand a sinuous arare (hailstone) character along the hem of the kimono contrasts with the two large snowflakes on the shoulder. In the kimono on the left-hand wisteria appears behind the Noda character referring to Noda in Osaka, an area which is famous for viewing wisteria in the late spring.

Two centuries later, these motifs began to be part of Japan’s modernisation. The Collection of Weaving Designs (Shokumon ruisan) (1892-93) by an unknown artist includes more than 1,000 woven textile patterns grouped according to subject type, such as celestial, animal, floral, and plant, showing the continued popularity of portraying the kimono in Japanese prints.

Prints from the Imperial Museum in Tokyo

Assembled by the Imperial Museum in Tokyo (today the Tokyo National Museum), the often brightly coloured prints reflect related interests in this period both to codify a national visual identity and to create an archive to inspire modern art and design. Similarly, Tsuda Seifuu’s (1880-1978) Spirals (Kamonfu), from 1900, was the debut work of the then twenty-year-old artist. It reflects the enormously inventive milieu of Kyoto in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as traditional approaches to kimono-making confronted industrialisation and modernisation. Seifu’s bold, saturated palette, as well as the striking use of repetition, organic and flowing lines, and rich patterning, references Art Nouveau, which influenced Japanese arts and crafts at this time.

Ukiyo-e of Geisha and Oiran and The Kimono in Japanese Prints

In the Edo era, at the height of the popularity of the Floating World, social rank and society went hand-in-hand with the display of personal adornment that was accurately portrayed in these period prints. Geisha and kabuki actors were constantly in the limelight and leaders of fashion in their class.

The townswomen who, unlike the nobles and other elite, were less bound by tradition, were able to copy the latest trends generated by copying the popular prints produced at the time of these glamorous pleasure-quarter figures and arrange their garments, hairstyles, and in make-up in their own way, using these new styles as their models. However, fashion may have influenced some levels of society, but there were still general strict rules in place for dress and decoration in a population that was divided into distinct social classes.

These differences can be seen in the kimono in Japanese prints. This distinction allowed a visitor to learn to distinguish a married woman from a young girl, a nobleman from a middle-class woman, or a high-ranking courtesan. Subtle differences in rank can also be found in the prints depicting the demi-monde of the pleasure quarters in these prints, for example, in the portrayal of geisha. Oiran, for example, the great courtesans at the top of their hierarchy, were considered fashion experts and cultural leaders, highly regarded for their lavish fashion-conscious outfits and elaborate hairstyles. Prints show these women in public and private settings, on outings, celebrating a special day at a shrine, or writing a poem in their home or dressing to receive a visitor.

As Edo society was based entirely on a hierarchical system of classes, various rules abounded and were linked to social rank, age, profession, and stages of life. Fashion was not just for the entertainers of the Floating World, who generated great competition to create and wear the latest fashions, it also had a general social-branding function that helped distinguish an individual’s status in society. This complex link between fashion, society, and hierarchy in society can be clearly seen in the development of nishiki-e, the polychrome prints that were developed to allow artists to more easily portray the elaborate fabric patterns and styles of the day.

Suzuki Harunobu and Nishiki-e and The Kimono in Japanese Prints

The kimono in Japanese prints can also be found in the work fo Suzuki Harunobu. This more complex print, often referred to as ‘brocade pictures’, was developed around 1765 by Suzuki Harunobu (1725-70). This transformation took place when some artists, led by Harunobu, decided to develop colour-block printing techniques to expand the possibilities of expression portrayed in prints.

It was Harunobu that developed techniques to guarantee a consistent registration for colour blocks for the more complex prints, enabling more blocks to be used. In doing so, he revolutionised printing that, in turn, helped the popularity and sale of these new, colourful ukiyo-e. The nishiki-e prints evolved from the older benizuri-e print (pink-printed picture), which used more subdued vegetal colours and incorporated less detail. More blocks allowed more colours and encouraged the use of brighter dyes and more contrast, including dayflower blue, beni (safflower) pink, gamboge – a yellow or green, and sumi black ink, as well as lead and oyster-shell whites.

An example of Haronubu’s earlier style is on display in the exhibition – Youth (wakashu) Unrolling a Hanging Scroll. Harunobu’s prints often recalled Japan’s courtly past. This benizuri-e shows Harunobu’s signature preference for combining pale, dilute colours of the textiles with the black keyblock of the figure. It has a more restrained and limited palette using two to four blocks rather than the more complex nishiki-e he developed later that allowed a more brilliant and detailed depiction of the kimono and related textiles.

Kikugawa Eizan

In the exhibition, featuring the kimono in Japanese prints, courtesans wearing the latest fashions are found in the prints of Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867). The print Kashiku of the Tsuruya, shows the courtesan with her kamuro (attendant) showing off the newest styles with an elaborate hairstyle. Another print by the artist, The Courtesan Yoyoyama of the Matsubaya with Her Two Kamuro, sees the courtesan during the popular seasonal pastime of cherry-blossom viewing, parading in public in the latest fashion – a heavily patterned multi-layered kimono – whilst sporting an intricate hairstyle with combs and a plethora of hair pins.

By the 1830s, Eizan’s representation of beauties, bijin-ga, had fallen out of fashion and he was replaced in popularity by his student Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) – and Eisen’s rival in ukiyo-e, Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865). Eisen beauties are also represented in the exhibition with Modern Figures on a Snowy Day, early to mid-1820s, from the series The Four Seasons.

Ukiyo-e Kabuki Prints

Another element of the exhibition is the exploration of the kimono in the world of theatre and kabuki. More prints depicting actors of the kabuki theatre were produced in Edo than all other subject combined. Kabuki fans had an enormous appetite to see their favourite actors in favourite roles in print.

The prints helped maintain the cultivated notion of celebrity and helped keep the fan base active and engaged. It also allowed fans to have a visual memory of a particular emotional or memorable moment of a popular play – showing the actors stylised expressions and gestures, frozen in a moment of time. The character and particular portrayed may be the most important reason for the print to be created, but its secondary role was to show the costumes and latest styles created by the theatres.

Shin Hanga and Ito Shinsui

Moving forward to the 20th century, the exhibition of kimono in Japanese prints, also explores the world of Taisho and Showa period prints. Ito Shinsui was a master of the Shin Hanga movement that was founded early in the 20th century to revive the styles and techniques of ukiyo-e and the portrayal of bijin-ga.

Shinsui’s woodblock print from 1924, entitled Woman with Marumage Hairstyle, shows a beauty showing off her up-to-the-minute, modern look. We know she is married by her choice of hairstyle, the modern equivalent of a fashion early in the Edo period (as can be seen in the prints of Eizan), kastuyama-mage which was an elaborate, formal style favoured by the Edo courtesans of the floating world. The kimono of Shinsui’s beauty has also been updated to reflect modern tastes – the many layers have gone and a simpler form and pattern have been used to echo society’s modernisation.

Throughout the ages, woodblock prints have echoed the fashions and culture of the time, revealing not only the day-to-day activities of the characters portrayed, but also showing a constantly evolving taste, feeding the public’s desire for the latest fashionable styles.

Until 7 May, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, A catalogue is available.

A virtual exhibition: Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso. The Worcester Wedding Kimono explores the kimono that was commissioned as part of the exhibition. Chiso, is the revered 465-year-old kimono design and production house based in Kyoto, Japan. Due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, Kimono Couture is presented virtually at