Japonisme

Throughout the ages, Western fashion has incorporated foreign influences and the late 19th Century was no exception. One major influence came from Japan, a nation that up until 1854 has kept itself secluded from the rest of the world. After 1854, Japan began to participate in the world economy and one of its major exports was textiles, both in the form of raw fabric and finished goods designed expressly for the Western market. Along with this, there also a flood of Oriental bric-a-brac that was exported in the form of fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and of course, silks, which began to attract much interest by Westerners, especially in Great Britain and France.

At the same time, Japanese designs began to attract the interest of various artists who began to incorporate them into their work. One area of special interest were woodblock prints in the Ukiyo-e Style and these designs influenced artists such as Tissot, Monet, Degas, and Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Below are some examples of these woodblock prints:

Otani Oniji II, dated 1794 Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95) Polychrome woodcut print on paper; 15 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1 x 22.9 cm) Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939 (JP2822)

Otani Oniji II, dated 1794; Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95)
Polychrome woodcut print on paper; 15 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1 x 22.9 cm)
Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939 (JP2822)

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1831–33 Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849); Published by Eijudo Polychrome ink and color on paper; 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm) (Oban size) H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847)

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1831–33; Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849); Published by Eijudo; Polychrome ink and color on paper; 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm) (Oban size) H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847)

Along with woodblock prints and other Japanese artwork, interest in the Japanese design aesthetic also included fabrics which incorporated motifs such as plants, flowers, insects, birds, and geometric patterns. Below are a few examples of textile designs from the 1880s:

Birds1 Textile1

Kimono1 Textile2

We can see further examples depicted by various notable Western artists themselves:

Claude Monet. Monet painted his wife, Camille, posing in a kimono against the backdrop of his fan collection

Claude Monet, 1875; Monet painted his wife, Camille, posing in a kimono against the backdrop of his fan collection

James Tissot, The Japanese Bath (La Japonaise au bain,), 1864

James Tissot, The Japanese Bath (La Japonaise au bain,), 1864.

James McNeill Whistler, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine

James McNeill Whistler, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, 1863 – 1865.

So how does this translate into fashion? Well, garments of the period began to use traditional Japanese fabrics, largely in the form of kimono fabric. In many instances, the garments themselves were made from re-worked kimonos which were largely made from silk. Below are some examples:

1870 Court Dress

Court Dress, c. 1870; Material: White kimono fabric of figured “shibori” silk satin; embroidery of wisteria, chrysanthemum, peony, and Chinese fan motifs in metallic threads; wrapped buttons with Japanese “tomoemon”-like motif on bodice (only bodice and overskirt of this dress was remade from a Japanese kimono in London. Some traces of the original kimono seams remain in the textile. The underskirt is missing, but it is thought that an underskirt made of a different fabric was combined with this garment. There are some other indications of missing original ornaments. Kyoto Costume Institute (AC8938 93-28-1AB)

1870 Tea Gown

Tea Gown, American, c. 1870, Pink silk taffeta and embroidered crepe; This dress was made from authentic kimono fabric imported to America from Japan. The textile was probably originally intended for women of the samurai class. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (80.1.4)

Side profile

Side profile

Close-up of the front.

Close-up of the front.

The above pictures are interesting in that they illustrate typical Japanese design motifs that would normally be found in Kimonos. Also, interestingly enough, the two above dresses were made from re-worked Kimono fabric which suggests that new markets were being found for kimonos that normally would be worn by a small class of upper class Japanese, primarily the wives of Samurai.

The development of new markets for the kimono fabric is a logical result in that during the 1860s and 1870s, the traditional Samurai class in Japan was in decline as the nation modernized and increasingly adopted Western ways.

Tea Gown, Japanese c. 1875; This at-home gown was made in Japan for the western market, and is a typical example of the 1870s bustle style. It may have been ordered by a foreign resident living in Japan, but it is more likely to be a good example of an export item. One side of the Japanese label attached on the gown is entirely covered with logo marks, and on the other side there are the remains of some brushed characters, but they are illegible. After a long period of national isolation, Japan opened up to the rest of the world, and the promotion of trade became a major preoccupation. Following the opening of the Port of Yokohama in 1859, silk became a major export, but it was more desirable to export silk products, which had greater added value. The Yokohama silk merchant Shobey Shiino was dispatched to the International Exhibition in Vienna in 1873 together with other Japanese delegates. His market research resulted in the production of quilted at-home gowns made of “habutae” silk (a fine Japanese silk). Kyoto Costume Institute (AC989 78-30-3AB)

Moving forward, the Japanese influence still remained strong as can be seen in these examples:

1880s Day Dress

Day Dress, Japanese, 1880s

Rear Close-Up

Rear Close-Up

What is interesting about the above dress is that this one appears to have been made for the Japanese market. In this case, the dress reflects Japan’s increasing westernization and is a mix of traditional fabric design with western dress style. Note that the line of the cuirass bodice has fringe running along the bottom, creating a visual effect of elongating the bodice’s lines, covering the hips completely.

1885 Dressing Gown

Rear View

Rear View

The use of kimonos as dressing gowns and even tea gowns was popular in the West and it allowed women to be able to wear something that did not not require the use of the corset, or at least having to lace up the corset to the degree normally required when wearing a dress. As the bustle disappeared from use in the 1890s and the lines of women’s dresses became more upright, kimonos began to be incorporated into designs for evening wear and some day wear and this is especially evident during the years from 1900 – 1913

1890s Dress

Day Dress, American, British, or French c. 1894 – 1896, brocade, velvet, organza, silk taffeta; Indianapolis Museum of Art (74.351A-B)

The above example is a day dress typical of the mid 1890s with the characteristic leg-o-mutton sleeves, thin waist, and open bodice designed to appear to be a coat with an exposed shirtwaist (which was often a fake one that was actually part of the bodice itself). What is interesting in terms of Japonisme is the geometric pattern of the fabric which follows a fairly standard Japanese design motif. The provenance of the fabric is unknown but it’s clear that it’s not material from a reworked kimono.

Finally, we end this series with a wonderful example of Japonisme in the form of a Viste or cloak from Paris, c. 1890:

Cloak/Viste c. 1890

Viste or Cloak, French, c. 1890; Constructed of off-white cashmere twill; appliqués of embroidered fabrics with kabuto (samurai helmet), butterfly and cherry blossom motifs; feathers at front, collar and back slit. This piece is a fascinating example of Japanese designs referenced by Paris fashion. These motifs were hand-worked in elaborate cord embroidery onto separate silk cloths, which was then applied to the cashmere. The sideways-oriented kabuto that acts as a counterpart to the cherry blossoms is laid out symmetrically in a European fashion. The visite is one version of a coat created for the bustle silhouette. Kyoto Costume Institute (AC5367 86-17-7)

The above illustrations and descriptions barely touch the range of Japanese influences that were found in Western fashion during the late 19th Century but even from this limited sample, it can be seen that they served to create some stunning effects that only served to enhance the aesthetics and sheer beauty of the period styles. This is an area that has been largely neglected by those striving to recreate the fashions of the period and it merits further consideration.

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