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.
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