The Kimono in Print

Published in March 2020, The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design represents an effort of international collaboration between the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) and the Worcester Art Museum in the US. It began with the symposium Fashioning Colours: New Perspectives in Japanese Prints held at SISJAC in July 2018, and was continued by the Worcester Art Museum, who have translated scholarly work presented at the symposium into a groundbreaking art exhibition. The Kimono in Print is the first art exhibition and publication devoted to examining the kimono as a major source of inspiration and experimentation in Japanese print culture from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the Meiji period (1868-1912). Artists during these periods, through the wide circulation of prints, documented ever-evolving trends in fashion, popularised certain styles of dress, and even designed kimonos.

The exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum will explore the intriguing dialogue between print and kimono design and will be illustrated by approximately 80 Japanese prints, as well as a selection of illustrated books and paintings. The exhibition is scheduled for mid-October 2020 to mid-January 2021. The publication offers insight into the intersection of the worlds of Japanese print and kimono design, as well as their social, cultural, and global importance. This book was edited by Vivian Li, and the contributing authors, in addition to myself, Stephanie Su, include Nagasaki Iwao, Ellis Tinios, Matsuba Ryōko, and Fujita Kayoko.

Nagasaki Iwao’s article “Pattern Books and Fashion in Edo-period Japan,” discusses the significance of kimono pattern books in the Edo period. Matsuba Ryōko’s article “Fashion Influencers in the Edo period,” explores the role courtesans and Kabuki actors played in shaping the fashion trends during this period. In his article “The Splendors of Shupon,” Ellis Tinios reveals that to understand the material culture of Edo Japan, erotic pictures offer fascinating visual insight, as the level of detailed depiction of luxury textiles is rarely seen in other types of prints. Looking beyond Japan, Fujita Kayako in her paper, “Textile Imports, Consumer Culture, and the Domestication of Exotics,” shows how Kimono design reflected inspiration from Portuguese and Indian objects, and the changing social-economic structures in Edo Japan. My own paper, “Weaving Art, Science and Modern Design,” investigates the mechanisms which led to new trends in Japanese prints through the 1890s, including the new model of collaboration between nihonga artists and textile companies, the new curriculum at art schools, the translation of colour theories from France, and the invention of new chemical dyes and printing technology.   

SISJAC played a key role in the early stage of this project. As a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow from 2017-2018, I was able to expand work I had begun with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in investigating the changing colourants and aesthetic discourse in Meiji Japanese prints. The Fashioning Colors symposium allowed me to continue my research, combining interdisciplinary approaches to art history, material culture, and conservation science.

Fashioning Colours: New Perspectives in Japanese Prints in 2018

At this time, Vivian Li, former Associate Curator at the Worcester Art Museum, and I began sharing ideas about utilising the strength of the collection at the museum and the academic resources at SISJAC, to refresh ways of looking at Japanese prints. The project was greatly advanced by SISJAC funding and its rich research resources, as well as it partnership with the British Museum, and strong network of Japanese Studies scholars in the UK. To further explore the transmedia relationship between Japanese woodblock prints and textile designs from the 18th to the 19th centuries, I organised the Fashioning Colours international symposium. Centering on the theme of how colours impacted the production of prints and textiles, the symposium was structured in three modules: (1) Making colours: pigments and dyes, (2) Perceiving colours: the visuality of illustrated books, and (3) Fashioning colours: prints and textile designs.
With generous support from the Japan Foundation and SISJAC, I was able to bring in a group of art historians, social historians, curators, textile specialists, and conservation scientists from the US, Japan, and the UK. The dialogue with scholars from diverse disciplines was stimulating, and it also provided inspiration for curator Vivian Li, in her planning of The Kimono in Prints exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum. Through this international collaboration, new ideas generated from the symposium are relayed to general audiences in the US.   

My appointment as Assistant Professor of Asian Art at the University of Colorado in Boulder, presented another exciting opportunity. Shared similar research interests, my colleagues with expertise in Latin American Art, Native American Art, the curator of the CU Museum, and I worked together to organise an exhibition in the Fall of 2019. Titled Art Elements: Materials, Motive and Meaning, this exhibition examined the global circulation of art materials and the local use of colorants. This exhibition continued my interest in connecting Japanese prints with global art history, by emphasising comparative perspectives across cultures. The Kimono in Prints project and the Art Elements exhibition signifies a small but significant step in renewing the field of Japanese art through international and cross-cultural collaboration.

Stephanie Su
Assistant Professor of Asian Art, University of Colorado Boulder

Please also see Victoria and Albert Museum’s Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition website (the V&A is temporarily closed)