“Kimono”, which translates to “wearing thing” in Japanese, is both a modern invention and a millennium-old style. Becoming the kimono we know today only during the Meiji period (1868–1912), this garment, details Cynthia Green, developed from the Edo kosode, which, in turn, was a revised form of clothing popular during the Heian period (794–1192). In these images from three pattern books published by Honda Unkindō (ca. 1902), we glimpse both evolving tradition and modern fictions, which imbued the kimono with complex associations of national heritage.
These particular books were printed following a late-nineteenth century boom in Kyoto kimono production, for use as guides by both consumers and designers. As Terry Satsuki Milhaupt describes in her study of the modern kimono, this was an era when the kimono’s symbolic association with “traditional Japan” became explicit, due, primarily, to the Meiji government relaxing the Edo period’s stricter social hierarchy and isolationism. With increasingly porous social and international borders, fashion underwent an upheaval as Western clothing rapidly became a shorthand for modernization. Against this backdrop, the kimono also modernized, but its modernism presented as tradition. When government officials began to wear suits and uniforms, “Kimono-clad females emerged as symbols of cultural continuity and preservers of the nation’s sartorial heritage”. As is often the case, national mythmaking was built on the back of global exchange. The newfound textile technologies used to produce these heritage-heavy garbs became possible thanks to Japanese delegations collaborating with the United States and Europe to research dyeing technologies.
Bound in the fukurotoji style on stitched double leaves, the pattern books consist of coloured woodblock prints, which represent designs attributed to Ueno Seikō, a practitioner of yūzen-style dyeing. This process is a subclass of “resist dyeing”, which uses rice-paste to form a sticky outline, giving shape and pattern to the applied colour. While yūzen is a practice that stretches back to the eighteenth century – when it first allowed for pictorial designs to be laid directly onto fabric – kata–yūzen, in which dyed paste is applied through stencils, was only perfected toward the end of the nineteenth century. With this new process, derived from intellectual collaboration with scientists from other nations, kimono production could be increasingly industrialized.
If these design albums exhibit a certain aesthetic flare, it may have emerged from brotherly competition. During the period in which they were produced, the Unkindō publishing company — known by this name from ca. 1889, though an offshoot of the Honda family’s longstanding book-binding business — entered a tradecraft rivalry with the Unsōdō company, also of the Honda family. After these relatives merged their companies in 1906, the publisher’s pattern books became self-conscious works of art. As Teruko Hayamitsu, a curator at the still-extant Unsōdō company, writes: “They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates.”
Produced just before the merger, when competition was fierce, these images evince refined woodblock techniques and complex, decorative grammars. One catalogue makes extensive use of abstraction and negative space, with maple leaves falling in patterns from a salmon-colored sky and cranes taking flight out of a lightless sea. Two other catalogues dial back the abstraction into small, stirring scenes of the natural world. Here we see themes reminiscent of ukiyo-e — fractal, geometric water patterns; snowy boughs spread from a serpentine trunk — and festive repetitions of speckled paper fans.
November 3, 2021