Oh to be in my ki-moni-yo back in Kokomo or O-hi-ee-yo They were made famous by vamps and gun molls named Flossie or Goldie with bleached marcelled or tousled-permed tresses, a cigarette dangling from their mouth, who silently and mysteriously beckoned with smouldering kohl-outlined eyes as they paraded and flaunted their sumptuous, slinky satiny dressing wraps across the silver screen during the 1920s- early 30s. Such national exposure firmly entrenched l’Affaire Kimono in this country.
American woman of all walks of life wanted one, and it was okay; the stars wore them and that was all the endorsement which was needed! That the honorable and revered kimono found its way into American culture and lifestyle was a matter of course [see history of kimono at end of column].
The western world has always had a fascination with the East. For Americans, the doors were opened in 1853 when U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Japan’s Edo Bay with four ironclad ships and opened new trade relations between the two nations, resulting in a signed treaty with Japan in 1854. It was a remarkable achievement since up to then Japan had been closed off from the outside world for almost 200 years.
It was a boon to the American whaling industry which needed ports for coaling and refueling stations, and for world travelers as Japan became a must stop. The Victorian period was a time of leisurely travel, and many of those journeyers were artists, writers and musicians who recorded their observations of trips abroad.Many of their novels, plays, ballets and operettas reflected their visits in foreign locations, especially Japan with its exotic landscape. Japonisme became the trend in late 19th and early 20th century; gardens and interior design were especially favored and copied.
Theater-goers fell in love with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado when it debuted in 1885; 170 performances were simultaneously given across America; the town of Mikado, Michigan was so named in 1886. In 1900 the play Madame Butterfly so moved Giacomo Puccini that he was compelled to set it to music; the opera’s world premiere was held in Paris in 1906 and has enthralled audiences since. In America, the late 1890s-early 1900s was a hotbed of reform activity.
It was a time of workers’ rights, improved education and living conditions, health advocacy and athleticism; and a greater role for women in society including the suffrage movement. And most important, a time when women’s fashion was in revolt as conversion from the S shape to the boy shape was allowing women to be less restricted not only in both under and outerwear but in public self-expression. Magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal in 1896 were berating the many health problems created by ridiculous fashion styles and advocating a return to normalcy [see The Coming of the Grecian Waist at end of column].
In 1907, according to Common Threads, A Parade of American Clothing, Anna G. Noyes, who many considered an eccentric, pleaded for a new order of clothing in which women didn’t need help getting in and out of clothes, a method of equally distributing the weight of clothes so they would be and feel as natural to the body as skin and bones and an overall design based on the natural curves of the body.
She also wanted the right for women to select textile colors best suited to their coloring, to choose fabrics for garments which touched the body that were sanitary and could easily be washed and the elimination of dirty starch; to wear gloves instead of bothersome muffs in the winter, more becoming hats less prone to ridicule, better fitting shoes and the elimination of all jewelry and fur in warm climates which prevented fresh air from penetrating the body.
But most of all she touched upon the very heart of reform by campaigning to eliminate articles of clothing that required unsafe or unhealthy working conditions for workers, a subject many were advocating but went largely ignored by local city officials — the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City in 1911 would forever be a haunting reminder of those unheeded warnings. Thus the timing was right for the entrance of the kimono American style – its structure and simplicity embodied an age of new spirit and freedom.
Although fashion reform was slow to move until the early 1920s as society makers continued to decree that woman should be corseted, stuffed and layered, the carefree look was making serious inroads. The kimono style was in many respects the garment Anna Noyes had defined, and was gradually finding its way into household apparel catalogs both as a house wrapper and street costume around 1904-08, a sure sign that it had been respectably upgraded from its lowly association by some levels of society as a dressing room wrap of certain performers of dubious reputation in vaudeville, burlesque and above all, the carnies.
Of course, in their eyes, it was perfectly acceptable for both men and women in the legitimate theatre to be photographed in or seen wearing their kimono robes in public view.
The height of home fashion was a room in Japanese motif much like this one featured in The Ladies Home Journal, November 1895.
Exercise and gymnastics were promoted as health tonics in encouraging women to develop a healthy regimen per McCall’s Magazine, November 1904.
Hand-colored albumen photograph of 1897-98 shows kimonos worn by dancing girls, perhaps patterned after the three little maidens from The Mikado?
A scene from backstage in the early 1900s – kimonos were for daring women who smoked; this actress, perhaps pondering life and the longevity of her beauty and theatrical career.
Long, short and silk kimonos get equal billing with the more conservative wrapper.
– Dry Goods Economist, Feb. 13, 1904.
The two long and short kimonos were made of German flannel with Oriental designs and satin Persian trimming in blue, navy, pink, red, gray, tan and black grounds.
– Bellas Hess catalog, 1909
1912 evening wraps draped like kimonos by Laferrière and Jacques Pacquin.
– Costumes and Styles
Madame or her dressmaker could make this shorter sleeve kimono in one of the many type silks or crepes on the market.
-Elite Styles October 1913
A fabric for especially made for kimonos — the famous Serpentine Crepe, a favorite long-striated cotton crepe brand name by Pacific Mills, was heralded in ads from McCalls, April 1909 and Pictorial Review, May 1914. Fabric is from the early 1920s; selvage marking is barely visible. Sears 1926 catalog featured kimono crepes, 29″ wide, in copenhagen, lt. blue, lilac, navy, pink, white and rose.
In many ways the kimono’s clinginess reflected Art Nouveau’s serpentine designs. Costume historian Mary Evans observed that the changing dress lines between 1908-10 were becoming straighter with “the waist partially concealing the natural lines of the body, being cut in a slightly full kimono, with a short sleeve that was an adaptation of the kimono of the Japanese who had centered the attention of the world upon themselves as a result of their war in 1905 with the Russians….and that this was the first appearance of that particular cut of sleeve since the early Middle Ages.” It was a natural attraction for designers like Fortuny and Paul Poiret who began designing the shapeless wrap-around style for outerwear around 1910.
Poiret is also credited with creating the open-neck kimono waist which did away with the high collar and set-in sleeves for many years to come. Opera cloaks, coats and street suits never looked so elegant and opulent. WWI and into the early 1920s further expanded and defined women’s roles outside the home.
There were increased opportunities in business, science, medicine, politics, sports, all requiring extreme changes in how women thought, acted and dressed. The choice to have a career meant marriage and family responsibilities did not have to be an immediate option as it was their mothers; there was now more to life before settling down.
Vamps and bombshells made all things possible in kimonos – Marion Davies was rewarded with jewels in Show People, 1928; Marlene Dietrich was the epitome of the 1930s emboldened come-hither look and who always got her man; and Jean Harlow more than anyone else in the 1930s personified everything that was glamorous, independent and trendsetting. And then came the daring-do of the 1920s. It is the flapper era to which women owe their modern independence.
Voting, smoking, bobbed hair, raised hemlines, trousers, discarded bras and petticoats, all-night parties at speakeasies, public cursing, fast roadsters and roadhouses – the Smart Set shocked and mocked as it heralded in the Jazz Age. As F. Scott Fitzgerald so aptly summed up his perspective of that fling in time, “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, it was an age of satire.”
I am me and free! Further pushing women, as well as men, were the uncensored movies; the Hays Office and the code of decency was yet a decade away. The impact of the cinema upon society cannot be dismissed as a temporary fling; it was a worldwide tonic for individual expression and the freedom to do as one pleased, a reflection of life. As movie stars did, the public emulated.
Jeanine Basinger, a noted film scholar, writes that “The fantasies of the audience change from grand dreams of a generic quality – settling the frontier, owning their own land, escaping oppression – to specific dreams fueled by the movies themselves: wealth, social position, passion, clothes, furniture, glamour, exotica and, of course, sex.” A book on early women screen stars – Complicated Women – points out the best era for women on screen was “the pre-Code era, the five years between the point that talkies became widely accepted in 1929 through summer 1934.
Those women could take lovers, have babies out of wedlock , get rid of cheating husbands, enjoy their sexuality, hold down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women only acted after 1968. They had fun. And that’s why the Code stepped in to prevent women from having fun, designed to put the genie back in the bottle and the wife back in the kitchen.” A student film research project notes that “During the 1920s, as many as 100 million Americans went to the movies each week in more than 18,000 theatres across the country.
A Photoplay article in 1924 suggests that 75 percent of the audiences were women, and in 1927 Moving Pictures World stated that 83 percent of the audiences were women. As a result the motion pictures of this time tended to appeal to female audiences. The motion picture industry not only depicted what was going on in the lives of women at the time; it also trained women in new fashions and social roles that were being promoted then. Movies during the 1920s depicted what a new modern women should be and served as an instructional manual for young women.”
Variations of kimonos of the 1920s – slinky all-silk crepe de chine in rose and copen from Sears 1920 catalog; and cozier styled kimonos in choices of figured flannelette or Serpentine Crepe in copen, rose and lavender, featured in Charles Williams Stores 1927 catalog. The study further noted that “These films tended to present an image of a setting full of consumer goods, entertainment and eligible men. The biggest perk of all was that women accomplished this all without the interference of their parents.
The characters in these movies were independent and moving out into the real world on their own……the ability to go out into the workplace for even a few years was a significant change in women’s economic independence……the film industry, itself, even gave women power. Although the producer and directors had the power, frequently women provided the scenarios and scripts and glamour that translated into box-office success, granting them power that they had never had previously.” In this environment of anything goes, the kimono was a natural to become everybody’s leisure wear of choice, off stage and on stage.
Made in just about every conceivable fabric, there was a kimono style to please everyone’s taste from wraparound to belted; hip length, knee length, floor length; bright colors, pastel colors; printed or brocaded; lavishly embroidered or faux fur and boa-feather trimmed; sophisticated or country comfy. Regardless of choice, one felt at once unencumbered, featherweight, pampered and oh so feminine.
Kimonos of the 1930s and a new trend – One could have a lush silk satin model in black and red or black and green or a hand-embroidered Serpentine Crepe in rose or copen from Sears 1930 catalog; or an embroidered all-rayon jacquard in black, red or royal blue from National Bellas Hess 1937 catalog. For those hopping on the latest fashion, colorful percale lounge pajamas were offered by Chicago Mail Order’s 1934 catalog. This style would replace the kimono for most of the decade and die out by 1940.
The kimono was at its peak during the 1920s and dipping barely into the 1930s when madcap lifestyles were abruptly halted by the Depression of 1929 which sombered and ended an age of excess. A shift to more form-fitting lines and feminine styles with longer hemlines saw the emergence of indoor-outdoor lounge pajamas with flared trousers. In their own way, they were less restrictive than kimonos and more adaptable to the increasing active life women were enjoying.
Kimonos were temporarily shoved to a secondary position in fashion. The end of the 1930s saw yet another fashion change taking place as styles became increasingly casual and sporty. WWII and government restrictions on the textile industry put a dent on the amount of fabric used in clothes. Shorty brunch coats which could double as streetwear and more slender-lined bathrobes replaced kimonos which unfortunately were out of favor as were most Japanese products during this crucial period in history.
Perhaps it was this time of upheaval that gave meaning to the ditty at the beginning of this column, a nostalgic remembrance of times less painful and more secure, plaintively sung to the strums of a banjo on a long-forgotten radio show during the early 1940s. Post-war styles returned to glamour status, defining the late 1940s and 50s; sweeping housecoats in luxury fabrics were vogue as were airy, gossamer negligees and peignoirs lavishly trimmed with yards of lace or pleated nylon chiffon introduced in 1947.
The souvenir kimonos brought home by returning servicemen were duly admired but mostly set aside until memories hazed over and time forgave. Following the back-to-earth movements of the 1960s-70s, glamour again was ushered in during the 1980s and never more welcome. Wide shoulders, big hair, satin, satin, satin and sophisticated styles rode the wave of yuppyism. It was the perfect comeback for kimonos. And they have remained a top fashion favorite since.
WWII’s textile restrictions forced a cutback in excess use of fabric. Brunch coats saw double duty as lounge and street wear. From Sears 1943 catalog.
Lovely silk kimono from the 1940s and though to be a WWII souvenir from occupied Japan, and closeup of dragon design on kimono back.
– Courtesy Dana Balsamo More than that during this period of affluence, collectors discovered the true beauty and enchantment of vintage and antique Japanese kimonos.
The kimono business boomed, as it still does today with Japanese merchants, artisans and dealers offering everything from ancient kimonos to authentic fabrics and designs to make your own to scrapbags for piecework of all types. It is thought that sometime during the 1980s, Japanese textile designers created kimono designs to serve as quilt block patterns; it caught on quickly with American quilters who liked the idea of stretching their artistic imaginations to the limit in varying pattern repeats through innovative selection of oriental and Japanese -themed fabrics and printed textures.
What next for the kimono now that East has met West and once again blended? Only time will tell as fashion decides its next move.
Old and new sateen oriental-theme print fabrics from Japan were artfully blended by Dana Balsamo to create this 48″x58″ quilt in 2004.
Laurette Carroll chose Japanese-themed fabrics for the Myomi children-in-kimonos pattern for this 80″x100″ quilt she made in 1990.
Japanese fabrics were used for creating kimono shapes for this 40″x42″ quilt which Pat Cummings. made in 1997.
THE COMING OF THE GRECIAN WAIST
Editorial Ladies Home Journal June 1896 All that writers of different shades and abilities, and of both sexes, have written on the evils of right-lacing by unthinking women, has had but little effect during these years.
Girls, with more regard to looks than health, have gone right on and cornpressed their waists into a twenty or twenty-two inch measurement regardless of consequences. It mattered little whether parents or friends warned them of stomach, lung, liver or arterial troubles. A small waist was the thing, and “the thing,” however ridiculous it might be, they most have Nor have women beyond the first blush of youth shown better judgment.
The waist measure of a woman of fair height is adjudged to be twenty-eight inches, and physicians and specialists have repeatedly said that this measurement of the waist was actually necessary for the proper working of the internal organs. But was their statement heeded ? Not a hit of it. Twenty-five and twenty-two inch waists continued to be just as numerous, and so were anatomical troubles, as some women soon learned to their misery, and realize to their greater sorrow today.
The warning of red noses and flat chests had just a trifle more effect, but only because it appealed to the vanity of these women. The measurement was let out an inch or so, but there the reform stopped. The full waist, the comfortable breathing waist, was a thing yet to be achieved.
This 1908 tea gown pattern [l] from Vogue Magazine, September 1908 is a throwback to the style of ancient Greece [r]. Its graceful, flowing lines could be a result of magazine are the same as advocated in this 1896 Ladies Home Journal editorial. Now, however, Fashion herself comes along, and from her recognized seat of authority, Paris, has been issued the edict that she was mistaken when she counseled a wasp’s waist for women, and that, in reality, it is a hideous thing, and no longer to be countenanced by women who follow her laws.
Hence, all the French dressmakers are discountenancing the slender waist. Fragility in that respect is to he rigidly avoided, they say, and the really lovely lines of Fashion’s waist are those of the Venus de Milo, and of the Pallas, and of the Diana. The Greek women, these arbiters of Fashion claim, must now be taken as examples, and followed. Those women had waists of perfect beauty, these modern clothiers of women have suddenly discovered, and the east of the future waist must be upon the Greek model.
The beauty and the grace of the lines of the ancient women of Greece are now in the minds of all the Parisian women, and the reform has reform has not started in any luke-warm fashion, but has suddenly become the watchword and the rigid law. And so what writers, doctors and specialists without number have been unable to do, Dame Fashion with one edict has accomplished.
Without stopping to dissect the folly or wisdom of the source from which spring the surest reforms in such a matter as this, women and men may well congratulate themselves that the reform has occurred, irrespective of how it happened or whence it came. The sane, natural waist of woman is here, and the hour-glass variety has ceased to be, except for those women who choose to be out of style. And that number is not destined to be very large.
The Greek waist is now “the thing,” and, thanks to the Grecian women who knew a thing or two about beauty, it is a sensible one.
HISTORY OF THE KIMONO IN A NUTSHELL
Kimonos are regarded as a valuable piece of clothing in Japan as well as a major art in the making of them. They were first created in 600 BCE, and throughout the centuries been made in silk gauze or fine linen for both street and formal wear. Now, synthetic fibers have replaced silk for easier laundry problems. Styles ranged from elaborately layered garments to simple silk robes; improved dyeing technology has enabled more colorful and detailed kimonos.
The traditional Japanese garment is fashioned entirely from one long piece of cloth and because of its simple lines, can be completed in a single day. Kimonos were worn in every day life until the middle of the 19th century when Japan opened her doors to the rest of the world. Prior to 794, the Japanese wore separate upper and lower garments. From 794 to 1192, the straight-line method was developed — cutting long pieces of fabric and sewing them together as a long dress.
During 1192 to 1573, they began to appear in bright colors. The kimono assumed its present form during the Edo period,1603-1867. In the period beginning with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to 1912 they became heirlooms as men readily adopted the western business suit and reserved kimono for home, relaxation and formal wear.
Today kimonos are mainly worn for special occasions or events and are a very important part of a Japanese woman’s wardrobe. Designers have tried to modernize the style over the past several decades to make kimonos more practical with modern lifestyles.
Portrait in kimonos of a Japanese family during the 1920s.
Front and back of a 1970s-80s kimono called kuro-tomeso, a festive style worn by middle-aged and older women for weddings, funerals and receptions. Intricately pieced design is comprised of delicate brocades. Fabric is thought to be synthetic or a blend.
– Courtesy Alexa Bender La Coutuière Parisenne There are many different kinds of kimonos. They are all different in design and are coordinated to match the seasons. Newborn girls are dressed in a white undergarment and a bright yuzen or dyed kimono; boys wear a black kimono with the family crest on it. On the Coming of Age day girls wear a furisode (kimono with long flowing sleeves); boys, a sahaori (half-coat) and a hakama with the family crest. Unmarried women wear a furisode and married woman wear a tomesode [has a pattern only on the bottom half ]. A colored tomesode can also be worn on formal occasions.
For further kimono information on its history and significance, see the websites listed under good browsing and bibliography.
www.kyotokimono.com www.netwiz.net/~susanf/docs/biblgrph.htm web.mit.edu/jpnet/kimono Bibliography – Common Threads, A Parade of American Clothing, Lee Hall; 1992 – Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, Mick LaSalle; 2000 – Costume Throughout the Ages, Mary Evans; 1930 – Costumes and Styles, Henny Harald Hansen; 1956 – Japan Now 2003 for information on Japanese/American trade relations – The Mode in Costume, R.
Turner Wilcox; 1958- Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger; 1999
– Butterfly and Mikado information and Victorian lifestyles: www.operaillinois.com
– observations on film and its affect on the 1920s: www.luther.edu
– kimono history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimono
The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.