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a floating world to floating waistlines: the mapping of japanese ukiyo-e prints from japanese art into european fashion

clara puton professor samantha burton arth 420 monday april 23, 2013

cover image: Utagawa Kunisada, Fashionable Brocade Patterns of the Imperial Palace, 1847-1852.

Victoria and Ablert Museum.


For some, buying clothes and furniture might be one of the few socially acceptable activities through which they could express their personalities and fulfill their desires. For others, however, consumption could be an assertion of female ambition for personal and family status, and a counterweight to male authority in the home. (Walton 62)


ith this notion we begin a floating world to floating waistlines; an exhibition that tracks the touristic importation of Japanese visual culture into Britain and

France, into their respective artists’ production, and finally onto the bodies of late nineteenth-century European women. What a floating world to floating waistlines seeks to exhibit is how this translation of Japanese visual culture into European female fashion designs was in fact an effort to embody the growing effort of women’s liberalization in European countries such as Britan and France. Through a close examination of female tourists in Japan, specifically Isabella Bird, the work of late-Impressionist artists such as Mary Cassatt, and the fashion productions in Britain and France, we seek to create a dialogue that speaks to the liberation European women felt towards Japan when in the country or in its garments. The travel to Japan, the engagement with its artistic idiom, and the purchase of its national garments or designs that resembled them were all ways in which late-nineteenth century women used visual and commodity goods from Japan to express themselves and fulfill their desire for empowerment within a male dominated society that permeated both the public and the private spheres of daily life.

the meiji era and tourism: isabella bird and the victorian lady traveler


n order to proceed with a floating world to floating waistlines it is necessary to provide our audience with historical contextualization of Japan and how European

tourism in the region began. Between the years 1638 to 1855 Japan had exclusive trade and diplomatic relationships with China, Korea and Holland (Johnson 343), which resulted in a significant isolation of the country from the outside world. As a result, the Western world only knew of it through artifacts and writings brought back by Dutch diplomats in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which ultimately led to an understanding of Japan as “an unchanging nation” that was strange, singular and non-threatening (Sterry 172). The Meiji Era, however, which began in 1868, marks the end of this isolation and the beginning of Japan’s modern era realized when the country opened itself to Western trade, travel and influence incited by a desire for a viable position in the expanding international community (March 1).

Although Japan initially implemented strict traveler regulations, they soon

initiated infrastructure development for both domestic and international travel, created regional guidebooks, opened western-style hotels, and founded the Welcome Society that effectively served as a tour-guide company designed by the Japanese government. Foreign response, both in personal recordings and in the public press, was of high praise towards Japanese hospitality, friendliness and attractions. As result, during this period there were an estimated ten thousand foreigners who visited Japan each year. Such tourist were considered “pioneers in a ‘new’ land” that had been previously closed for two hundred years (March 5).

Many of these foreigners were in fact Victorian Lady Travelers who were pioneers not

only in Japan but in the European woman’s struggle for emancipation and independence in the West. This is because their voyage to Japan was an implicit enactment of individuality and freedom that challenged traditional norms and roles of women in society. It was also a

country where few to no European woman had visited before the middle of the nineteenth century, which by extension, meant any information available to such female travelers had been written from a male perspective (Sterry 170). Ultimately, “early women travelers [sic] to Japan were, therefore, not only breaking away from their domestic confines, but were entering a little-known country where the Western focus was on politics and on trade, two male-dominated areas from which Victorian women were excluded’ (Sterry 170). Despite this, however, women travelers in Japan found an opportunity for freedom, independence and personal fulfillment that was enabled by the lack of colonial society in Japan, which as a result, negated traditional restrictions placed on European women while in their imperial colonial zones (Sterry 170).

These women recorded their experiences of liberation and reaction to daily life

in Japan in journals and letters home (Sterry 174). The most famous author of such work who is included in a floating world to floating waistlines is Isabella Bird, who published her travel journal entitled Unbeaten Tracks in Japan in 1880. Bird, and other Victorian women travel writers, wrote with tone a of warmth, interest and acceptance of Japanese culture: I may say that in no country in the world in which I have traveled – in Asia, Europe, or America – have I, wherever I went, been received with such unmistakable and invariable welcome; whilst I never, under any circumstances, was subjected to a single unpleasant look or word (Bird qtd in March 3).

These Victorian Lady travelers illustrated much of their writing with sketches and

photographs that were part of the greater flow of visual imagery from Japan to Europe during the Meiji period. Other vehicles included the 1862 International Exhibition in London, the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, as well as postcards and photographs (Sterry 177-178) the most popular theme of which were images of posed “Kimono-clad” women who came to represent face of Japan to the West (Sterry 179). The overall expansion of

travel and treaties in Meiji Japan led to major imports of Japanese objects to the West such as ukiyo-e prints, bronze sculptures, fans, kimonos and silk fabrics that had an immediate impact on art and design (Hayden 16). This influence was coined Japonism defined as: “the mark made on western design by Japanese aesthetics” (Hayden 16-17). japonism in european art: mary cassatt


ne of the most important Japanese artifacts brought to Europe by the Dutch in the eighteenth century that would led to Japonism in Western art were ukiyo-e prints,

which were themselves products of Japan’s previous isolation. This is because they were created as an amusement in an isolated Japan known as ‘ukiyo’ or the ‘floating world’ marked for its “transient [and] fleeting pleasures.” This world was visually depicted by ukiyo-e woodblock prints translated as the ‘pictures of the floating world” (Thompson 3). Ukiyo-e prints reached notable circulation in the mid to late nineteenth century just when European artists were seeking new forms of inspiration. More specifically, French Impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and, most importantly in the context of a floating world to floating waistlines, Mary Cassatt were all inspired by the Japanese prints (Meech 93). These artists found inspiration in the “genre themes, bright colors, flattened shapes, unconventional spatial effects, and asymmetrical compositions” (Meech 93) of Japanese ukiyo-e prints that were by then being sold by the prominent art dealers whom they frequented.

The eventual transference of Japonism into European art, specifically French art

through ukiyo-e prints, is regarded by Deborah Johnson as the “final absorption of an aesthetic that had been seeping slowly into the collective artistic consciousness for nearly half a century” (348). Mary Cassatt, an American woman and feminist working in France’s male dominated movement of Impressionism, was most effected by Japanese woodblock prints after viewing them at an exhibition held by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890 (Meech

99). Cassatt wrote she was “‘in ecstasy’” (Johnson 34) upon viewing them and her passion for Japanese prints led her to amass her own private collection by the Japanese print artist, Utamaro. These prints inspired Cassatt to create a ten-sheet series of color prints made between 1890 and 1891 (Meech 99), which is featured in a floating world to floating waistlines,

that were in fact first exhibited at her first one-woman show (Johnson 39). Art

historian, Linda Nochlin considers the series the possible masterpiece of Cassatt’s career in part because the prints “‘encapsulate the undramatic events constituting the daily life of the upper-class woman” (Nochlin 35), which a floating world to floating waistlines places in dialogue with the Victorian Lady Travelers of Japan’s records of female daily-life while there.

Cassatt declared that she executed the series “‘with the intention of attempting an

imitation of Japanese methods’” (Johnson 31) through method, scale, subject and color. In the series Cassatt displays her respect for the Japanese technique most clearly with her attention to the formal demands of surface achieved through her execution of pattern, texture and color that limits the eye to move across the work’s surface and not penetrate its depth. As a result, not only does Cassatt maintain the flat surface rendered in Japanese ukiyo-e prints but she also achieves the modernist desire to render a flat surface, which would soon become the preoccupation of her artistic European contemporaries. Nochlin argues Cassatt transposes the uikyo-e idiom “into her own modern and Western terms” (382) which paradoxically works within the artistic idiom of modernism despite her depiction of the feminine experience of intimate spaces and moments of domesticity that the maledominated movement of Impressionism typically undermined. japonism in european fashion: the kimono


ary Cassatt’s achievement of rendering her female subjects as a flat surface through an engagement with ukiyo-e print techniques was also achieved in Western

fashion through Japonism, more specifically in the influence of “the essential flatness of the kimono” (Fukai) the fashion garment on which a floating world to floating waistlines

takes focus. The kimono’s first appearance in Europe was in seventeenth-

century Holland were it became a popular domestic garment for men (Fukai), as the kimono is a garment worn by both men and women in Japan (Watson 318). Later in the late nineteenth century Isabella Bird often wrote of the kimonos worn by herself, men and women in Japan, describing how a “woman is perfectly clothed if she has one garment and a girdle on” (31). Later, in the height of Japonism, kimonos were one of the objects sold by shops and art dealers and were themselves (Fukai), as a floating world to floating waistlines

will display, depicted in European art such as Claude Monet’s La

Japonaise and James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen.

The kimono was also discussed and illustrated in fashion magazines such as

Harper’s Bazaar and used as costume in theater houses (Fukai), one of the few public spaces European women were granted access to at the time. In this exposure of and engagement with Japonism in fashion, Fukai argues “Western women of that era saw in kimono garments, [...] an ease and a liberation as well as exoticism and consequently adopted them as dressing gowns.” Women favored Japanese influenced designs and fit in a rejection of the corset and its “dress that [had] constricted the [female] body” (Fukai) for centuries. The liberation of the female body through the kimono is possible because it is made of flat panels of fabric that creates an illusion of a flattened, two-dimensional body beneath it (Fukai), which in turn emphasizes the surface design of the fabric in opposition to the Western emphasis on bodily contours (Hayden 7-8). Similar to the artwork of Mary Cassatt, the kimono engages with the surface of its garment like a canvas that liberates the woman beneath it, just as travel in Japan liberated its Victorian Lady Traveler from the traditional and patriarchal confines of European life. Here is where Japan, Lady Travelers, Mary Cassatt, and fashion all merge.

Sara Elizabeth Hayden argues the adaptation of the kimono by European women

can be understood as a means of surface communication on which identity was negotiated and expressed (32-33). The identity negotiation of Victorian Lady Travelers in Japan, of Mary Cassatt in the male-dominated movement of Impressionism, and of European women in the kimono all engaged with the culture of Japan and its resulting artistic production. In the “floating world� of Japan and Japonism, whether personally experienced, depicted in an ukiyo-e print, or woven into the panels of a kimono, nineteenth-century European women found a world in which their identity could float towards personal freedom, achievement, and pleasure. This new floating world, and the cultural processes that achieved made it possible, is what a floating world to floating waistlines seeks to display through the following collection of images.

Isabella Bird, The Belle of Kaminoya, illsutration from Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1880.

the meiji era and tourism: isabella bird and the victorian lady traveler

As no English lady has yet travelled alone through the interior, my project excites a very friendly interest among my friends, and I receive much warning and dissuasion, and a little encouragement. (Bird 18)


hen Isabella Bird in arrived Yokohama, Japan after eighteen days of travel in 1878 (Bird 1) she knew she had embarked on an unprecedented trip. Behind

her was Britain, where social changes under Queen Victoria had led to greater legal independence and an overall increase in the empowerment of women. This led to a new sense of self-confidence and independence in Victorian women who, more able to travel the world, discovered while abroad a sense of freedom, excitement and an ability to seek out personal fulfillment (Sterry 169- 171). Isabella Bird is unique in that she traveled alone and with complete independence (Sterry 171) during which she observed and recorded a first-hand written and illustrated account of her experiences, profiled in a floating world to floating waistlines

as an example of how Japanese culture and fashion came to

attract European female fashion consumers.

Bird compiled her letters and published them in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. As

Bird recorded in the travel log, she arrived to Japan and found a rare sense of security, freedom, and kindness. She wrote of this experience, along with daily occurrences, encounters, and voyages within Japan in hopes her reader would feel “in the position of traveler [sic]� (Bird x) while reading her text. A way in which Bird sought to secure this sense of readership-travel was through the inclusion of sketches and illustrations, which were predominantly engraved either from her own sketches or based on Japanese photographic sources (Bird xi). The engraving entitled, The Belle of Kaninoyma, is one such example of illustrations found throughout Unbeaten Tracks in Japan and depicts the attention Bird paid to the customs of Japanese dress and how it differed from those of Europe. The Belle of Kaninoyma[‘s] theme of a maternal relationship also corresponds to the work of Mary Cassatt to be seen later in the exhibition.

Isabella Bird, Attendant At Tea-House, illsutration from Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1880.


hroughout Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Isabella Bird records and remarks on both male and female traditional Japanese costume, which she visually renders in The

Belle of Kaninoyma and Attendant At Tea-House. While Bird notes how both men and women wore the kimono and the slight variations in regional costumes and levels of class, she pays close attention to the colors, patterns and shapes of Japanese fashion which illustrates in her text and she herself adopted while there. While “in [the] disguise” (Bird 198) of the kimono, Bird was able to observe, respond, and convey to her readership the traditional fashion of Japan. What pervades throughout Unbeaten Tracks in Japan in relation to the nation’s fashion styles are the striking contrasts Bird notes between Japanese and British styles of dress.

For example, in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Bird describes how Japanese female

costume “has one striking advantage over [Britain’s]. A woman is perfectly clothed if she has one garment and a girdle on, and perfectly dressed if she has two” (31). Here, Bird relays to her reader the poignant and implicit simplicity found in Japanese textile material and the execution of its design that makes Japanese traditional costume “a beautiful [style of] dress [that] assists dignity as much as the ill-fitting European costume detracts from” (Bird 158) its wearer. Suggested in both The Belle of Kaninoyma and Attendant At Tea-House, variations in Japanese costume are delicately minute despite distinctions in gender or class, here in the context of a praised, maternal Belle in comparison to a working Attendant.

In her text, Bird emphasizes the advantages of Japanese over European dress

further still as she notes how Japanese women she encountered who had adopted European “fashions [had] given them up because of their discomfort and manifold difficulties and complications” (Bird 30). Bird describes how Japanese dress is free from “underclothing, with its bands, frills, gussets, and button-holes” (Bird 69) that parallels the freedom she experienced while in the costume and in the nation of Japan.

Utagawa Kunisada, Fashionable Brocade Patterns of the Imperial Palace, 1847-1852. Victoria and Ablert Museum.


he ukiyo-e print’s history stretches far beyond Western tourism reached Japan to when the nation used the art medium as a source of entertainment to capture and

enliven their isolated “floating world.” This woodblock print is a prime example of an ukiyo-e print produced just before they were imported en-masse once Japan opened its borders to Isabella Bird and the greater international tourist market of the West. Although ukiyo-e prints were on occasion found in Parisian art markets as early as 1812 (Thompson 3) it was not until 1883 that a Japanese collection was assembled in Europe, which was curated by Dutch diplomats at Leiden’s National Museum of Ethnology (Johnson 347). Following the opening of Japan, the early European interest in ukiyo-e prints led the nation to mass-produce them as part of their political and financial mission to attract Western tourists. This was accomplished with the sale of ukiyo-e prints by street vendors and bookstores throughout Japan (Thompson 4).

Kunisada’s Fashionable Brocade Patterns of the Imperial Palace was produced

just before ukiyo-e prints were mass-produced and therefore before the practice was compromised in terms of skillful execution and rarity. The subject matter of the print rather than its date, however, is the main reason a floating world to floating waistlines has selected it for our catalogue: that of fashion. Not only does Fashionable Brocade Patterns of the Imperial Palace feature the bold, rich colors, the dynamic shapes, and the intricate geometric and organic patterns Japanese prints and textiles were praised for but it also features Japanese fashion practices in its own national context. The enlivened faces and gestures of the three Japanese women featured, and the profusion of Japanese textiles that surround them, forecast the excitement European women had towards Japanese fashion as well as the abundant levels on which they consumed it.

Left: Unknown, [Japanese Woman in Traditional Dress Posing with Instrument,] 1870s. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Right: Shinichi Suzuki, [Two Japanese Women in Traditional Dress with Fan and Dress,] 1870s. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Both owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


uring the Meiji Period, Japan was brought back to Europe through international exhibitions hosted throughout the continent but more immediately through

photographs and postcards sent or brought back by tourists from trips to the region (Sterry 178). The two photographs featured here are prime examples of commercial photographs made for the tourist market and a vehicle through which Japanese fashion styles reached a European consumer audience. The earliest Japanese daguerreotypes were produced in 1854 (Sterry 178) that by 1863 had quickly evolved into a touristic commercial enterprise in cities such as Nagasaki, Yokohama and Hakodate (Corwin 33). These studios used a staged environment that used painted backdrops and props (Sterry 178) to produce desired and controlled images.

One theme of images, which was among the most popular of those sent back to

the West by tourists, were those of “kimono-clad” women who came to represent “the charming face of Japan” (Sterry 179) to its Western consumers. Such images were also commissioned by Victorian women travelers in Japan, such as Isabella Bird, who illustrated their writings with photographs as well as sketches (Sterry 178). These two photographs taken in the 1870s engage with this popular theme and focus on Japanese women and dress, which is emphasized by the inscribed caption on both that specifies the women wear “winter indoor dress” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in the image. Such images taken in the controlled setting of a studio were integral contributions to a Western view of Japan that often reduced subjects down to stereotypes (Corwin 34); here they are reduced down to “kimono-clad” women.

japonism in european art: mary cassatt


ack in Europe, the physical import of Japanese objects such as ukiyo-e prints and kimonos “captured the imagination of Western cultures” (Corwin 23) and inspired an

abundant number of artistic productions as result. Claude Monet’s La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) is exemplary of the cross-section between French art and Japanese fashion. The use of the word “costume” within the title of the work emphasizes the playful use of traditional Japanese dress European women such as Isabella Bird felt they could disguise themselves in. In this painting, Camille Monet dons a Japanese kimono, rich in color and print, that enacts the Western “love affair” (Corwin 23) with Japan inspired by its exotic otherness as a distant and strange land that came to represent a site of escapism and inspiration (Corwin 23) for the Western female mind and body. As James Clifford argues, the collection of a foreign object such as a kimono is an attempt to collect repressed or unacknowledged aspects of oneself; an attempt to possess something that is equal to an attempt to be something (Corwin 24). In case of Camille Monet, and late nineteenth-century women, it is wearing a liberated garment in an attempt to have a liberated female existence.

Opposite Page: Claude Monet, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costtume), 1876. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.


lthough James Abbott McNeil Whistler was American-born he worked and lived in Paris and London, where imports of Japanese objects and textiles inspired him to

be one of the earliest artists to portray European women in kimonos (Corwin 30). Similar to Mary Cassatt, Whistler engaged with the design principles of ukiyo-e prints such as the medium’s flat forms, cropped compositions, flowing lines and delicate color harmonies all of which are apparent in this example as well as other compositions by the artist on the same subject (Corwin 31). Caprice in the Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen expands out from its formal relations to Japanese prints and into the greater importation of Japanese products into Europe. This is because featured in the work are a Japanese screen, chair, and an array of landscape prints all of which would have been available in the shops of Paris specializing in Japanese import objects. The female subject, enraptured by the print she holds, draped in a kimono and set against the Japanese screen merge into a total image that conveys the greater societal notion of the time that “the body of the bourgeois housewife became an integral part of the interior, a decorative object with the other objects of (Tiersten 179) the home.” As Caprice sits surrounded by Japanese objects her body becomes integrated into the setting of an exotic space of possibility that Whistler renders as a private and sensory moment (Tiersten 146) through which the subject simultaneously stimulates the desire to be in Japan: to be where Bird and other female travelers felt free and liberated.

Opposite Page: James McNeil Abbott Whistler, Caprice in the Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864. Oil on canvas. Washington, D.C. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithisonian Institution.

Mary Cassatt, La coiffure, 1891. Drypoint soft-ground etching: printed in color. National Gallery of Arts (U.S.).


lthough previous examples have focused on the European female use of Japanese kimonos as costume, Mary Cassatt’s ten-sheet series of color prints made between

1890 and 1891 are an important example of a female artist’s engaging with Japan’s print techniques and cultural conventions in an artistic effort that developed her own artistic reputation within a field dominated by men. La coiffure is one of the series prints and is featured in a floating world to floating waistlines’ exhibition catalogue not only for Cassatt’s praised achievement in Japanese print techniques but also due to the pose and subject matter of the print itself, which connects Cassatt’s artistic work to the literary work of Isabella Bird.

Throughout Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Isabella Bird repeatedly comments on the

way in which women are “unclothed to the waist” (Bird 134) while bathing, working in agricultural fields or performing roles in a domestic context. In each of these situations it is “customary among respectable women” (Bird 107) of Japan to lower their robe. The image Bird describes is what Mary Cassatt depicts in La coiffure: a woman sits with her garment lowered to her waist while she conducts her toilette. To push the relationship between Bird, Japanese women, and La coiffure further it is important to note how the facial features of Cassatt’s female subject strikingly resembles those of a Japanese woman. The slight eyes, long face and raven-colored hair we watch the woman pull back into a chignon are the same facial features and aesthetic style depicted in ukiyo-e prints and souvenir photographs of Japan. Although the room Cassatt’s subjects sits in may appear European, the reflection in the mirror seems to suggest that the coffieure of a French woman and the bathing of a Japanese woman are one in the same.

Previous Pages Left: Mary Cassatt, The Tub, 1891. Drypoint soft-ground etching: printed in color. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right: Kitagawa Utamaro, Woman Bathing a Baby in a Tub, lste 18th century. Woodblock print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


ialogues between Mary Cassatt’s print series on European women’s daily life and that of Japanese women continues in her work entitled The Bath whose source

comes directly from a print made a century before by Utamaro entitled, Woman Bathing a Baby in a Tub. The subject matter and “anti-depth” (Nochlin 374) execution rendered in The Tub depicts “the closed, protected world of genteel womanhood” and modern motherhood that Cassatt “daringly filter[s] through the stylized and elliptical rendering of reality characteristic of the Japanese print” that other contemporary male Impressionists artists were engaging with as well (Nochlin 382).

What a floating world to floating waistlines would like to suggest with

the inclusion of Cassatt’s work is that the “closed and protected world” of woman- and motherhood in Europe resonated with the previously closed world of Japan. As Nochlin suggests, Cassatt translates the ukiyo-e idiom into her own modern and Western work but maintains a dialogue concerning the theme of a universal feminine experience that comes to function as “a complete language system, with its own tropes and inventions” (382). As a result, Cassatt creates a series in which European and Japanese women communicate and find parallels between daily life, which transcend national borders and become universal. Ultimately, Cassatt renders representations of “modern motherhood” (Nochlin 380) synonymous to scenes of motherhood in Japan that occured a century before.

Mary Cassatt, In the Omnibus (The Tramway), 1891. Drypoint soft-ground etching: printed in color. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.


ary Cassatt renders another scene of modern motherhood in an etching entitled, In the Omnibus (The Tramway). Here the women are in the public sphere of an

omnibus while they simultaneously perform the domestic and private roles of motherhood and caregiver. What the print seems to suggest is a mediation point between the private and the public, the domestic and the urban. Motherhood is suddenly transportable, it moves just as ukiyo-e prints moved from Japan to Europe. In the context of a floating world to floating waistlines

it is also important to note the relaxed waistlines of the

two women; their contours are more suggested than constricted. Furthermore, while In the Omnibus (The Tramway) is still in dialogue with Japanese woodblock prints through formal technique, there is something more that connects Cassatt’s print to those of Japan. It is found in the tramway windows. Although they reveal a backdrop where a distant Parisian bridge is drawn with fine, black ink, the windows also resemble a Japanese screen. Three partitioned windows transfrom into three screen panels, similar to the one found in Whistler’s Caprice in the Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen. With Japan at their backs, the women become public, mobile and independent within the Parisian urban landscape.

Unknown, Highly Embroidered Kimono, 1870-1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

japonism in european fashion: the kimono


he Japanese word “kimono” is translated into English as “the thing worn” and was the principle garment worn by both sexes and all classes during the nation’s Edo

period (V&A Museum). It is constructed from flat panels of fabric that fold over a body and make it appear flat and two-dimensional beneath (Fukai). In turn, the surface decoration of the kimono is emphasized; the beauty of a kimono is achieved through the skillful execution of its decoration, not through its flat shape (Watson 318). It is this emphasis on decoration, which varies from intricate geometric patterns to natural and organic ones, that enticed Western tourists to the garment and inspired them to bring them back to the continent as souvenirs. The movement of kimonos as souvenir products can be traced back as early as 1613, when the Dutch imported them to Holland as a popular domestic garment for men (Stephens 16).

Once Japan opened its borders to the West, information and national goods

returned home with

tourists and travelers that led to a European and American

“craze for all things Japanese” (V&A Museum). Kimonos quickly became one of the most popular import items for both fashion consumers and artists such as Mary Cassatt, who saw the garment as “a type of canvas” on which shape, line, surface decoration and symbolic motifs were executed (Stephens 19). The kimono pictured opposite, adorned with cranes, peonies and and tortoises, is a late nineteenth century example of a type of kimono specifically exported to the Western world, where by the 1870s, it was sold in shops and department stores such as Liberty’s in London, England (V&A Museum). It was in such department stores where French and British women encountered the foreign and exotic “thing” of the kimono. Suddenly, through an act of consumerism, they could possess something ‘Other’ and be something ‘Other’ while in it.

Left: Yokohama dressing gown, 1879. Silk. Right: Brooklyn Yokohama dressing gown, c. 1875. Silk. Both owned by Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


he two Yokohama dressing gowns featured opposite this page are examples of kimono design features translated into a European fashion style. The two were in

fact produced in Japan specifically for the Western fashion market of the late nineteenth century. Named after their point of origin, Yokohama, Japan -- the port city where Isabella Bird first arrived -- they are among some of the first export items sent to Europe from Japan after the country opened its borders to trade and tourism. Although the materials and embroidery techniques are Japanese, the cut and construction of the two gowns are Japanese interpretations of Western style (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Once imported to Europe, British and French women purchased such gowns as

“fashionable at-home dress” garments that changed Japanese style from exotic souvenir objects into everyday domestic wear (Fukai). European women purchased Japanese designs, such as Yokohama dressing gowns, because such items simultaneously provided “an ease and a liberation as well as exoticism” (Fukai) for its wearer. Although these two garments were purchased by Western women as an at-home, private garment, it is important to note that in the late nineteenth century, the private salon was the most public room of a home, which functioned as a setting for public display and entertainment (Walton 83). These two garments fall within the late nineteenth-century move towards interior and fashion products that enhanced private comfort within the home while maintaining an appearance of wealth and status (Walton 112). This is because although a private, loose, and liberating garment for its wearer, a Yokohama dress still engages with late nineteenth-century Western “craze” for Japanese objects, souvenirs and styles.

Unknown, British Dress (Teagown), 1898-1901. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


n the late nineteenth century it was bourgeoisie women who were the executors of taste

and consumption. Consumption was an essential feature of their lives and was in fact a source of power for women in relation to men (Walton 51-54).This was also at a time when European women were moving towards social and political emancipation, which took shape in both written codification and increasing presence of women throughout the public spaces of Europe (Iskin 244). At the moment when Japanese kimonos, objects and styles were arrived in France and Britain so did the notion that the female shopper and her taste value functioned as a public, “active, [and] creative faculty” (Tiersten 147) comparable to an act of artistic production.

Consumption and female liberation further merge due to the fact that consumption

required entry into the public sphere. As the French publication La Moniteur de la Mode described in January, 1861: “‘A woman, whatever her age, intrepidly crosses from one side of the street to the other, braving the messiest pavement, the dust, the streetcar, in order to not miss a store that attracts her as the mirror attracts the lark” (Walton 65). The pursuit of fashion and greater consumption became a way in which a woman of the late nineteenth-century enacted her new found power to reject subservient and confined domesticity, allegorized by the constrictive corset, to instead “pursue[d] her quest” (Walton 65) for the garments she desired to wear and the woman she desired to be.

The British dress pictured opposite is an example of a dress inspired by Japanese

fashion that one woman braved the public sidewalk to purchase it. Less formal and less structured than other contemporary designs, the dress engages with uniquely “creative or unusual inspirations” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) such as Japanese embroidered kimonos. It is a dress that emphasizes its natural decorative motif that mimics the natural waistline of the woman who wears it.

Paul Poiret, Evening Coat, c. 1912. Silk and metallic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


hile previous garment examples profiled in a floating world to floating waistlines’

exhibition catalogue have focused on interior domestic garments

inspired by the kimono of Japan thus far, the Evening Coat pictured on the opposite page, is a garment by French designer Paul Poiret and an example of outerwear to be worn in the public sphere. With the increase of women’s mobility in modern urban spaces of Europe, came the increased popularity for simpler clothing that “permitted much more movement” (Tiersten 99) of the liberated female body beneath it. Poiret’s Evening Coat achieves just that with its loose fit, slim columnar design, and easy-to-fasten front.

As the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue description provides, this garment

has been identified as a modified kimono design that maintains the wide sleeves and lapels of the traditional Japanese garment executed through the simple technique of draping. It is noted as a unique cultural and periodical cohesion of references that draws from the kimono in its tubular shape and wide sleeves while it uses a textile pattern that resembles Victorian wallpaper. In the context of a floating world to floating waistlines

the Evening Coat serves as a cohesion of the traditional Japanese kimono,

Victorian Lady Travelers such as Isabella Bird, and the two factors contribution to the realization and popularization of a “corset free silhouette” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) that late nineteenth century French and British women privately embraced that, in the century that followed, became public.

Alfred Stevens, The Japanese Robe, c. 1872. Oil on Canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The late-nineteenth century consumer shed her status as a fashion object to become a dynamic and creative fashion subject, an aesthetic authority and an artist in her own right. (Tiersten 102)


hrough the creation of a dialogue between European women of the late nineteenth century with the “floating world” of Japan, women were able to engage with a

Japanese artistic and stylistic idiom that aided their process towards emancipation. Victorian Lady Travelers like Isabella Bird, late Impressionist artists such as Mary Cassatt, and European female fashion consumers all found within the country and the visual culture of Japan a “floating world” in which they could negotiate and enact their own changing and floating identity. Ukiyo-e prints, kimonos, and a print series by Mary Cassatt all became part of a new visual culture for French and British women through which they could simultaneously possess, enact and create what they desired to be. As suggested in Alfred Steven’s painting The Japanese Robe, at this moment women could look into the mirror and realize that she was “‘the artist of her own beauty’” (Marie Double qtd. in Tiersten 144), her own body and her own identity. It was a moment in which she realized she was the authority of such notions, that she could fold a Japanese kimono or inspired design over her body in an act of liberation; she could become the author, artist and subject of a floating world and a floating waistline.

works cited

Bird, Isabella Lucy. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. 3rd ed. London: John Murry, 1888. Print. Corwin, Nancy A.. “Kimono Mind: Japonisme in American Culture.” The Kimono Inspiration. Ed. Rebecca

A. T. Stevens. Rohnert Park: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996. 23-75. Print.

Fukai, Akiko. Japonism in Fashion. Tokyo: Kyoto Costume Institute, 1994-2004. Print. Hayden, Sara Elisabeth. Creating Cloth, Creating Culture: The Influence of Japanese Textile Design

on French Art Deco Textiles, 1920-1930. Washington State University: Department of Apparel,

Merchandising, Design and Textiles, 2007. Print.

Iskin, Ruth. “Selling, Seduction and Soliciting the Eye: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere.” Reclaiming

Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism. Eds. Norma Broude and Mary D.

Garrard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.

Johnson, Deborah. “Japanese Prints in Europe before 1840.” The Burlington Magazine 124.951 (1982):

343-348. Print.

Johnson, Deborah. “Cassatt’s Color Prints of 1891: The Unique Evolution of a Palette.” Notes in the

History of Art 9.3 (Spring 1990): 31-39. Print.

March, Roger. “How Japan Solicited the West: The First Hundred Years of Modern Japanese Tourism.”

UNSW Australia (2011): 1-10. Print.

Meech-Pekarik, Julia. “Early Collectors of Japanese Prints and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Metropolitan Museum of Journal 17 (1982): 93-118. Print.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Costume Institute: Collections. Web 10 March 2013. Nochlin, Linda. “Issues of Gender in Cassatt and Eakins.” Nineteenth Century Art. Ed. Stephen F.

Eisenman. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002. 369-387. Print.

Stevens, Rebecca. “Introduction.” The Kimono Inspiration. Ed. Rebecca A. T. Stevens. Rohnert Park:

Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996. 15-22. Print.

Thompson, Sarah. “The World of Japanese Prints.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 82.349/350

(1986): 1+3-47. Print.

Tiersten, Lisa. Marianne in the Market: Envisioning Consumer Society in Fin-de-Siecle France. Berkeley and Los Angeles:

University California Press, 2001. Print.

Victoria and Albert Museum. Kimono. Victoria and Albert Museum. Web 15 April 2013. Victoria and Albert Museum. Style Guide: Influence of Japan. Victoria and Albert Museum. Web 15 April 2013. Walton, Whitney. France at the Crystal Palace. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University California Press, 1992. Print.

ARTH 420 Final Research Project  

ARTH 420 Final Research Project