During the mid-19th century, Japan opened trade with the West for the first time in more than 200 years. The influx of Japanese imports that followed inspired an intense fascination with Japanese art and culture. This fascination manifested itself in the paintings of Victorian era artists like Alfred Stevens, Vincent van Gogh, James McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet. It also had a profound influence on Victorian fashion. As the 2015 book of Clothing and Fashion states:
“The obsession with Japonism in fashion hastened permanent departure from the cumbersome Victorian layers and maximalist aesthetic, anticipating the minimalism of 20th-century modernism.”
By the 1870s, the French term Japonisme (also known as Japonism) had been coined to describe the influence of Japanese aesthetics on 19th and early 20th century art and apparel in Europe and America. One of the biggest influences—at least as far as Victorian women’s fashion was concerned—was the Japanese kimono. 19th century fashion magazines and society journals extolled its graceful lines and exotic, Eastern elegance. As an 1892 edition of Table Talk declares:
“Every fashionable hostess who will pour tea through the spring’s sunny afternoons, will ache to possess a kimono after she has once noticed its graceful proportions setting off the figure of one of her sisters.”
Soon, kimono fabric and fabric with Japanese motifs, such as birds, fans, flowers, and fish, was being used to make dressing gowns and tea-gowns. Table Talk even went so far as to state:
“The interest recently taken in the costumes and social customs of our Oriental sisters is genuine; and, with various modifications, of course, it is by no means improbable that our own and neighboring social circles may very soon be copying the Japanese modes with the same enthusiasm that for years has induced them to borrow ideas from the Parisian modistes and the London tailor establishments.”
By the close of the century, the popularity of the Japanese kimono had only increased. Though the sight of a Victorian woman wearing a kimono was still far from common, amongst the most fashionable society ladies, gowns made with kimono fabric or embellished with Japanese motifs remained all the rage. As one example, an 1898 issue of London’s The Sketch reports on a “smart” dinner party given by a society hostess in New York where all of the women in attendance wore Japanese kimonos.
Accompanying the article in The Sketch was the following humorous poem. I have included it in its entirety:
Good-bye to the time when the maid of our clime
Went over to France for the fashion,
And copied each craze (as the men did the plays—
Though wat‘ring Parisian passion).
But now she is fanned in Chrysanthemum Land,
By taking its fashions on loan, O!
And changing her taste for the waist that is laced,
My lady adopts the kimono.
At first the Savoy gave her joy in the toy
When she ventured to see ‘The Mikado,’
And straight did succumb to the charm of Yum-Yum—
Though to copy her seemed like bravado.
But losing all fears with the flight of the years,
She does up her hair in a cone, O!
And now she can’t stop, for she thinks she must flop
In the folds of a flowing kimono.
And if she’d begin to exhibit the pin
Which bonnets the sensible Jappy,
Instead of that vat of a matinée-hat,
I think I’d be perfectly happy.
For this aping Japan is a plan which a man
Must regard as pro publico bono
So I welcome the aid of the Japanese maid
In bringing the dragoned kimono.
For the only drawbacks to this beautiful sack’s
Replacing the corset and kirtle,
Is not in its hues, for our maidens can use
The shade of the delicate myrtle;
But our tongue makes it hard for the bard to discard
A rhyme which is compound in tone, O!
And thus it’s a task for a jingler to ask
The Muses to rhyme to kimono.
The fashion for all things Japanese continued on into the 20th century and beyond. However, as much as Japonisme is evident in the fashions of later decades (with the Roaring Twenties being of particular note), I still find the Victorian era fascination with art and apparel from the exotic, mysterious East to be the most interesting period of all.
*Author’s Note: I apologize to anyone who found the above poem offensive. Unfortunately, when quoting history, one often has to take the bad with the good.
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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