Feminine, Daring Meisen Kimonos

Japanese textile design in the 20th century

When young middle class Japanese women began to move out into the world beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the 1940s they looked for a fashion garment, something suitable for social events, lunch with women friends, flower arranging classes, etc. Everyday indigo cottons and stripes, expensive traditional formal kimono or conservative office wear were not suitable.  They wanted something fresh and current, feminine and even a little daring, but affordable.

Japanese textile manufacturers, ever innovative, developed a process for weaving multicolored silk ikat that used large paper stencils similar to those used for yukata and katazome.  Thickened dyes were applied with these stencils, one for each color, to warp and/or weft threads, held together with the barest of weaving, and laid out on long tables for printing. They were then carefully unwoven prior to setting the loom for the final weaving. This seems enormously complicated to me, a non-weaver, but it was in fact a labor saving mass production process equivalent to the stenciled kata-yuzen techniques used for traditional dyed kimono. The finished fabrics, called meisen, had the soft edge patterns of traditional ikat weaves, but without the huge expense of hand tying.

Fashion garments, then as now, were not meant to be worn for more than a season or two before being replaced with the next new fashion. As a result these meisen kimono were put away in excellent condition, but often not considered valuable enough to pass down to daughters as heirlooms.  Theywere not valued highly even in the secondhand market and bales could be had for next to nothing. In recent years they have emerged from hiding and collectors are paying attention. The patterns represent a study in textile design of the early twentieth century, filtered through Japanese eyes, that looks wonderfully fresh and original even now. We see bold art deco designs, traditional designs enlarged to enormous scale, huge colorful flowers, bright geometric designs, scenery, wild color schemes and delicate watercolor pastels. Eventually more traditional designs gave way to the sorts of western design we all recognize from the 1940s. There was nothing staid or traditional about meisen.

Several years ago I found Ichiroya--a wonderful online flea market--based in Osaka, Japan.  Although I was buying primarily antique indigo cottons, to support my study of traditional stencil dyed fabrics, eventually I succumbed and began buying silk garments, initially to dismantle and re-purpose. I bought a couple of these old meisen kimono, took them apart and immediately regretted not keeping them whole just to enjoy as they were. Since then I have added quite a number of these wonderful kimono to my collection, spurred on by the book Fashioning Kimono, in whose pages I saw kimono no more lovely than the ones I now owned.

Karen Illman Miller is a textile artist from Oregon. Formerly a marine biologist, she now concentrates on producing katazome textiles with her own hand-cut paper stencils and rice paste resist. She makes indigo cottons and multicolored silks and linens, for quilts, garments and noren using traditional Japanese patterns as well as her own designs based on the natural forms of the Pacific Northwest. http://www.nautilus-fiberarts.com.

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