STYLE LOST IN TRANSLATION – Imitationv vs. Interpretation

Fashion, like art and other artistic expressions, reflects the social and cultural changes undergoing in a society. French and English fashion houses could not ignore the craze for Things Japanese, as Basil H. Chamberlain defined the artifacts and prints that were massively imported in Europe in those early years of cultural exchange, that captivated Europe and would be forever known as Japonisme.

Sometimes we would like to capture the essence of objects or qualities of people that we admire, are attracted to and would like to make part of ourselves. Like some of the words in Japanese language that cannot be precisely translated in any language without losing part of the original meaning, the process of imitation can never, in any casy, capture the original essence of the objects being imitated from another culture.  

Reinterpretation is a way to absorb part of the nature of things and translate them into a different language. What fascinates about Japanese culture is its ability to attribute a deeper, wider sense to every object, word, behavior that might first appear to a foreign observer or listener.

Since 1994, on the initiative of the Kyoto Costume Institute and its director Mrs. Akiko Fukai, intense research has been dedicated to assess the influence of Japonisme on fashion and more specifically the impact of the traditional Japanese icon, the Kimono, on the evolution of fashion design between the end of the 19th century and contemporary design.

The success of fashion collections that are overtly inspired by other cultures is due to the fact that the motivation driving their creativity is not imitation nor it is pure cultural appropriation. Developing creatively a set of clothes and accessories by finding sources of inspiration in other cultures is more about a desire to celebrate something that is valued as beautiful and worthy.


The enthusiasm for Japonisme in fashion coincided with a spreading aversion for corsets and constraints of the garments of the time. Women were seduced by the liberating style of the new forms partly inspired by the Japanese cultural icon. The Kimono was not entirely absorbed in European fashion in its original form. What was introduced to the public was more a “neo-oriental” kimono which translated Japanese, classic Greek, and medieval garment structures.  

Kimonos, as mentioned in my article on Kabuki Costume, is much more than a clothing item. It constitutes a secret code that can be deciphered only by those who invest a great amount of time in studying the intricate symbols and visual messages hidden between the colors, the motifs, the structure.  

The kimono carries many symbols and is a principal feature of Japanese literature. When classics like The Tale of Prince Genji by Murakami Shikibu or The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon written respectively in the X and XI century, mention women’s or men’s robes or Kosode (precursor of the Kimono), is not to simply describe what a character is wearing or to inform the reader on its role and social status. The feeling of desperation is expressed no just in words but in the act of hiding one’s tears (woman’s and man’s) behind the robe’s long sleeves. The traditional clothing carry visual messages that are better expressed without being voiced.

   Deep in this longing,
How was I to rise and dance
   I could not think;
Did you guess the heart that beckoned
In the shaking sleeve I waved?
"In fear and trembling."

It must be specified that the studies on Japanese clothing before the 17th century, concentrate on the study of paintings, scrolls, woodplock prints or on the surviving examples of garments belonging to the higher classes specifically the nobility, high rank officials, samurai and Noh theatre costumes.

“Traditional clothing was also an art form that shared many of the aesthetic canons of painting, lacquerware, pottery, poetry. Among the foremost of these canons is allusiveness , what is expressed, or explicitly depicted, must also imply, connote, and evoke ranges of further meaning or feeling. It is in this aspect that traditional Japanese clothing differs more profoundly and significantly from Western, and it is this aspect of which most western viewers are unaware. ..what was required in the designs was excellently delineation and composition, harmonious color, skillful execution, and thematic appropriateness…Thematic appropriateness is related to the principle that Japanese clothing designs are not generally decorative but specifically emblematic. They refer to seasons of the year or to particular holidays, festivals, and ceremonies; to places noted for their scenic beauty, to elevated moral qualities or simple wish fulfillment; and to literature.” Naomi Noble Richard, Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 25 (1990)


I discovered the book “Japonisme et Mode” quite unexpectedly in the early weeks of this dramatic year, while I was was researching the origin of a group of Kimonos, for an exhibition on Japanese culture in European fashion to be held in November celebrating  the 10th anniversary of l’arabesque Cult Store. Unfortunately it was canceled due to the pandemic.

I was studying closely one of the garments and something didn’t add up. Doubts arose because three of the kimonos in the store’s collection didn’t have the typical 4-piece structure (body, sleeve, neckband and collar, overlap) of the traditional Japanese Kimono. I noticed that the back of the garment I had in my hand was not formed by the usual 2 panels sown together in the middle of the back but there was only one panel. Moreover, these kimonos didn’t include the classic Obi, the wide belt that holds the Kimono together, but instead included a fringed shawl made of the same fabric. Usually Obi’s are in contrast with the motives and colors of the kimono.

I began to wonder if these kimonos might be telling a different story, might have a different origin and purpose. I couldn’t find any examples of similar garments on the large number of recent books on the subject that I owned and the web could help me either. That is when I started searching for older books that could help me date and place the origin of the kimonos, and found Japonisme et Mode. I finally came across the information I needed to describe accurately on of the pieces in the exhibition.


In the late 1890’s and early 1990’s, there was a special production of kimonos exclusively designed for the western market, exported to Britain and France by manufacturers in Kyoto, such as the Takashimaya company, where they were sold in emporiums in and around London. This opened the market for anyone to easily obtain kimonos, in contrast with the nineteenth century when collectors were the primary consumers of kimonos.  Vitaldi Babani was the Parisian address to look for these types of garments, Liberty & Co. was the place to look for in London. The silk robes offerd by these two emporiums were inspired not only by structure but by the colors and nuances of the Ukyo-e  woodblock prints depicting the fashion leaders of the time that documented the trends in clothing design: women of the pleasure quarters and Kabuki and Noh theatre actors. These sources are essential in researching about the prevailing styles of the era.

“They were a sort of visual communication between the kimono producer, the seller and the consumer, and maybe viewed as a form of advertisement. ( Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, Kimono- a Modern History)


Long before the arrival in Paris of the five pillars of Japanese fashion design who conquered the international capital of fashion in the 1970’s – Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Hanae Mori, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, Japanese aesthetics flowed in every western artistic expression, including fashion.  

Since 1953 when Japan opened its doors to diplomatic relations with the west after 200 years of economic and cultural isolation, the canons of oriental aesthetics came into contact with a surprised and marveled European public. More than other European countries, Paris was the center from which the enthusiasm for Japanese culture spread to the rest of the continent and America.

The mysterious codes of Japanese artistic principles were soon reinterpreted by French artists ( Van Gogh, Monet ), Jewelers ( Chaumet and Van Cleef & Arpels) perfume makers (Guerlain), designers (Charlotte Perriand,), architects ( Frank Lloyd Wright)  and couturieurs  – Charles Frederick Worth and Coco Chanel who introduced the Chrysanthemum motif in their designs.


I will dedicate a separate post related to a more general overview of the origins of the cultural interchange movement that we define as Japonisme. Its echo is still strong today, stronger than the echo of Orientalism that developed in Europe in the same years. Japonisme defines a world constituted of a great deal of fascinating events, personalities, discoveries, intercultural exchange that would not be sufficiently describe here without limiting the necessary room to the main topic of this article which is dedicated to the effects of Japan’s aesthetic principles on European fashion.

The great international Expositions that played an essential role in spreading “the news”. They represented the perfect opportunity to discover the mysteries of unknown countries and their technological advances. Japan participated  for the first time with its own pavilion at the international Expo in 1867 in Paris with the predomination of decorative arts followed by hanging-scrolls, folding screens, prints.  Future expositions will include lacquers, textiles, and paintings.

The first shops to offer Japanese products were Mme Desoye’s “L’Empire Céleste” in rue de Rivoli, referred to as the spot where Japonisme evolved in France. Soon after came Sigfried Bing’s place, Philippe Sichel’s in Rue Pigalle, and finally the most relevant one belonged to a Japanese expat, Hayashi Tadamasa was a young Japanese interpreter who arrived in the French capital in 1878 and was disappointed with the mediocre display of Japanese artefacts exposed at the international expositions. He was nominated commissioner of the Japanese section at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1900,  and became an art merchant himself to help educate the western eye in Japanese aesthetics.


The dressing gown was of common use for men in 17th and 18th century Europe. During the time when only Holland was allowed to keep commercial relations with Japan, before 1853, they adopted the kimono as dressing gown after a series of them were offered to a Dutch delegation by the officials of the Shogun and who imported them to Europe. The demand for the new garment was such that the Dutch commissioned a large order of similar garments to be produced in Coromandel in India. They were called Japonse Rocken even though they were not produced in Japan.

In the late 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, in the west, the kimono was used, both by men and women, in intimate settings or in masked balls. In France, the robe is still referred to as Kimono.

From the 1880, fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, La Mode Pratique, Figaro-Modes, Les Modes,  begin to introduce new names in their chic pages to the fashion vocabulary of the times: “manches Kimono” “forme japonaise”, “ à la japonaise “, “silhouette Japonaise”, “croisement kimono” “Japanese Matinée” etc.


The French silk industry production center  of Lyon came in contact with Japanese textiles at the Expositions.  In 1889 the city began to produce fabrics with Japanese techniques and designed motifs inspired by Japanese art.

New designs were created incorporating  the asymmetry of the kimono structure; the arrangement of the embroideries and the pochoirs (primarily produced in the printed textile industries in Mulhouse) inspired by typical Japanese flora and fauna iconography which coincided with an evolution in the Europeans’ sensibility towards nature; the embroideries, and the traditional dyeing techniques are still today unique sources of inspiration for the fashion houses. The chrysanthemum, symbol of the Japanese Imperial family, was adopted as favorite motif until the 1920s.


Couturiers like Worth, Poiret, Vionnet, Lanvin, who resourced their silk textiles from Lyon, reinterpreted successfully japanese aesthetics in their collections.


Theatre and the Ópera contributed to the diffusion of the Japanese style phenomenon. The most celebrated Japanese actress of the time and former geisha of the Yoshicho district, Sada Yakko, introduced Japanese theatre to the Parisian public.  Women were enchanted by her charm and the exquisite kimonos she wore.  She also inspired artists like Rodin, Klee, and posed for Picasso.  The Parisian store “Au Mikado” capitalized on the fame of the Japanese actress and purchased the rights to use her name to market perfumes and  collection of more accessible kimonos, tailored to suit Western taste,  advertised as “Kimonos Sadayakko” and advertised it on fashion magazines like Fémina.

Fashion representation was also influenced by the Japanese prints that were popular in the artistic circles of Paris. Fashion illustrators like Paul Iribe, Benito, and Georges Lépape incorporated the traditional composition of Japanese prints like the typical poses of the women portrayed from the back and looking over the shoulder towards the artist.  

At the turn of the century, fashion style undergoes a dramatic change.


Waist has always been the element around which fashion forms evolved and can be identified. Like a Yo-Yo, up and down went the waist throughout the centuries: No outlined waist in ancient Greece, high waist during Napoleon’s Empire style, back down during the Belle Époque, even lower during the twenties, and back up in the 30’s and 40’s with Christian Dior, no waist during the Swinging Sixties, and so on. In 1903, Paul Poiret, enamored by Japonisme and Orientalism and inspired also by Chinese forms, the fashion Emperor’s new clothes were inspired by the structural simplicity of the kimono. Its flat, wide and straight cut coincided with the need for the liberation of the woman’s body from the constraints of the corset

During Poiret’s era, the attention was drawn to the shoulders. Textiles flowed from them in a comfortable loose fit that created natural and soft draped folds, in extreme contrast with traditional clothing that enhanced the body’s curves. The attention of the design was directed to put a focus on the qualities of the materials, the textiles, entering the flow of modernism, in contrast to tradition that  amplified the value of decorations or ornaments such as lace, beads, etc.

Paul Poiret’s 1925 Manteau Mandarin is composed of symmetrically displayed embroideries with japanese motifs: Chrysanthemum, bamboo palisade, clouds, rooster. The name “Mandarin” is a Chinese reference which reflects the eclectism of Japonisme.


Schiaparelli’s collections were rich in playful juxtaposition of disparate motifs designed to suggest a symbolic world, a reference to the allusiveness present in Japanese art aesthetics.

Japonism influenced other couturiers of the time such as Worth, Paquin, Doucet, the Callot Soeurs, Mariano Fortuny.

In this 1924 day dress by Madeleine Vionnet, the wavy-patterned, hand-stitched pin-tucks is a Japanese technique and in this case recalls the ondulated traces imitating a river on the sand of  typical dry landscape gardens in Japanese temples.  Madeleine Vionnet was an avid collector of Japanese prints. It is believed that her famous bias cut was inspired by the straight form of the kimono.

A sudden blackout in Japanese artistic influence appears during the 30’s due to the growing political tensions between Europe and Japan and of course the second World War II will prolong the gap until the 60’s and 70’s. Two different routes where opened again to Japanese impact on fashion.


The first was the rise of Japanese couturiers on the western fashion market. The first to descend, in the 1960’s, in New York was Hanae Mori, and later on , in  1970’s Paris, Issey Miyake, Kenzo, and the recently deceased Kansai Yamamoto, designer of stage outfits for David Bowie and Elton John.  

The return of japanese artistic influence coincided with a transformation in fashion culture in the 1960’s: Pret-a-porter was ascending and overtaking Haute-Couture. Japanese aesthetics were found to be the ideal model to interpret creatively this change from a formal tradition to more flexible, less “normative”, more passe-partout.

In 1972, Kenzo, interviewed by the New York Times, declared:

“fashion is not for the few – it is for all the people. It shouldn’t be too serious”

In the 1980’s Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto joined the group of Japanese fashion designers in Paris. They were all successful because the interpreted Japanese aesthetics and ideal of beauty in their own personal and contemporary way which conquered, once again, European, and American, public.

Japanese fashion designers

“conciliated the formalism of the ceremonial kimono with the anti-formalism of functional clothing”. Richard Marin and Harold Koda in Japonisme et mode

And Yuniya Kawamura, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, writes in “The Japanese revolution in Paris Fashion”.

“their uniqueness lies in the ways they deconstructed existing rules of clothing and reconstructed their own interpretation of what fashion is and what fashion can be…The distinct ethnic designs alone are not enough to explain the success of these Japanese designers…The incorporation of foreigh designers into the establishment is also the manifestation of the valorization of new styles and new creators.”

They invested clothing with a more spiritual and emotional essence that goes beyond the limits of the more conventional western perception of apparel that connected the function of a dress to the day’s commitments: Business lunch, cocktail dinners, galas, etc. The Japanese clothes drape and wrap the body, they don’t define it.

The second route’s destination is the house of Yves Saint Laurent. Recently, in 2018, an exhibition was dedicated in the Museé Yves Saint-Laurent in Paris, to his collections inspired by the Orient.  YSl, as Poiret before him, was fascinated by foreign cultures. Russia, China, Japan, were all sources of inspiration for his collections. He discovered Japan while working with Christian Dior and was a great collector of Japanese objects. He was captured by the Kabuki theatre costumes whose influence can be traced in the kimonos of his 1994 fall winter collection.

“Japan was a source of inspiration for the couturier, a model that became the starting point for his own creations. But he also paid tribute to the grace of the courtesans strolling in the narrow little streets of Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto where YSL and Pierre Bergé walked together, and the elegance of Maria Callas in a kimono in her role as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1955 partly inspired by Pierre Loti’s book Madame Chrysanhème”.

The kimono Maria Callas was painted by the Japanese Dandy artist in Paris, Foujita, soon on TFB.) He understood and appreciated the quintessence of Japanese art that reflected the harmonious relationship between man and nature.

One of his most successful creations was the perfume Opium. The design of the iconic bottle is a reproduction of a Japanese Inro, the tiny box that Japanese samurai wear at their waists containing herbs and spices,  tied with a cord and closed by the netskuke, the typical miniature wood sculpures. An innovative design in perfume packaging that was to become one of the most successful and best selling perfume creations, second only to Chanel n.5.

A sculptor turned accessory designer

In the 1920’s Japonisme provided the opportunity for the swiss sculptor Jean Dunand to learn the infinite possibilities of the art of lacquer and apply the technique to fashion accessories. His imagination flowed in his designes for lacquered metal buckles and hooks for shoes, hats, belts that will adorn clothes by couturières such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin. He went on to design fashion jewlery, decorate textiles with lacquer,  even delicate ones such as chiffon, crêpe de chine, shantung, Indian silks, velvets. His creations were displayed at the february 1925 exhibition “Exposition sur la mode, les tissus et la parure” in the Musée des Arts Décoratif in Paris.


Japonisme et Mode is the catalogue (in French language) published on the occasion of the exhibition held at the Palais Galliera, the Musée de la Mode et du Costume in Paris in 1994, dedicated for the first time to Japonisme related to fashion. The exhibition hosted a superb collection belonging to the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan.  

It is a thorough research on the process of assimilation of Japanese aesthetic principles in 19th and 20th century Europe.

In this article I have introduced the key factors of this process, specifically the relevance for European fashion, leaving for future posts a more thorough investigation on Japonisme in other European countries and America.

The book also details the textile industry in Japan that since the early 1900s became a major player in international export of cotton and silk as well as an avid importer of French and British wool . It also describes how the Japonisme era opened new opportunities for French textile industries and a new market in Japan.

But the influence of Europe on Japan is another story, another book..



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