Explore Exquisite Kimono Designs from 19th-Century Japan

Japan’s 19th-cen­tu­ry kimonos blur the lines between art and fash­ion.

Mei­ji era cus­tomers could browse hina­ga­ta-bon, tra­di­tion­al­ly bound pat­tern books, on vis­its to drap­ers and fab­ric mer­chants. These col­or­ful vol­umes offered a glam­orous update of the Edo period’s black-and-white kimono pat­tern books.

Aspir­ing design­ers also stud­ied hina­ga­ta-bon, as many of the designs fea­tured with­in were the work of cel­e­brat­ed artists.

Each page fea­tured a stan­dard kimono out­line in a back or side view, embell­ished with the pro­posed design. These range from tra­di­tion­al flo­ral motifs to bold land­scapes to strik­ing geo­met­ric pat­terns, some arrest­ing, some dis­creet.

As Hunter Dukes observes in the Pub­lic Domain Review, the Mei­ji era ush­ered in a peri­od of tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Japan­ese tex­tile indus­try ven­tured abroad, embrac­ing and adapt­ing dying process­es they saw prac­ticed in the Unit­ed States and Europe. The abil­i­ty to sten­cil pastes of chem­i­cal dye onto silk helped to indus­tri­al­ize the kimono-mak­ing process. Peo­ple who pre­vi­ous­ly could­n’t have afford­ed such a gar­ment could now choose from a vari­ety of designs.

The explo­sion in kimono pro­duc­tion spurred demand for fresh designs. Pub­lish­ers began to release hina­ga­ta-bon annu­al­ly. Pre­vi­ous years’ pat­tern books were of lit­tle inter­est to sophis­ti­cat­ed cus­tomers clam­or­ing for the lat­est fash­ions.

Unlike today’s dis­pos­able fash­ion mags, how­ev­er, the pat­tern books’ high aes­thet­ic and pro­duc­tion qual­i­ty saved them from destruc­tion.

In her 1924 book, Block Print­ing and Book Illus­tra­tion in Japan, author Louise Nor­ton Brown wrote that cast-off hina­ga­ta-bon could be “found in all the sec­ond­hand book shops of Japan … (where they were) com­par­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive.”

These days, you can find Mei­ji era pat­tern books in a num­ber of world class institution’s col­lec­tions includ­ing the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, the British Library, the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go, and The Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of Asian Art, which dig­i­tized the kimono designs by Seiko Ueno fea­tured in this post.

Explore four Mei­ji era kimono pat­tern books here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Explore the Beau­ti­ful Pages of the 1902 Japan­ese Design Mag­a­zine Shin-Bijut­sukai: Euro­pean Mod­ernism Meets Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Design

1,000+ His­toric Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books Dig­i­tized & Put Online by the Smith­son­ian: From the Edo & Meji Eras (1600–1912)

Hun­dreds of Won­der­ful Japan­ese Fire­work Designs from the Ear­ly-1900s: Dig­i­tized and Free to Down­load

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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