Meisen Mystery

Yonemarus@Kiyomizudera with my first host family, the Yonemarus, at Kyōmizudera, Kyoto

I did not start out as a dress historian. I came to dress history in a round about way (described in my post about Indian shawls here). I started as a Japanese major, because I thought I was going to become an interpreter. So, spending the summer I was 20 in Osaka, Japan (see image above) was the culmination of a long-held dream, and words will never be able to describe the gratitude I felt towards my parents for finding a way to make it possible for me.

I’ve long thought this initial ambition has influenced the way I look at textiles and clothing: as a visual medium of cultural exchange, understanding, and occasionally, unfortunately as appropriation or a method of colonial oppression. Since language, like art and clothing, does not exist in isolation, my undergraduate career can more accurately be described as an all-out wallowing in Japanese studies of culture, art, literature, and language… at least until budget cuts in the CSU system required me to change gears if I wanted to graduate in a timely manner.

The program wasn’t cancelled per se, but it was so defunded that when I went to my advisor about my next semester’s class I was told that they didn’t know when they would be offering the courses I needed next. So I switched to Linguistics and a Japanese minor, had a number of my classes and their units dropped from my records because they weren’t accepted at my new university and was very bitter for a number of years, in that ‘logical’ way of twenty-one year-olds. I went in to academic administration instead of interpretation, was hired at an arts school where I daily handled student work and realised I really wanted to handle art — especially garments and textiles — as my career and my interest in museum studies was born. A year later, I discovered dress history as my niche and here I am.

thumbnail-2010_013_ForrestCavale (1) Furisode with a design of Mandarin ducks; 20th Century; Dye and gold on silk; © CCJAC

I do not regret my path. What I regret was that I let bitterness over circumstances beyond my control — and the fact that in my program I was scorned and belittled by my classmates for always receiving high grades, at least until they wanted help studying for midterms and finals — infuse a subject I had well and truly loved with bitterness to the point that I let it go. I was bitter for so long I would not even contemplate looking at Japanese dress and textiles. My road back to Japanese studies, and into the area of East Asian dress and textiles, began two and a half years ago with my 久しぶり post, discussing an event at a local Japanese art museum I had patronised quite a bit between the ages of 17 and 23. “久しぶり” (hisashiburi in romaji) is what you say to people you have not seen in a long while, or when describing something that you have not done in quite some time. In the nature of Japanese it means literally “it’s been a long time”, but it can hold several unspoken connotations of joy, longing, or even a poignancy. It seems fitting in this situation.

My rediscovery of the Clark Center led to the CSA, Western Region Symposium paper I discussed in a Worn Through post last year, wherein I revealed my discovery of a type of kimono called heiyō-gasuri meisen, or meisen for short, which were popular in Japan from 1915 until about 1945. I, like most, imagined kimono as either the simple, small-patterned examples we typically see today, or the beautiful furisode you see above. Nothing prepared me for meisen, which were heavily influenced by Western art movements at the time, such as art deco, cubism, and maybe even surrealism. The example below strikes me as as surrealist in its design and imagery as Schiaparelli’s famous Lobster dress.

2005_086_v Women’s kimono with Penguins and Cracked ice pattern; 1915 – 1945; silk; © CCJAC

Meisen are unique not only for their patterning, which is so unusual — the size for one thing is exponentially larger than traditional motifs — but also the construction of the fabric. You can see in the detail images below that there is a sort of bleeding effect on the design, or as though the penguins and their ice are slightly out of focus.


2005-086 detail

This effect is achieved by stencil-dyeing the warp and weft threads before they are placed on the loom; when the fabric is woven, the stencil doesn’t line up exactly — giving a simulated-ikat effect, supposedly with less work. Of all the meisen I looked at and handled at the Clark Center in preparation for my paper, this one remains my favourite. I don’t know if it’s just so outrageous (the others as you will see at Worn Through are more abstract), or because the penguins are adorable, or because I am trying to imagine what colour obi (obi are always in a contrasting colour, see the picture of me in yukata below) would be worn with it when I envision a woman walking down the street in it. It is also, in my opinion, rather flamboyant for a married woman’s kimono. Typically, brighter colours and more audacious patterns are reserved for furisode — the red one above is a perfect example. Furisode literally means ‘swinging sleeves’, and they are worn by young, marriageable-aged women. The swinging sleeves are considered flirtatious, and the bright colours and bold patterns attract attention, preferably of eligible potential-husbands. The shorter sleeves on the Penguin meisen indicate it was made for a married woman, so this pattern is contrary to the usual expectations of a woman of that station, in addition to its surrealist elements.

The reason I find meisen so mysterious is that they were popular at a time when the Japanese Military Complex was on the rise, and there was a distinctly anti-Western attitude within the society. Japan excelled at milling propaganda textiles — as seen in the multiple examples in Wearing Propaganda, edited by Jacqueline Atkins and published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name. The best example I have seen of this anti-Western stance in textiles is in the hanjuban below. Hanjuban are a short under-kimono worn by men (note the very short gap between sleeve edge and join as opposed to the far longer one for the penguin meisen). With the exception of children, kimono were not made of these propaganda textiles, instead it was very popular to make undergarments such as the hanjuban out of them so that as your kimono or yukata slid up your sleeve, a bit of this patriotic fabric would be seen.

Hanjuban-1 Hanjuban with Mickey Mouse and military motifs; c. 1930; printed cotton; © Thomas Murray

What is fascinating about this hanjuban is that you can see that it was originally made out of a (for lack of a better term) pro-Western fabric featuring words in English, Western objects such as crayons and notebooks (Japanese writing materials were very different), and even Mickey Mouse. You can see all of these elements in the detail image below.


The sleeves, however — the part that might be seen by other people — have been covered or replaced with the typical propaganda textile at some point since the hanjuban‘s original construction. This is a strong indicator that it was socially unacceptable to express pro-Western sentiments, or to admire any aspect of Western culture.

At the same time that meisen were being produced and worn.

As I said in my initial post, I have more questions than answers. Who was wearing meisen? Where were they being worn? Were the wearers unaware of the Western influence on the designs, or was it acceptable because it was a complete absorption and re-adaptation (improvement in the eyes of the Military Industrial Complex?) of the Western art and design?

I have been told that a great deal has been written about, or that there is a revival of interest in meisen recently. This may be true, but the only information I can find are in books I will have to order through Kinokuniya from Japan the next time I’m in San Francisco. I know that LACMA has an entire exhibition planned for later this year which I will absolutely be going to. Probably multiple times.

I have bounced around various topics of interest for potential phd work for the last three years: an expansion of my master’s thesis; examining Scottish tartan from the perspective of the exotic other; and meisen. The latter I have been encouraged to pursue by more than one person of repute in my field. I have long resisted because of that slight tinge of bitterness that still remained, and because I was already invested in my European textile research. But recently, Japan and its textiles have been creeping back into my life. I have been encouraging and helping friends embarking on their Japanese studies, and remembering when I was 20, wearing yukata to matsuri in Osaka, struggling with humidity for the first time ever in my life,  not bitter in the slightest, instead laughing at the double takes by train riders to see a white girl in yukata and not falling over. I am apparently a source on kimono and Japanese dress and social history for a young woman completing her master’s degree in textile history in the UK, after conducting an interview via email. And I recently unearthed all the images you see of me in this post along with all my other souvenirs from that summer in Japan during a frantic search for something completely different.

There may be a revived interest in meisen within the dress history community, but considering the number of eighteenth-century specialists, I can’t see that my ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ will actually overcrowd it. And I am inherently curious. I want to know who the women (and possibly men?) were who wore these garments. I want to know if it was in defiance of the military, or if it was in ignorance of the designs’ origins. I want to know where they were worn, and where they were made. And I love the idea of “occidentalism” as opposed to “orientalism”. And the interpreter in me loves the conversation between East and West in a simple fabric. I think that through meisen, I have found a way to shed the bitterness I carried for so long without realising it. And that through meisen, I have found a way to marry my two academic paths, and my 20-year-old self’s passion and hopes, with my 30-something-year-old’s present knowledge, experience, and ability to pick myself up and dust myself off when circumstances beyond my control knock my feet out from under me.


Yukata-1 with my second host-mother, Akuta-san, on the way to a matsuri.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Fiona Cole
    May 07, 2014 @ 08:09:03

    Fashioning Kimono, ( Dress and Modernity in Early 20th Century Japan ) Edited by Annie Van Assche is an excellent resource on Meisen. I found your blog as I was trying to find out whether there are any artists still producing it today. I have quite a few vintage pieces, but cannot recall ever seeing a modern one.


    • brenna
      May 07, 2014 @ 08:24:25

      Thank you, Fiona. I do actually have Fashioning Kimono, and Jacqueline Atkins’s Wearing Propaganda, but haven’t had time has yet to look at it properly. I will move it up on my to-read list, now. To answer your question, no, there are no modern meisen. It was a style that was popular only during the late Meiji through early Showa, so about 1910 to 1945. The process for creating them is quite complicated and must happen on the loom, so unlike kimono painting it is not a technique that could survive the death of the kimono textile industry ten or so years ago. I haven’t heard of any meisen being made after about 1950, simply because the style fell out of fashion.


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