The Land of the Rising Sun revisits India: Japonism in Art and Fashion

Fashion travels in time, looks for inspiration in the rich past, celebrates it in the present and lays the path for recurrence in the future. While brainstorming over this thought and exploring the relation of fashion to culture in various time periods, I came across Elle India’s recent feature, “Tokyo Drift” embracing the style spirit of Japan. It took me back to one of the most fascinating art movements of the 19th century referred to as Japonism, the influence of Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics on the Western cultures. It reflected exoticism, cultural confluence, timelessness, and how fashion travels in different time periods being as relevant as ever. The bold colours, the intricate designs, the gorgeous silhouettes, the dramatic props, the oriental prints, the regal carpets, the ceramic objects, the mysterious accessories, all were bringing  cross-cultural dialogues into action. The silk wrap dresses and blouses, the cotton kimonos and shirt dresses, the satin and leather cord belts, the embroidered stoles, the pleated georgette headgears and the velvet ribbons, were by Indian designers. The set was designed by artist and designer Peter D’Ascoli and styled by Elle’s fashion director Malini Banerji.
Designers and artists back in the 19th century couldn’t overlook Japonism then and they still adore it now. Prior to the 18th century, when Japan was in total seclusion from the West, Japonism in the 19th century found its place in fashion a bit late then in any other forms of Western Arts and the influence was quite transformational. During the mid 19th century, it was not only appearing in the works of American and French artists but the fashion communities welcomed it as well. Later in that century, it turned into quite a fashion movement acknowledged by various creative platforms present back then. The Japanese sensibilities, their design technology and aesthetics were well embraced by the other Western cultures and the conventional ideas and creative mindsets faced new challenges. It also looked at the other Japanese essentials like furniture, textiles, jewellery and graphic design patterns.
Japonism continued in the 20th century with ‘Neo- Japonism’ being the new idea during the 1970’s, when the Japanese embraced Western fashion and Japan was on its way of becoming one of the significant fashion capitals in the world. The imperfection, the simplicity, the irregular and over-sized shapes, the design motifs and the conscious disintegration paved the way for some rationality in fashion. One of the most fascinating Japanese objet, the Kimono, that was considered as a non-western pattern had its place in the contemporary fashion scene. Japan’s cultural yet contemporary attitude towards fashion has been quite a noticeable phenomenon in the 21st century. The influence of Japanese fashion and design aesthetics continued to influence the fashion stalwarts across the world with the out-sized silhouettes, rich textiles, intricate embroidery, cutting-edge styles, and the dramatic decoratives.

Japonism in the 19th century: Fashion, art and evolution.

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It’s always an enriching and thrilling experience when one revisits fashion, the history and art that paved the way for us to create something as influential and significant or even better. The art and fashion movements in history were tough dictators of taste and they continue to raise the bar for art and fashion aspirants across the world to succeed and create something for the times to come and live the legacy. So, let’s keep time-travelling.

Some images from the shoot.
Image courtesy: Elle India

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peterArtist and designer Peter D’Ascoli  who conceptualized the spectacular set for Elle India’s “Tokyo Drift” shoot enamoring history, art, fashion and  two of the most fascinating cultures, India and Japan, talks about his experience and revisiting the fascinating art movements, mixing influences from various epochs, and how the Indian audience is welcoming any exposure to an eclectic, cosmopolitan mix of classic ideas. Some excerpts:

Q:  The shoot is about Japonism, the influence of Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics on Western culture. How  did a movement that influenced the Impressionists inspire you to create something about it now?
A: The East has long been a source of mystery, curiosity, and inspiration for Europe, and I like
to call this overall style trend “The Enduring Lure of The Exotic.” It has been with us
since ancient times and was well known even in ancient Rome.

Q: How did you keep the styling of the set so contemporary yet classic?
A: The set of this photo shoot was created using fabrics and objects with a definite
antique style, and yet they are new. The model’s makeup and clothing also look to
the past, so there is a certain timelessness to the images. However, if we look at
these images, although they look familiar and contain much symbolism about the
historic, cultural dialogue between different civilizations, the images are new, they
have never existed before, and this is the point, this is significant, this is how fashion
and style evolve, looking backwards and forwards all at once.

Q: What were some of the artworks that influenced you and your ideas to create such a magical set?
A: The paintings of James McNeill Whistler were a particular influence for this shoot, and he was greatly inspired by Japan in the mid 19th century. That was a wonderful moment when the arts and crafts movement was mixing with Indian, Chinese, and especially Japanese influences. Look at Whistler’s The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, painted between 1863-1865, or George Hendrik Breitner’s Girl in a White kimono (1894).
These paintings and others of this genre helped shape this shoot.

Q: You had any inhibitions while bringing the 19th century art into the present times?
A: I had no inhibitions in looking back to the 19th century for a contemporary series
of images for a fashion magazine. At this moment there is a trend towards Japanese inspiration, the clothes Malini Banerji edited for the shoot are beautiful and, although
these images are a fantasy, they do capture a contemporary moment in style.

Q:  How does the richness of historical inspirations drive the designers presently?
A: Designers are always looking to the past to help find a way into the future, The world’s past art and culture represents the world as we know it. This means that the entirety of past artistic expression is filled with symbolism, status, and meaning. It makes sense
that this rich past will inform new creative expressions as style and fashion move forward incrementally.

Q:  I It is as if these historic decoratives arts takes us back in time. How was your experience while time travelling?
A: It is true that, when working with historic reference, one can feel as if you travel
back and visit some past time. This happens to me all the time and, the result for me is
an overwhelming feeling of timelessness. The truth is, so many classic design elements
have turned up at many different times, with subtle differences, that it can sometimes
feel as if one is ‘out of time’ – particularly when mixing influences from various epochs.

Q: There are a variety of fabrics, props, decorations and garments have been used in this shoot that belong to different cultures and time periods. How was it bringing these cultures together?
A: Most all of my work is rooted in the sweeping history of decorative arts from across the globe and is all about an eclectic mix, so it makes sense that my styling would feature objects as diverse as Japanese embroidery, Chinese porcelain, Central Asian carpets, and paisley shawls from India. This is the type of mix that brings depth and intelligence to our surroundings.

Q:  How do you think the Indian audience will perceive it?
A: One of the most exciting aspects of India today is the enormous curiosity towards the whole wide world. There is a rampant thirst to learn about and enjoy different cultures – we see this in the large numbers of Indians who are travelling. I believe that the audience in India who is interested in style and design will welcome any exposure to an
eclectic, cosmopolitan mix of classic ideas.

Q: Indian fashion has the gift of heritage and it’s been travelling around the world inspiring other cultures. How do these cultures and art movements still inspire us?
A: When we speak of Indian fashion throughout history we are talking about a huge, diverse output of decorative and fine arts. Cotton printed textiles are just one example of how Indian technology and artistry captivated the world for more than a thousand years. And now, as India emerges onto the world stage as a political and economic leader, it is only natural that she will again move to the forefront in the creative arts.