Dressing Down: Private Life and the Dressing Gown, 1890-1950
In this vignette, a rainy morning has disrupted the day's plans, and an outing to Bailey’s Beach is no longer a possibility. The lady of the house, a widely travelled collector with an eye for Chinoiserie, passes the afternoon in her informal and exotically decorated sitting room, awaiting a few houseguests who are interested in playing a game of mah jongg. The early 20th century ivory mah jongg is set upon a Chinoiserie style card table made by Newport furniture maker and decorator George E. Vernon & Company, together with a turn of the century Chinoiserie clock by Tiffany & Co. of New York. On either side of the card table are c. 1875 ebonized Anglo-Japonesque side chairs from the Wetmore family’s collection at Château-sur-Mer. In the background hangs an oil-on-canvas landscape painting of a Japanese water garden by French Orientalist painter Louis Jules Du Moulin (1860-1924). Note the kimono-clad woman crossing the bridge amidst fluttering lanterns and banners festooning a Japanese pavilion in the background, exactly the kind of delicate, refined imagery that inspired Western ladies to adopt the kimono-style dressing gown. Hanging on each side wall is a 19th century Chinese fan, echoing these picturesque motifs.
Since the 1850s, when Newporter Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened the isolationist Empire of Japan to European and American trade, Westerners have been fascinated with Japanese art, ceramics, and textiles. The authentic kimono, however, was a ceremonial garment, generally too stiffly structured for casual wear as a dressing gown. Nagajubans – the softer, less structured robes worn beneath a kimono – were prized as dressing gowns for their beauty and, not least of all, for their connotation of eroticism. By the turn of the 20th century, Parisian designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) achieved a succès de scandale as a designer of highly ornamented “kimono” coats and harem pants, worn by adventurous royalty and progressive-leaning heiresses. Much of the outrage that greeted Poiret’s designs was their flouting of conventional propriety: he transformed the “intimate” dressing gown into garment for public day and evening-wear. Although it is not attributed to a particular designer, the kimono shown here dates to the early 20th century and was likely made in Japan for sale to Western clientele – but strictly for “indoor” wear.
Photography by Al Weems