The Japanese fashions on display in “Future Beauty” at the Peabody Essex Museum are more like explosions than clothes.
A critic for the French newspaper Le Figaro described the designs of Rei Kawakubo, when they appeared on a Paris catwalk in March 1983, as “apocalyptic clothing ... pierced with holes, tattered and torn, almost like clothing worn by nuclear holocaust survivors.”
Kawakubo, who along with Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto have been the principal forces in the movement explored by “Future Beauty,” simply called her spring/summer 1983 collection “Destroy.”
Shocking as these designs may have seemed at the time, they have come to exert a powerful influence on fashion in the West, unsettling and redefining our notions of beauty and style.
The exhibit, which covers 30 years and is drawn from the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, includes dresses that look like collapsed tents, headgear that seems designed for high-end bank robbers, and outfits that appear suited for some other species.
Kawakubo’s knitted acrylic sweater and matching, embroidered skirt is unusual enough, with petticoats trailing from beneath a hem at the mannequin’s feet. But it is also fitted with a large, tube-shaped bustle that, rather than enhancing the female figure, suggests a completely different relationship to the body it covers.
Likewise, Koji Tatsuno’s nylon net dress looks like a swirling electron cloud, engulfing its wearer in spirals and folds. Only the model or mannequin’s head and legs, emerging from the dress, let us see that it is a garment, worn by a person.
These distortions are aimed at ideas of what clothes should look like, and how they ought to be made, that are central to Western fashion.
Even the manner in which models walk the runway — seen in videos projected on the gallery walls — challenges the viewer.
In the 1983 show the models mill around the runway in crowds, as if recreating a city sidewalk, rather than prancing one at a time in front of the audience.
In Kawakubo’s and Yamamoto’s early collections, especially, the clothes they wear are often monochromatic, and usually black. If they aren’t torn or punctured randomly with holes, they often feature excess material hanging in complicated, asymmetrical folds.
Rather than presenting an idealized silhouette of the female figure, such garments often conceal the body beneath complicated surfaces, making us less conscious of gender.
There are affinities between these designs and the clothing favored by punk rockers, but there are also important precedents in Japanese culture for many of their elements.
“Although they were thoroughly aware of European culture, Kawakubo and Yamamoto presented clothing that dared to impress on audiences an aesthetic that was far removed from this context,” wrote Akiko Fukai, chief curator and director of the Kyoto institute, in the exhibition’s catalog.
The roughly 100 items in the show are organized into four aesthetic approaches, which have uniquely Japanese roots.
The first, “In Praise of Shadows,” comes from the title of an essay by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, which was written in 1933 and reminisced about elements of Japanese life that were disappearing with modernization. While Tanizaki acknowledged the benefits of electricity, for example, he lamented the effect it would have on Japanese houses, where interiors were often cast in shadow.
“We Orientals create a kind of beauty of the shadows we have made in out-of-the-way places,” Tanizaki wrote. “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”
This sense of beauty, which is ultimately about finding value in the poorest circumstances, is related to the play between light and material in dresses that have many loose, complex folds.
“Flatness” examines a problem central to all clothing design: how to cut two-dimensional material to fit three-dimensional bodies.
In the West, seams are cut to follow the body’s contours, and padding is added to bring hips and shoulders in line with an ideal. The Japanese designs in this show, by contrast, recall traditional garments like the kimono, made from rectangular lengths of cloth that are draped on the body. The kimono has a standard form, but takes on unique shapes in response to the body it covers.
Other clothes in the exhibit have intricate folds, like origami, when they hang on a wall, but look like living sculpture when they are worn.
“Innovation and Tradition” looks at the creative uses Japanese designers have found for modern materials, including dresses made entirely out of batting, and ruffle collars made from plastic.
“Cool Japan” explores the use designers have made of street fashions worn by Japanese teens, including Lolita-inspired ensembles and outfits modeled on characters in manga comics or anime films.
“These examples of Japanese fashion indicate how Japanese traditions are discontinuously continuing,” Fukai writes. “Japanese fashion revealed ... that clothes born from non-European spheres can have universality.”
If you go ...
- What: "Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion"
- Where: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
- When: Through Jan. 26, 2014.
- Open: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the third Thursday of the month until 9:30 p.m. Closed most Mondays, but will be open Monday, Dec. 30.
- Tickets: Adults $18, seniors $15, students with ID $10. Youth (16 and under) and Salem residents with ID admitted free. Regular museum admission includes all special exhibits.
- Information: www.pem.org, 978-745-9500, 866-745-1876