Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion Peabody Essex Museum

Two weeks ago, Jeff and I went to see the Maritime Impressionism show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA. It was a terrific show of marine paintings and works on paper by Monet, Caillebotte, Sisley, Signac, and others, that were mostly from private collections and smaller museums. Wonderful to see works that I’ve never seen before! Also, there were a number of uniquely French boat models, as well as Emile Zola’s scull called Nana, on display.

Afterwards, I convinced Jeff to come with me to see the Future Beauty: Avant Garde Japanese Fashion exhibit. Women’s fashion isn’t really his thing, but he was a good sport about it.


As we entered, we were met by giant mirrors in the silhouettes of some of the fashions, so we could picture ourselves wearing these arresting shapes.



The exhibit starts with the new look created by Japanese fashion designers, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohiji Yamamoto in the early 1980s, and it moves through time to contemporary designs born from those original trends. I remember how radical the new asymmetrical, sculptural fashions looked when they were first introduced: shapes that hid a woman’s body, shapes that used wrapping techniques or wire or bones to change a woman’s silhouette. I often stood in front of Issey Miyake’s shop on Madison Avenue studying the clothes that I found fascinating, even though I knew they would not be flattering to my 5 foot something, curvy frame.



As we looked at how the designs evolved over the decades, it was impossible not to notice that they were inspired by Japanese kimonos and robes and also by origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Β In fact, some of the clothes, including evening dresses, would be purchased folded flat into squares and other shapes, and the folds were part of the design. I really loved some of those. So perfect for travel lol!

The exhibit also covered “Cool Japan”, present day cutesy “youth culture” style for teens and young men and women that grew out of manga, skating, and Hello Kitty. Although I have to admit I’m a sucker for Korean makeup brand Etude House’s girly, princess packaging, the little girl clothes seemed more than a bit weird to me. Strange that teen and 20-something young women would want to look like 6 year olds forever.

What I love about PEM’s fashion exhibits is that they always have stuff for visitors to try on. Of course, I can never pass that up! Jeff came in handy as my fashion photographer.


There were a number of coats and jackets with really long sleeves, all of which I tried on. Who has arms that long? Β Here are the pix:

purplecoat purplecoatback








capefront capeback









blackcoat menswearjacket









My favorite was the grey cape! It was such a good fit. Don’t you think they should give it to me?

The new look with its asymmetry, layers, embellishments made by twisting the fabric, folds, and slashes, that seemed so radical when it launched (and some designs continue to be radical!) really has influenced mainstream fashion design over the years. Many of the outfits on display had fabric tags as embellishments, and I have two tops covered with tags that I bought a few years ago.


Also, ruffles or rosettes made by twisting or bunching the same fabric as the dress or top are very familiar in casual clothing today.ruffles


Same goes for burnout and asymmetrical necklines and hemlines.

This was a really fun show for anyone who loves fashion and design. I plan to go back again for a second look. It will be up until January 24, 2014. If you haven’t gone already, see it! And let me know what you think!

Here’s the link to a terrific article by Laura Jacobs, entitled “Sensational and Cerebral”, in the Wall Street Journal that gives a more in-depth look at the show.




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12 thoughts on “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion Peabody Essex Museum

    • Both shows were wonderful. The maritime paintings were lovely. And I learned so much about Caillebotte; I had no idea he was a boat/yacht designer and the editor of a yachting magazine/journal. I also had no idea that many of the Impressionist painters painted from houseboats, floating studios where they would spend the summer! I was also an art history student <3

    • It was a lot of fun, Tina, and it was so interesting to see how Japanese design evolved over time and how it influenced casual mainstream fashion over the years. I hope to go back again with a girlfriend so I can really take my time. Jeff was a really good sport, but we didn’t linger, if you know what I mean πŸ˜‰

    • Weren’t all those loooooong sleeves the weirdest? what’s up with that? I loved the back of the purple coat and the fabric was beautiful.This was a fun show. I know you would have enjoyed it, too πŸ™‚

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