Robe trip: When kimonos were ‘Designed to Mobilize’

An exhibition at Florida Institute of Technology’s Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts is a landmark for the museum. Thanks to a 2014 gift from a California collector, the exhibition was curated almost exclusively from the museum’s collection of Japanese propaganda textiles.

Continuing through May 4, “Designed to Mobilize: Propaganda Kimono 1920-1945” features 75 historic textiles – kimonos, haori (jackets), juban (a thin undergarment worn between the kimono and the skin), and framed textile fragments. Made for men and boys, the textiles showcase printed, stenciled, painted and embroidered depictions of soldiers, tanks, ships and planes that extolled Japan’s military might in the years leading up to and during World War II.

According to Keidra Navaroli, assistant director and curator of the Funk Center, “this exhibition was an all-hands-on deck sort of job” that museum staff “built from the ground up.”

All aspects of the exhibition were done in-house, from selecting the objects for display and researching the symbolism they hold, to designing the layout of the gallery, installing the objects, and creating the didactic signage and labels that enhance visitors’ understanding of what they are viewing. An impressive exhibition of international importance, this exhibition does FIT proud.

Take for example, one of the haori (a hip- or thigh-length jacket) on view. It is displayed inside out, as are other garments in the exhibition, so that you can see the decoration on its lining. On the outside, this jacket is a plain, brown garment. But its lining tells a story of military might. Its back lining has a hand-painted depiction of Japanese biplanes soaring and diving over a fleet of warships: the bombs dropped by the planes are depicted as sprays of water in the picture’s immediate foreground.

The lining of the jacket’s left front bears a painted and embroidered depiction of Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, a Russo-Japanese War hero who died in 1934. Japan left the League of Nations in 1933; the following years saw the escalation of Japan’s military ambitions. Wearing the admiral’s image above the heart not only honored the hero’s contributions to his country, it also reminded the wearer of his own patriotic duty.

Such pictures and printed textiles would never, ever be worn on the visible part of a man’s garment, says Navaroli.

On another kimono lining, the repeating image of a man on a machine gun-mounted motorcycle seems the stuff of a preteen boy’s daydream, but it was intended to appeal to the imagination of an adult male. In the case of a little boy’s garments, war-themes proudly decorated the outside of the kimono.

The beginning of the 20th century was a time of momentous change in Japanese society. Military conquests, including the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1895, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931-32, fueled Japan’s economic development and imperialist drive. Its aim of leading Asia in world policy encouraged the Japanese public to bank on continuing military success and the captured territories that came with it.

Lest you think that the show is a paean to Japan’s history as a mighty conqueror with a quirky fashion sense, Navaroli is clear about the exhibition’s purpose.

“First and foremost, this is an exhibition about World War II,” she says.

It can be touchy to put this kind of material on display. Navaroli notes that in addition to the number of U.S. military veterans who make Melbourne their home, the FIT campus has a “diverse student body, with a lot of international students from Southeast Asia, Korea and China.”

Those countries have painful memories of Japanese imperialism.

For that reason, the gallery’s staff held a number of focus groups in 2018, with constituent members of the Funk Center’s audience. They included the center’s docent corps – some of whom were children during World War II – a veteran’s group from the Brevard Veteran’s Memorial Center and FIT student groups.

The goal of the groups was to inspire a meeting of the minds on the topic of Japanese war propaganda. Rather than dilute the content of the exhibition, the Funk Center staff wanted to expand on the subject to engage every visitor who views it.

One of the most valuable recommendations generated by the focus groups was for a display of comparable American material alongside the Japanese objects on display. The subject groups’ wish was the Funk Center’s command.

An adjunct to the show includes a display of 1940s-era textiles made in the U.S. The American equivalent of Japan’s populist wartime designs, these scarves, fabric fragments, a promotional fan, a button and even a pair of panties are variously emblazoned with the phrases “V for Victory” and “Remember Pearl Harbor,” as well as some unattractive caricatures of “bad eggs”: Hitler, Mussolini and a Japanese soldier.

The latter are offset by portraits of Allied heroes, including MacArthur, Churchill and Roosevelt. The American material came from the personal collection of one of the consulting curators for the exhibition, Jacqueline M. Atkins, who was formerly curator of textiles at Pennsylvania’s Allentown Art Museum.

According to Navaroli, Atkins is responsible for recommending the Ruth Funk Center to Erik Jacobsen – a California collector with whom she has long had a friendly rivalry at auctions of propaganda textiles – as a home for his collection. The other consultant for the exhibition was Rhiannon Paget, curator of Asian art at Florida State University’s John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

Navaroli stresses the importance, from gallery signage to docent training, of providing the visitor to “Designed to Mobilize” with perspective concerning these textiles’ creation.

The Funk’s L-shaped gallery is divided for this show into themed sections, titled according to the aims of the textile designs grouped within them, including: “A Modern Society,” “Military Might,” “Expanding an Empire” and “Raising the Future.” That last one features textile designs for boys’ garments that mix images of toy-colored military machines, puppies and boys holding miniature rifles.

Just inside the gallery and to your right, a timeline stretches across the wall. It begins not in the year 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy forcibly opened Japan to trade, but in 1868. That is when Japan transitioned from a collection of feudal shogunates to a centralized state under the rule of the Emperor, whose previous role in Japan was primarily a religious one. It ends with the surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945.

As usual, in-gallery educational experiences are offered to visitors. In the gallery’s final section, you can fold a paper crane – a symbol of peace – with provided origami paper, or you can write your thoughts about the exhibition in notebooks provided for the purpose.

“It’s good to be able to present ‘Designed to Mobilize’ with objects from our own collection, not only for the public’s sake, but also to show the donor that these objects are in good hands,” says Navaroli.

The Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts at FIT is located at 150 W. University Blvd., Melbourne. For more information, visit textiles.fit.edu.

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