The Modern Girls of Art Deco Japan

Songbook for “Song of the Milky Way” from the Shōchiku film Milky Way, 1931

Songbook for “Song of the Milky Way” from the Shōchiku film Milky Way, 1931. Courtesy of The Levenson Collection.

A new art deco exhibition that examines how the movement shaped Japan opens this month in Seattle. Featuring 200 or so objects taken from The Levenson Collection, the show illustrates how the international language of art deco united sophisticated Japanese traditional craftsmanship with modernist innovations.

Similar to elsewhere in the world, art deco’s influence was wide reaching in Japan. The exhibition, which covers a full spectrum of painting and sculpture to advertising, cinema and fashion, clearly demonstrates the rise of the Modern Girl, alongside sweeping changes within the country after the devastating Kanto Earthquake in 1923 that destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama.

The Modern Girl, with her, shorter skirt, make-up and general western appearance could be seen adorned on song sheets and matchboxes advertising cafes and dance halls, but it was her sleek bobbed hair that came to symbolise everything about the ‘moga’, as she was known.

But don’t go imagining Japanese girls running around looking like flappers. According to the history books only a tiny percentage of Japanese women had swapped their traditional dress for western style clothes by 1925. It was another five years or more before the impact could really be seen. However, it did represent a hope for change.

Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920 – 1945 is on view now at the Asian Art Museum and runs until mid October.

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