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Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-1945

Start Date 18 November 2005
End Date 12 February 2006
Venue Bard Graduate Center Gallery
Location New York, USA
Curator Jacqueline M. Atkins

Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931–1945 was the first major exhibition of propaganda fashion designed and produced in Japan, Britain, and the United States during the years of conflict in the Asia-Pacific War and World War II. Scheduled to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the exhibition provided a unique opportunity to consider this underrecognized but visually exciting genre of wearable propaganda, worthy of note today not only for its design value but also as a reflection of the popular culture of the time.

Approximately 130 works of art illustrated how civilian textile design helped to promote wartime agendas in the three countries. The material on view included clothing and accessories, textile samples, cartoons for textile designs, posters, and photographs. The objects were drawn from public and private collections throughout the United States and Britain and from numerous private collections in Japan. Many of the objects, especially the Japanese, were unknown and had never before been documented, exhibited, or photographed.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, there are distinct cultural differences between Japan and the West in the use of propaganda textiles. The American and British examples were produced almost exclusively for women and were worn prominently in public, as headscarves, blouses, and dresses. In Japan, most of the clothing incorporating textiles with propaganda images was worn by men and young boys. The propaganda textiles used for men’s garments appeared predominantly in traditional clothing such as nagajuban (long underkimono) or the linings of haori (jackets worn with kimono), and thus were, for the most part, designs that would be hidden from public view and thus seen only by people close to the wearer. Also striking is Japan’s use of propaganda textiles in children’s clothing. Many of the pieces in the exhibition are kimono for young boys and omiyamairi (shrine-visiting kimonos, comparable to christening gowns) that included potent military imagery.

The textiles in the exhibition included clothing (kimono, nagajubanhaoriobi, blouses, dresses, scarves, and so forth); yardage or sample pieces; miscellaneous textiles such as handkerchiefs, tablecloths, and furoshiki (wrapping cloths); and, for context, examples of other items of the popular visual and material culture of the time, including posters, toys, magazines, and fans.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue examined 20th-century printed textile designs as both a celebration and a reflection of everyday life and culture, a discussion that then segued into a review of the production of textiles with wartime propaganda designs. Wearing Propaganda also provided an in-depth examination of the most prevalent themes and motifs to be found in the propaganda textiles: modernity, empire, militarism, patriotism, sacrifice, heroes and leaders, text (slogans, words, and songs), alliances (Allies and Axis), and victory.

Wearing Propaganda was curated by Jacqueline M. Atkins, a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center. A noted scholar of American textiles, she has published extensively on the history of American and Japanese domestic textiles and quilts. She is the Kate Fowler Merle-Smith Curator of Textiles at the Allentown, Pennsylvania Art Museum, an institution known for its extensive textile collection, which contains a significant group of propaganda textiles.