I was lucky to attend the preview of a major new exhibition celebrating the elegant history of the kimono which opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this week.
The exhibition called Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, features more than 350 creations, including works by modern designers, such Alexander McQueen, John Gallianio and Rei Kawakubo.
“We want our visitors to gain an appreciation of the significance and the sheer beauty of the kimono and we want to show that fashion is able to transcend geographic borders,” says Anna Jackson, the exhibition’s curator and the keeper of the V&A’s Asia Department.
The exhibition includes many treasures, such as an 18th century summer kimono, which is yuzen-dyed and embroidered with golden-hued cherry blossoms. It is valued at around two million yen (about £14,000 or $18,000 USD) and it is too delicate to wear.
Despite being seen as uniquely Japanese, the kimono has had an influence on international clothing styles for nearly 400 years.
The Director of the V&A, Dr Tristram Hunt, believes its allure stems from a simple structure and the invitation to create intricate designs on its surface.
“When we talk about kimonos, we often think of a beautiful and remote garment, a long way from ordinary people. This exhibition challenges that perception and it reveals that the kimono is highly dynamic. It’s been the focus of a vibrant fashion culture which has existed in Japan since the 1660s,” says Dr Hunt.
The first part of the exhibition examines the history of the kimono, with many precious examples from Kyoto and Edo, the city which later became known as Tokyo. Some of the clothes come from the museum’s own archive – the V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in the early 1850s. There are also pieces which have been borrowed from all over the world, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Kyoto Costume Institute.
People have been wearing kimonos in Japan for more than a thousand years. However, it was not until the 17th century that nearly everybody, regardless of their social status, wealth or gender, began to use them on an everyday basis.
By that stage, there were a huge range of styles, patterns and materials. Each type carried much significance, according to curator Anna Jackson. “The surface was really important and of course the choice of pattern and the colour. That’s how you showed other people how wealthy you were, what your social status was and, most importantly of all, how fashionable and tasteful you were.”
Some of the most fascinating exhibits date from the period between 1639 and 1853, when Japan’s borders were largely closed to the rest of the world and it was known as sakoku 鎖国 “the closed country.” Despite this isolation, some entriped Dutch traders purchased kimonos in Japan and shipped them back to Europe, where they tried to sell them on at a vast profit. Anna Jackson says: “At that time, Japanese manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand, so kimonos were made in India to supply the European market.”
When Japan reopened its borders, western dress quickly became popular. Yet even during the early 20th century, the majority of Japanese women continued to wear kimonos. The cut of the garment remained unchanged, but the designs were often modernised. One charming painting in the V&A shows a kimono-clad woman as the epitome of modern sophistication, with a clutch bag under her arm and a fox fur draped over her shoulders. Although painted in 1935, she looks strikingly contemporary. One can easily imagine her sharing a selfie on social media.
Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 29th February – 21st June 2020. It is sponsored by MUFG
with additional support from Japan Centre, Japan Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and Toshiba International Foundation.