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Kyoto to catwalk: celebrating the kimono at the V&A

An ode to the kimono in light of the Victoria and Albert’s recent exhibition

The kimono became popular in Japan during the Edo period (1615-1868), an era marked by political stability, economic growth, and urban expansion. In particular, the city of Kyoto, located in the Kansai region of the island, was the center of luxury kimono manufacture. Its creative mindset intertwined with the commercial character of the nearby city of Osaka, ultimately made the whole region of Kansai the birthplace of a distinctive fashion culture infused with style and sophistication. This phenomenon later shifted to the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), from which the period takes its name, before spreading on a global scale.

Given that street photography did not exist back in the day, numerous artefacts of that time, such as printed pattern books known as hinagata-bon and woodblock prints, were relied upon and document the fashion of this era. These were showcased throughout the V&A’s exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk. Although the exhibition is currently closed due to the outbreak of Coronavirus, you can still explore some of their amazing collection online.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What is a kimono exactly?

In simple terms, the word kimono simply means ‘the thing to wear’. It is an iconic Japanese garment and a staple fashion piece, similar to the ‘little black dress’, the crisp white shirt, or the blue denim jeans. In the eyes of the Western world, the kimono is often seen as a costume synonymous with exoticism. But for the Japanese, it embodies both the country’s national culture and sensibility.

As a matter of fact, its symbolic status and its shape, which has remained consistent over many centuries, often result in the kimono being perceived as traditional, timeless, and unchanging. The curators at the V&A effectively reverse this misconstrued conception in the last room of the exhibition, where an array of kimono-inspired ensembles that once graced the runway are on display.

“In simple terms, the word kimono simply means ‘the thing to wear’.“

How is a kimono constructed?

By design, the kimono is constructed with minimal cutting from a single sheet of cloth. The full length of the chosen fabric drapes over the shoulders and hangs down to the hem at the front and the back. The fabric then forms both sleeves at the sides, while left-over fabric is used for the collar, over-collar, and overlaps at the front opening. These sections are sewn together temporarily, the design is hand-drawn onto the surface, and the pieces are separated again before being decorated. A video of the dyeing technique known as kyo-yuzen can be watched here.

The history of the kimono

From 1615, kimono were sold through a growing number of specialist shops. Japanese people would buy fabric to sew into garments at home and the kimono was created for the wealthy elite as special commissions. However, it was the merchant class at the bottom of Japan’s strict social hierarchy that stimulated the increase in kimono production. As the kimono gained popularity during the Edo period, the lower class also sought out the latest styles to express their affluence and taste. Renowned actors and respected courtesans, known as geishas, took part in what could be deemed as a kimono-craze, becoming the fashion trend-setters of the day.

Living in a world of fast fashion, this makes me long for a more bespoke and personalised service that unfortunately seems to have been left behind in the Edo period.

This growing market for fashionable dress was also accelerated by printed pattern books that contained illustrations of kimono with notes on colour and different styles in technique. Some of these books also featured images of the latest styles. Notably, these books were widely used by makers and retailers, but also by consumers who read them as we do modern fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. Pattern books were both important and relevant as they provided a means of communication between a demanding clientele and suppliers. Living in a world of fast fashion, this makes me long for a more bespoke and personalised service that unfortunately seems to have been left behind in the Edo period.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The legacy of the kimono

It was only by the middle of the 17th century that the kimono was first exported to Europe where it had an immediate impact on the dress styles of the day. This was mainly apparent in French paintings such as Girl in a White Kimono by George Hendrik Breitner and notably La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) by Claude Monet.

Today, the global influence of the kimono continues to be present on fashion catwalks around the globe. Numerous ensembles by contemporary fashion designers who have long cultivated a fascination for East Asian dresses exemplify this, such as John Galliano’s ‘La-La-San’ ensemble, which was introduced at the beginning of the V&A exhibition in contrast to an exquisite kimono ensemble by Jotaro Saito.

It was towards the end of the exhibition that I was really able to grasp the major influence of the kimono. From Ewan McGregor’s costume for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope to Madonna’s scarlet kimono ensemble by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gautier for her music video Nothing Really Matters, numerous celebrities both in the film and music industries covet the kimono-inspired look today without culturally appropriating the traditional dress. As the kimono is re-purposed and transformed throughout time, there is no doubt that it has managed to stand the test of time and ponders the question: what is the future of the kimono?

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