From Kimono to Catwalk

From breathtaking haute couture to film costumes, the kimono has long provided inspiration all over the world. As London’s V&A museum prepares to open a new show dedicated to this most Japanese of fashion pieces, Claire Brayford delves into the great history of the kimono

It was the increasing Americanisation of Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War and irrevocable changes to its cultural landscape that, ironically, meant the country looked to its past, particularly the kimono.

A treasured expression of the essence of Japan, in an increasingly globalised world, the kimono became as much a part of the national identity as the tea-making ceremonies and flower arranging it was worn for.

But as filmmakers, musicians and designers around the world adopted the kimono for its beauty and other-worldly mystery, they were criticised for a contemporary equivalent of 19th century imperialism.

Now a new exhibition, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at London’s Victoria & Albert museum is breaking down the stereotype of the garment as revered national dress, instead celebrating its dynamism, evolution – and relevancy.

Writing in a new book to accompany the exhibition, curator Anna Jackson says it is easy to fall into the trap of viewing the garment as an unchanging costume. ‘That denies the kimono both its own sartorial history and its part in an ongoing, complex and vibrant international fashion network,’ she says.

Featuring 315 works – including rare exhibits, painting and film – the exhibition shows how kimono fashion has been translated across social and geographic boundaries; how its simple structure and sumptuous surface has had a major impact on global dress styles in all its cross-cultural glory.

‘But we also simply want people to enjoy seeing these beautiful garments and perhaps to find some inspiration for their own sartorial expression,’ she adds.

The exhibition begins in the mid 17th century, when a fashion-conscious society was emerging in Japan, demanding the latest styles to express their affluence, confidence and taste. It charts the evolution of the kimomo ‘from stylish samurai to Jedi knights, from Kabuki actors to modern influencers’ says Tristram Hunt, the museum’s director.

Visitors can marvel at 17th and 18th century kimono that have never been seen before in the UK, alongside an Alexander McQueen dress worn by Björk on the 1997 cover of her album ‘Homogenic’.

Breathtaking haute couture brushes shoulders with kimono-inspired film costumes, such as the threadbare robeworn by Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

For Jackson, the standout piece is a man’s under-kimono preserved in the collection of Kyushu National Museum. ‘This was tailored from cotton cloth made on the Coromandel Coast of south-east India in the 17th or early 18th century and brought to Japan by the Dutch East India Company,’ she explains. ‘Uniting different aesthetic and cultural values, this wonderful garment exemplifies how fashion has the power to transcend geographic borders, blurring boundaries between the familiar and the foreign.’

With its ability to imbue the wearer with a film-star elegance, the kimono has had a huge impact on western fashion, especially in the early 20th century, when designers such as Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny and Madeleine Vionnet abandoned tightly-corseted styles in favour of loose layers which draped the body.

Visitors will find work from Thom Browne, Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo and Jean Paul Gaultier, while the La-La-San ensemble created by John Galliano for the 10th year of his own tenure at the house of Dior is arguably one of the most arresting.

In 2007, amid a blizzard of cherry blossom and confetti butterflies, the designer sent models lavishly dressed in long, slim-line shapes with embroidery that evocatively echoed the fashions of the Edo period to the astonishment of the fashion world.

‘The kimono is an historically important and evocative garment, which goes beyond trends or fashion,’ says Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu, who frequently references kimono in his collections and whose jacquard, belted coat features in the exhibition.

‘Relevant, desirable, and after many centuries still terribly chic – [the coat] is inspired by the 1920/30s paintings of artist Kees Van Dongen. Its louche-yet-sharp wrap silhouette is an ode to the kimono and the way it gives sensuality and shape to the human body.’

While the kimono was first worn as an undergarment by Japan’s aristocracy and is still cut from a single bolt of cloth, it is anything but simple. The sumptuous surface patterns hold complex and powerful significance, while every tuck, tie and fold of the layers of silk is loaded with meaning.

Embodying strength and fragility – allowing the wearer to feel both powerful and feminine – its T-shaped structure, without focus on form, means it can be worn by all.

The kimono’s gender fluidity is another aspect explored at the exhibition, with a feminine design worn by British musician Freddie Mercury shown to the public for the first time.

‘Most people tend to think of kimono as feminine, so we were keen to show historic menswear, even though this is not always treasured and preserved in the same way as that for women because it tends to be quite plain,’ says Jackson.

Today a new wave of designers – Jōtarō Saito and Hiroko Takahashi, as well as independent studios such as Rumi Rock and Modern Antenna –

have emerged exploring kimono design in fresh ways and creating more casual styles for time-poor customers.

‘The kimono renaissance started on the street, with the restyling of vintage garments by young Japanese tired of incessant changes in western fashion and bored of the uniformity of clothing available,’ says Jackson. ‘We are seeing new types of patterning, less expensive materials, and more casual styles. They have reclaimed the kimono as an item of fashionable dress, valued as a unique garment within an increasingly globalised world.’

Stasia Matsumoto, a Tokyo-based kimono stylist, says many contemporary kimono makers are creating new designs to appeal to young people, as well as items that make them easier to wear.

‘Last year, the new way to tie obi [the garment’s belt] was all the rage in the kimono world – it’s called ‘Musubanai obi Musubi’, which means “tying the obi without tying it’.

New York-based, Tokyo-born designer Hiromi Asai, who is showing her menswear collection at Paris Fashion Week for the first time, believes that while today’s rules for kimono-wearing are important, it should be donned without any inhibition.

‘It is my hope that people will learn to enjoy wearing the kimono in a more relaxed manner,’ she says. ‘It’s easy to show the kimono as culture but I want to show it as fashion. I believe there are no cultural, racial, and geographical boundaries for wearing kimonos because they are beautiful, and the textiles are unique.’

In all its permutations, there is no denying how the kimono makes the wearer feel. Matsumoto explains that customers are often surprised that the ‘dressing process’ is not as lengthy, or tight, as they might expect and can be styled according to their tastes.

‘Kimono often has an image of being difficult to wear, with very strict rules, I show them that it doesn’t have to be the case,’ she says, describing the joy customers feel before they even glimpse themselves in the mirror.

‘It changes the way they move, the way they walk, they often say it makes them feel beautiful.’

With all eyes turning to Tokyo later this year for the summer Olympics, there is even a project to see 196 countries represented in kimono, unifying cultures around the world. It is reassuring to know that in its rich 1,000-year history, the kimono’s modernity and relevance has never wavered.