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Kyoto to Catwalk: Kimono from the V&A to Your Closet?

Before lockdown, ShopCurious was able to visit the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at London’s V&A Museum – showcasing both the history of the traditional Japanese garment, and its influence on international clothing styles. 

The embodiment of Japanese culture, the kimono acquired its name – meaning ‘thing to wear’ in around the 13th century, having originally been known as kosode or ‘small sleeves’, a reference to the size of openings through which the arms and hands had to pass when putting on the robe. Not until the Meiji period did the word kimono become commonly used for the straight seamed garment, constructed with minimal cutting and made from a single bolt of cloth.  

Kimono are worn wrapped left side over right, something I discovered when a Japanese friend kindly informed me the (opposite) way mine was worn was only appropriate when dressing the dead for burial.  In our previous post you can learn more about obi belts, the sashes used to secure kimono at the waist, and adjust the length of the garment by folding the fabric underneath. Obi became wider and more significant over the years until, by the mid 19th century, the patterns on kimono were mainly confined to the lower part of the garment and its sleeves. Although, as with most things these days, almost anything goes. 

Most kimono surviving today are luxury items, often associated with special occasions such as weddings and festivals. In fact, kimono are still worn for weddings and important events such as coming of age and graduation ceremonies, and have added significance as the national dress of Japan, reflecting the nation’s values and tastes. The print and embroidery motifs on kimono are imbued with symbolic meaning. The motifs on bridal kimono, for instance, are recognizable symbols of good fortune; popular designs include cranes signifying longevity and the grouping of pine, bamboo and plum - known as the ‘three friends of winter’. Japanese trees, flowers and other popular emblems are depicted for a significant reason, making each kimono full of hidden meaning. In centuries past, Sumptuary Laws affected all classes, and periods of control are also reflected in the colours and types of fabrics used. Though these were often subverted by using banned colours, such as beni red, for undergarments or linings - so it may be possible to get a glimpse from within a sleeve, which was seen as very alluring. 

During the Edo period from 1602-1868, members of the ruling military class (samurai) were enormous consumers of kimono, ordering around thirty of the highest quality craftsmanship every season (twice a year). Each of these would have been worn around ten times - and never after the end of the year, as this was considered bad luck. They were usually passed on to servants, who kept them as treasures, which is why so many are still in existence to this day. However, despite the balance of power, kimono styles tended to be dictated by the merchant class, whose wealth increased dramatically during this extended time of economic stability. The most flamboyantly decorative kimono were traditionally worn by courtesans and kabuki actors, who were the celebrities and fashion icons of their day, and whose kimono trends were disseminated to the higher classes via woodblock prints, pattern books, novels and clothing guides. 

Extravagant kimono looks are perpetuated today through the contemporary geisha costume, the Japanese tea ceremony – a magnet for tourists, and the recent renewed interest in vintage kimono by fans of cosplay and Lolita clothing, as well as the global fashion cognoscenti. Not forgetting the Japanese inspired outfits of screen and stage, as featured in the V&A exhibition, worn by the likes of David Bowie, Björk and Boy George. 

Yet today’s international demand to buy, rent, or simply be photographed wearing a kimono, pales into insignificance beside the European fascination with Japanese fabrics and styles starting from the late 17th century. Whilst Japan remained largely closed for trading, the Dutch were still allowed to export Japanese goods and also to import their own. As it was difficult to locate Japanese artisans, the Dutch imported Indian chintz fabrics from the Coromandel Coast and had them made into kimono for the European market. These Indian gowns or banyans proved to be so popular they became a regular part of Western dress, in the form of the traditional English nightgown, in those days more of a dressing gown. The V&A exhibition also showcases a wide range of accessories and artefacts relating to Japanese dress and culture, which started to become highly collectable during this era. 

By the 1870s, dress reformers had adopted the loose fitting kimono style as an antidote to restrictive corsets. Tea gowns, like those designed by Lucile, and worn by the actress Ellen Terry, became sought after. Orientalist themes, as in the Mikado, were popular on stage, and newly emerging department stores such as Liberty offered a range of Japanese inspired fabrics and dresses. By the turn of the century, following several international exhibitions, Japonisme was thoroughly in vogue, with designers such as Poiret, Fortuny, Caillot Soeurs and Jeanne Paquin, and later Vionnet and Chanel, being inspired by looser fitting, less structured forms. 

For a period after the Second World War, traditional Japanese dress fell out of favour, requiring the state to set up the Japan Crafts Association in 1955, conferring the title of ‘Living National Treasure’ to those practicing certain textile weaving and dyeing techniques. More recently, designers have been creatively inspired by Japanese fashion to produce garments ranging from Rudi Gernreich’s 1960s Kabuki dresses to John Galliano’s 2007 ‘La-La-San’ ensemble for Dior. And innovative Japanese designers, such as Jotaro Saito and Ishikawa Narutoshi, have helped bring new meaning to the traditional kimono, through the inventive storytelling of their textile art. 

You can see more from the V&A’s exhibition in a series of five YouTube videos, covering the story of the kimono from its origins to the present day.

And there’s also an accompanying book, which is full of fabulous photographs. 

Meantime, we invite you to view our latest collection of vintage kimonos and learn more about the stories and provenance behind each of these well-preserved vintage pieces of Japanese history and culture. Will you? 

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, sponsored by MUFG, is currently postponed. Please check the V&A website for ticket details.


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