By Helen McCarthy.
The Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition is impressive – so impressive that since I left the Victoria and Albert Museum I’ve worn nothing but kimono. I’m writing about it, right now, dressed entirely in kimono. Of course that’s nothing new. My crew-neck knit kimono and my straight leg Levi’s stonewash kimono are my usual gear. “Kimono” is just a thing to wear – that’s what the word means.
But in academic or artistic terms, calling all clothes “kimono” is about as helpful as calling animation made in the USA with almost no Japanese input “anime.” Even the Japanese don’t call all clothes “kimono,” not any more. They call Levi’s Levi’s like everyone else – otherwise what’s the point of all that expensive brand identity-building?
The Victoria & Albert Museum is brilliant at analysing brand identities, uncovering the craftsmanship and skill behind them, and presenting them as something more interesting and significant than a logo on an expensive carrier bag. They’ve had a run of very successful blockbuster shows devoted to the houses of Balenciaga, Dior and Quant, each an object lesson in how to present art, craft and cultural anthropology. Now they show us the kimono as the house style of Brand Japan, and it’s much more than you expect. In this exhibition kimono, is revealed as classic yet edgy, elegant yet cool, historic and localised yet contemporary and diverse, a summary of the style, technique and aesthetic philosophy of a nation dancing on the edge of an identity crisis as it seeks to merge the best treasures of its past with the most marketable elements of its future.
In most industrialised countries, national dress has gone the way of the horse and carriage – a charming tradition for special occasions, or a tourist experience rented out to holidaymakers who want an Instagram moment.
Kimono is no exception. As an everyday mode of dress it’s all but dead. Japan wears the same brands every other rich nation wears, with similar local variations.
But to the western imagination, Japan’s national dress was trapped like a fly in amber at a particular point in history, in a bubble of social, political, technological and economic change. Kimono, for us, is forever frozen in a tableau of geisha in flowing sleeves and elaborate sashes, of stern swordsmen in elaborate winged surcoats and beautiful youths playing the flute in moonlit bamboo groves.
The V&A nods to that fixation with a brilliantly designed and researched opening segment devoted to the kimono as the Western imagination still sees it, in full flower in mid-seventeenth-century Kyoto. Demure maidens and flamboyant geisha are frozen in perfectly accessorised displays, with touches of sound adding an almost subliminal extra dimension. An excellent selection of art and artefacts supports the clothes on show. As I wandered along the timeline of the kimono’s development, I was dazzled by the brilliant presentation. Design, layout and labelling are all superbly handled. Even in the overcrowded environment of a preview packed with V&A members and journalists, I found the whole exhibition easy to follow and entirely absorbing.
But from the beginning it’s subverting perceptions and misconceptions. It talks about kimono as a marker of class, status and money, showing how kimono were exported and exploited. We see the process of cultural exchange, even in the very restricted circumstances of highly regulated trade with a closed nation, as it impacts design and manufacturing both inside and outside Japan. It shows us how a simple, basic garment can become a marker of infinite diversity, a political statement, a sexual transgression, a cheeky step on the social ladder. It’s subtly and brilliantly done, solid scholarship at its best.
To disseminate a fashion, two things are needed: exposure and accessibility. With Japan still closed off to the West, both were limited, yet as the exhibition shows, kimono made inroads into South Asian and Western consciousness and fashion. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, everything changed in and for Japan. Forced to open its doors and trade with the world, Japan became the new style sensation. Soon Japanese goods were being exhibited, coveted, and bootlegged all over Europe. Kimono became fashion gold.
Of course, the Western kimono craze involved extensive localisation. Kimono are very forgiving garments in terms of both width and length, and make fine dressing-gowns, but for daytime wear in a nineteenth-century context they had their limitations. Our ancestors were, for the most part, shorter, slighter and slimmer than we are today, yet to them the Japanese were tiny, doll-like creatures. So kimono were produced especially for export, sized to Western needs and with colours and patterns pleasing to Western tastes. Wider loom widths and new cutting layouts adapted kimono for our substantial figures – and pockets.
Japanese women minimise curves as much as possible to display both the elegance of the kimono and the dignity and grace of the wearer. Export kimono were cut, wrapped and styled to flatter the standard European physique, a small waist dividing ample bosom and hips. It’s a revelation to look at the silhouette of the Victorian kimono wearer after seeing the garment worn Japanese-style. The exhibition makes it easy to understand why Western designers from Poiret to Balenciaga to Galliano have continued to rework the kimono, to sell the dream of sensual Orientalist exoticism to their local markets.
The harsher realities of twentieth-century politics are not ignored. Several garments for men and boys are lined or decorated with militaristic motifs tracking Japan’s increasing belligerence and expansionist ambitions. The sight of a tiny kimono adorned with warships and fighter planes is even more chilling when its context is revealed; made for a month-old baby boy’s first ceremonial visit to a Shinto shrine, it embodies a triumphalist wish for both the child’s and the nation’s future.
The stereotypes of the graceful geisha and austere warrior created 150 years ago persist today and project into the future. When George Lucas wanted to dress his Jedi Masters for the Star Wars saga, he put Obi-Wan Kenobi into kimono. The original costume is in the exhibition, next to Toshiro Mifune’s costume from Akira Kurosawa’s movie Sanjuro. The Japanese costume, constructed fifteen years before Lucas’s movie was made, appears to have worn better than the Jedi robes. I wonder what Mifune would have made of them if, as Lucas originally wanted, he had played Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But the fashion show that started on the streets of Kyoto in the 1600s goes further into the future than the work of an American director in the mid-1970s, or indeed than the rock stars shown on film strutting their stuff in kimono. The V&A is interested in how clothes function on the body and in the imagination, and in their interaction with society, technology and culture. Kimono’s gradual adoption by the smart set of international fashionistas is shown alongside a revival among young Japanese that is spilling over to the rest of the world. The exhibition ends on a teasing note of hope as Japanese designers reclaim kimono as street attire, and artists around the world use it to dress their own dreams.
This is an exhibition with something for everyone: scholars, artists, fashion fanatics, historians will all find their imaginations fed and their preconceptions dismantled in the most impressive style. Buy your ticket now, and budget extra for the big and beautiful book of the show, which – at the moment at least – is more expensive in most online outlets than in the V&A shop.