Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk

It’s always exciting to welcome a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, particularly when it’s about such a wonderful garment! Somehow, it has managed to remain relevant throughout the centuries. Kimono simply means ‘the thing to wear’ but it’s actually so much more than that! Japanese people may consider it traditional, but to me personally, it evokes memories of my first Opera in London - Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini.

Christian Dior, Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2007, image courtesy of Getty Images

The magnificence and beauty of the kimono just exacerbated the poignancy of the story itself, love and betrayal, loyalty and tragedy… These are timeless like the kimono. Curated by Anna Jackson and Josephine Rout, this exhibition manages to capture this aspect in full glory. Nonetheless, it does follow a timeline but only to reveal how brilliantly the kimono has been able to adapt to different times and cultures. Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk begins in the mid-17th century, with rare kimonos on display for the first time in the UK.

Initially, everyone wore a kimono in Japan, regardless of their gender or social status but a distinctive fashion culture started to emerge in Kyoto, the centre of luxury textile production. The ruling military class (the samurai) were major consumers of luxury kimono. However, the main driving force behind the enormous increase in kimono production was the prosperous merchant class, who sought out the latest styles to express their affluence and taste. It’s interesting to note that actors and courtesans were the fashion leaders of the day.

The exhibition does feel a little bit like a journey, capturing the evolution of the kimono throughout time and the way it managed to go beyond borders and maintain its significance. From Bambu to Japanese screens and garden, every detail has been thoughtfully considered to create some sort of immersive experience. For fashion aficionados, there’s a fascinating video clearly showing how the kimono is constructed. The simplicity is quite astonishing! But the most impressive is undoubtedly the exquisite embroidery and intricate patterns that characterise this garment.

To this day, it continues to be a source of inspiration for creative minds, not only in fashion but also music and film. The exhibition features costumes from Star Wars and Memoirs of a Gueisha, as well as the fantastic kimono-style dress designed by Alexander McQueen for Björk’s Homogenic album cover, and a kimono ensemble designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna’s music video Nothing Really Matters. Spoiler alert: there’s even a poster of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust wearing a kimono inspired costume, designed in collaboration with Kansai Yamamoto.

I have to mention John Galliano's spring summer haute couture collection for Christian Dior in 2007. The kimono is not only a reference but it actually pervades the entire collection with sumptuous fabrics, bright colours and impeccable technical artistry. We live in a time when status is no longer clearly perceived, some people love to literally dress up while others prefer to dress down despite their incredible wealth.  Maybe the kimono will go back to its roots, when everyone wore it despite their gender or social status. But I would say the kimono goes beyond any barriers and it will continue to be open to interpretation.

John Galliano for Christian Dior, Spring Summer Haute Couture 2007.

V&A 29 February – 21 June 2020

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