A transporting exhibition at the V&A, partially available to view online, challenges the way we think about the traditional Japanese robe
Monday, 27th April 2020, 6:51 pm
made by Utagawa Kunisada, 1847-1852, Japan (Photo: V&A)
A great canard about kimono is that they have endured, untouched by changing fashion, for centuries. As recently as the 1980s, European histories of dress presented kimono as garments beyond fashion. Think of the attendant baggage that the notion of such inflexible tradition might bestow on our understanding of a culture.
One mission of the V&A’s ‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ show, now accessible in part through online features, as well as a luscious catalogue, is to reposition this garment within fashion history.
European fashion has been preoccupied overwhelmingly with form: the changing silhouette. The form of kimono has indeed remained relatively constant for centuries. Its simple construction cherishes the cloth it is stitched from, allowing it to remain as whole and uncut as possible: an instinct we might today recognise as the acme of sustainable design.
While there have been transformations in the way kimono are tied, draped and layered, it is their surface that has carried the weight of changing fashion: the textiles worn in defiance of sumptuary laws, the motifs and modes of decoration, and even the portions of the garment that were placed in focus.
I was lucky enough to see the exhibition before the V&A shut (will you forgive me?). Transportingly beautiful, and elegantly choreographed, it was almost overwhelming in scale. The catalogue is a handsome and leisurely alternative. The fine detailing on the painted, embroidered and delicate shibori-dyed silks is captured in up-close detail that is hard to emulate under the dim conservation lighting of a costume exhibition.
You can also take your time. And you’ll need it. This is a large production, and the scholarship behind it considerable, ergo fascinating text, and lots of it: the catalogue carries 24 essays. Often our attention is called to small details. In charting transformations in the way kimono were worn, the curators studied ukiyo-e woodblock prints showing fashionable men and women, courtesans and actors.
In the new capital Edo, centre of popular culture, and of developments in ukiyo-e, colour woodblock prints became available in the 1760s. They were affordable and produced in great number: in the mid 19th century a single print cost about the same as two bowls of noodles. As with contemporary fashion magazines, the distinction between art and advertising was often unclear: surviving prints include a number promoting the latest styles and the stores offering them.
Three Women Outside the Diamaruya Kimono Store (1840-5) shows a group of fashionable courtesans in elevated geta sandals arranged in front of a façade fluttering with branded drapery. Heavily stylised, each figure is posed to display the unfurling layers of at least three kimono, and obi belts fastened at the back in a variety of styles. Prints showing high-ranking prostitutes served a double purpose, fuelling both sexual and fashion fantasy. Plus ça change.
A courtesan is thought to have owned one of the most splendidly decorated kimono in the show, which can now be explored in detail on the V&A’s website. Created in the mid 19th century, it is an outer kimono, designed to be worn open allowing the full design to be admired.
Across the back are embroidered scenes from a kabuki play based on the Chinese legend of Shakky. An actor performing a dance embodying the lion dog is coiffed with real hair and tiny metal buttons have been sewn down the front of his costume. The stone bridge he stands on is embroidered in silk threads wrapped in fine paper and gold leaf, as is the lion dog itself. Its bristling eyebrows are rendered in clusters of knotted green thread. Figures within the scene are padded to stand proud of the peony-covered ground: it is magnificent, heavy as sculpture, and no doubt allowed the wearer to attract a lingering gaze as her admirers took in its many delights.
The world of the courtesans and kabuki theatre were intertwined. The pleasure districts of theatres and brothels were at the heart of the ukiyo – the “floating” or transient, sensory world – of Edo Japan. Actors were great trendsetters, though patrons of the kabuki theatre would also change outfits a number of times during the day-long performances, anticipating as much attention being paid to those off the stage as those on it.
A satin cotton kimono, painted with resistant paste before the application of black dye, dances with bleached bones and grinning human skulls. It is probably a fan’s tribute to a thief character pictured dressed in a skeleton kimono, in a performance by the actor Bando Shuka.
Even before Japan opened its ports to foreign trade in the 1850s, influence and goods flowed between Japan and Europe, India and China. The Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish all had trading relationships with Japan dating back to the mid 16th century, and cloth was a commodity of great interest for all parties. There are Japanese kimono in French brocade silk, and cotton printed both in India and the UK. Thickly padded kimono – known as “Japonse rock” – were produced for trade with the Dutch.
Through Dutch traders, modified kimono robes entered the wardrobes of the British elite as dressing gowns during the 17th century – a portrait of Samuel Pepys shows him wearing one of tobacco coloured silk in 1666.
The mania for all things Japanese fully hit Europe in the 19th century. The exhibition includes some quite ridiculous mid-Victorian Japanese-influenced bustle skirt suits. The great gift kimono brought European women was unstructured elegance: a vision of beauty that did not rely on uncomfortable constricting underwear. Around the turn of the 20th century kimono in Europe became synonymous with bohemia: Matisse painted his wife Amélie in a kimono for La Japonaise au bord de l’eau in 1905. Gustav Klimt painted his close friend Emilie Flöge in a Japanese inspired robe in 1902.
In the 1920s Flöge herself designed a dramatic black and white striped kimono-style coat for her fashion house. Japanese style was a key influence on the modern, unstructured fashions that emerged in Europe and the USA during the 1920s.
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European fashion was first adopted by Japanese men in the late 19th century, but successive waves of nationalism fuelled periodic readoptions of kimono. A few examples of men’s under kimono from the 1930s and 40s, the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War, celebrate military might with printed motifs of tanks, battleships and aircraft.
While kimono continue to influence European fashion, and Hollywood movie costumes, the exhibition also charts a resurgence of interest among younger Japanese designers and stylists. On the one hand, through the continuation of traditional craft skills, but on the other a punkier urge to bring the kimono up to date. Self-taught stylist Akira Times is an inspired obsessive who dresses and shoots models wearing kimono in unconventional and distinctly contemporary ways. Introducing us to his work in a short film, Akira dons kimono, bow tie, red nail varnish and a panda hat.
The ground covered in the book and accompanying exhibition is vast: rich food for thought and glorious artistry to admire. Yet it also opens up new avenues of exploration: there is much that is not covered, and the influence of kimono on fashion, costume and street style continues. That it should feel so open ended is appropriate – “kimono” simply means “the thing to wear”.