While the V&A’s remarkable Kimono exhibition has been closed due to the pandemic, the museum has shared a virtual tour, complete with in-depth commentary by curator Anna Jackson, for art and fashion lovers to enjoy at home. Read about the inspiration for the landmark show below, then experience it virtually via the V&A’s YouTube channel. What better way to spend a weekend afternoon in lockdown?
Like an inordinate number of cultural debates today, it can be traced back, in some way, to the Kardashians. On 25 June last year, Kim Kardashian West tweeted out that she would be releasing a line of shapewear under the name Kimono, prompting immediate backlash from the Twittersphere. Then, news broke that the reality TV mogul was attempting to trademark the word kimono in the United States – and all hell broke loose. The mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa, wrote a letter asking Kardashian to reconsider. Within a few days, #KimOhNo had started trending. Even Japan’s trade minister weighed in: “Kimono is Japan’s cultural pride that we boast to the world,” he told a press conference. “Even in the United States, kimono is highly recognised as a Japanese thing.” The end result? Kardashian West apologised, changing the name of her hundred million dollar enterprise to Skims, and that, it seemed, was the end of another open-and-shut case of cultural appropriation.
Yet the debate about the traditional Japanese garment continued. Nobody felt that the word kimono should be trademarked and associated with an update on Spanx – but there was little else on which people seemed to agree. Instead, there were only endless questions up for discussion. What did the kimono truly represent? Who has the right to wear one, and under what circumstances? When is it acceptable to play with its established form? How should kimono be styled in the 21st century? Why did kimono get treated as a national costume, while Western designs were labelled as fashion, even within Japan? Many, it seemed, felt that the kimono should be treated with the same degree of reverence as a ceremonial object.
It’s that last notion that Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, opening at the V&A on 29 February, is hoping to dispel. “There’s a misconception in the West that the kimono has existed in the same form since its inception,” explained Anna Jackson, the exhibition’s curator, during a visit to Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple last autumn. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s first and foremost a fashion garment, and by relegating it to museums and making it impossible to wear, you’re denying both its past and its future.”
All around us, visitors to the sacred Buddhist site – originally founded in 778 – are wheeling around the temple buildings in rented kimono, selfie sticks aloft, capturing themselves against the backdrop of the fiery maple trees. Here, at least, fears about appropriation seem nonexistent, with tourists actively encouraged to wear the garments. Notably, in Daisaku’s letter to Kardashian West, he wrote proudly: “In recent years, we see not only Japanese but also many foreign tourists wearing kimono and trolling around in Kyoto and cities in Japan. It is proof that kimono, that we are proud of as our traditional culture, is loved by people from around the world.”
In general, however, the question of appropriation is of course at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and will no doubt inform much of the debate about Jackson’s brilliant exhibition, which traces the kimono’s influence on Western fashion – from John Galliano’s Dior haute couture collection for spring 2007 to Alexander McQueen’s kimono for Björk’s Homogenic album cover – as well as the kimono’s own dramatic evolution over its 400-year history. “The Eurocentric view of fashion charts the evolution of clothes in terms of cuts and silhouettes,” Jackson points out. “In Japan, the shape of the kimono has remained virtually the same for four centuries, but the surface details have changed dramatically. In large part, that’s what’s contributed to this idea of the kimono as an immutable national costume rather than a wearable garment influenced by trends.”
Of course, to fully understand the kimono’s role in Japan, it helps to start at the beginning. Literally meaning “thing to wear”, the kimono became standard dress in Japan during the prosperous (and deeply insular) Edo period (1603-1868) – with the ruling samurai class turning to increasingly ornate kimono to make an impression at the Emperor’s court. By the 1660s, a distinct fashion culture had evolved in Japan’s major cities, with Kyoto becoming the centre of kimono production.
Woven in delicate silk and the linen-like fabric ramie, the surviving Edo garments feature intricate and highly symbolic designs, which evolved as fashions changed through the years. Natural landscapes are rendered in minute detail, from peonies, roses, and chrysanthemums to whirling cranes – a symbol of everlasting love given that the birds mate for life. Meanwhile, carriages, fans, musical instruments and more served as references to classical works of Japanese literature, such as The Tale of Genji, and Noh plays.
From the beginning, however, kimono borrowed from different cultures – in spite of the severe restrictions on trade with the outside world in Japan throughout the 1600s. In the 17th century alone, the Dutch East India Company introduced the likes of Chinese silks, French brocades, and Indian calicos to Japan, all of which were translated into kimono.
Then, in 1853, a fleet of American warships forced Japan to open its ports to foreign trade, precipitating a revolution that did away with the feudal military government and began the Meiji, or “enlightened”, period. When the newly restored Emperor adopted a European military-style uniform as a symbol of his global outlook, his Tokyo courtiers followed suit – until Western dress had become so ubiquitous that even rural farmers wore suits, known as sebiro after Savile Row. Despite periods of revival (usually during moments of nationalistic fervour), the kimono never regained its dominance, and by the end of World War II, it had been almost entirely replaced by Western clothing.
Yet, in Kyoto, the legacy of the kimono-making tradition can still be strongly felt. Within the textile district of Nishijin – which used to quite literally hum with the clattering noise of 7,000 looms during the Edo period – antique kimono dealer Konjaku Nishimura makes a living sourcing garments dating back to the 17th century. His crowded shop, part of a third-generation business, houses no less than 10,000 kimono – some retailing for tens of thousands of pounds. Most of them will be purchased for display rather than to be worn. “To wear them,” he cautions, “would ruin them.”
Across the city, meanwhile, Moriguchi Kunihiko produces the haute couture equivalent of kimono for the contemporary market. Considered a national living treasure, the 80 year old runs his business out of his home, making just half a dozen kimono a year in his workshop on the top floor. Rather than naturalistic Edo motifs, Moriguchi is renowned for his abstract, geometric designs – frequently working on his patterns “until his hands go numb” and his ego has been “chipped away” by the process. He relies upon the resistance dyeing technique yūzen, first developed after 17th- and 18th-century sumptuary laws prohibited the merchant class from wearing certain fabrics. Yet his craft is under threat. This, after all, is a process that traditionally requires dyes made from spiderwort and camelia flowers, and a setting paste derived from funori seaweed – and the network of traditional craftspeople he relies upon is disappearing. “I’m constantly wondering what the future will hold for my art,” he says.
Fellow Kyoto-based designer Genbei Yamaguchi’s creative approach is just as meticulous – albeit more opulent. A tenth-generation obi maker, he recently hosted both Giorgio Armani and a wealth of Chanel employees at his home-cum-atelier – so many of them, in fact, that he says he felt worried. “I thought, ‘Who’s running Chanel?’” he explains with a laugh. On display in a dimly-lit room on the second floor are designs that stun with their lavishness: iridescent sashes woven from peacock feathers; designs shimmering with mother-of-pearl and gold leaf thread; and an obi featuring an exquisitely realistic lilypad, starred with a diamond waterdrop, are among the standouts. Like Moriguchi, however, he now struggles to find the handwoven cloth he depends on; when his suppliers disappear, he will cease making obi altogether.
While the old-school masters of kimono fear for their art, there is hope for a revival – and it lies with Gen Z, who have no memory of the kimono as streetwear. In Japan, as elsewhere, members of the younger generation are rejecting “fast” fashion, wearing vintage kimono in a nod to their national heritage and the importance of craftsmanship, Jackson explains. At the same time, a host of contemporary Japanese designers are trying to bring the kimono into the 21st century – rejecting the notion that it needs to be designed in the imagined “fixed” style of the Edo period and always worn with an obi and sandals. Many, too, are resisting the idea that kimono need to be handmade by expert artisans, as in the workshops of Moriguchi and Genbei – instead working to create a market for “ready-to-wear” kimono.
Designer Hiroko Takahashi believes cosplay and manga are part of the reason why Japanese youth see kimono as a garment to be played with and reinterpreted – a means of expressing personal style rather than a rigidly formal gown. “That idea that kimono can be ‘fashion’ again is coming up from the streets,” she tells me in her boutique just outside of Tokyo proper, where she makes kimono prints based entirely on interlocking lines and circles rather than imitating Edo designs.
Hiroko has her own reasons for taking issue with the world of rigidly traditional kimono making: as one of few female designers, she struggled to find craftspeople willing to work with her when she was just starting out – with certain dyers simply hanging up when she tried to contact them on the phone.
Y & Sons is another example of a brand that’s trying to make the kimono feel more wearable in everyday settings. Made with a mix of European and Japanese fabrics, its minimalist designs are meant to be worn with sneakers. “Our goal is to respect the history of the kimono but to adjust it for the modern lifestyle,” says founder Takayuki Yajima. He has previously collaborated with Scandi brand T-Michael in Bergen, Norway, on a men’s collection and Snow Peak on a range of waterproof kimono. “Wearing a kimono out to meet your friends today is still a bit like showing up with a radical haircut, but the mentality of it being something unusual is gradually starting to shift.”
In the capital’s upmarket Ginza district, on the other hand, Tokyo Fashion Week stalwart Jotaro Saito is taking his own approach to freeing the kimono in his lavish boutique – arguing to see his designs recognised as fashion in the same way as a Chanel dress or an Armani suit rather than a token garment of sorts. He made headlines a few years ago when he first sent denim iterations of kimono down the catwalk – a pointed statement about its versatility. Currently, he’s looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics this year, which he hopes will make a global audience aware of the many ways that kimono can be designed and worn. “The kimono,” he tells me, “cannot simply belong to Japan, or it will disappear. This is not a ceremonial garment. It’s fashion; it always has been. And fashion is for everybody.”
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