The kimono, the ultimate symbol of traditional Japanese culture, has a history stretching back to the eighth century. Over time, the tubular sleeves of the Heian era (794-1185) may have been replaced by longer styles while the obi belt for women had widened significantly by the 18th century (the men’s version remained narrow), but the kimono has kept its basic shape as a straight-seamed garment cut across the grain from a single bolt of cloth. Its appeal and relevance, however, endure to this day, with the garment now enjoying newfound popularity as a fashion must-have rather than being a purely formal attire for special occasions.
“The future for the kimono was looking bleak until quite recently. Now, Japan is witnessing a kimono renaissance. This started on the street, with the restyling of vintage garments by young Japanese tired of incessant changes in Western fashion and bored by the uniformity of clothing available,” says Anna Jackson, senior curator at Victoria & Albert Museum’s Asian department.
Jackson is the lead curator of Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the London museum, which runs until 21 June. The exhibition highlights the sartorial and social significance of the kimono, a costume that has inspired great designers including Paul Poiret, Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Rei Kawakubo.
“Kimonos exerted an enormous influence on European fashion in the early 20th century and indeed still do. It is not a case of ‘taking liberties’ or ‘adapting’ an original. Fashion is not about copying. Designers draw inspiration from various elements such as shape, construction, style of wearing and patterning, and reconfigure them,” she says, before pointing out that the potential of the kimono “to be deconstructed and re-formed, translated and transformed, makes it a uniquely versatile foil for fashion.”
Long before Poiret liberated women from the restrictive Belle Epoque corsets (thereby ushering in a new era of loose silhouettes in fashion) and before Gabrielle Chanel rebelliously embraced menswear-inspired clothing as everyday wear for women, it was the kimono that embraced all body shapes. By setting free instead of constraining bodies, it helped claim equality among both men and women.
“Kimonos were historically worn by all classes and both sexes. In the West, clothing has tended to emphasise the wearer’s shape, be it the waist, bust, hips or buttocks, but in Japanese dress, the shape of the body is irrelevant,” remarks Jackson.
“The way the kimono is constructed creates a continuous flat plane that provides a platform for decorative design; it is through choice of fabric, colour, pattern and technique that wearers express their gender, wealth and taste.”
Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk traces the history of the kimono from the mid-17th century, when a vibrant fashion culture was emerging in Japan thanks to the presence of its increasingly wealthy merchant class and the export of the quintessential Japanese garment to Europe. Although the country ran a closed-door policy that severely restricted foreign relations, it was still part of a dynamic global network of cultural exchange.
“The Dutch East India Company (VOC) representatives, who were permitted to trade in Japan, were given kimonos by the shogun (ruler) and senior daimyo (lords) which they sent back to the Netherlands. There was already a tradition in Europe of wearing loose gowns, which were usually plain in colour and made of wool. These brightly decorated silk kimono caused an immediate stir and, realising their popularity, VOC commissioned versions from Japanese artisans with slightly adapted sleeves and thick wadding,” Jackson explains.
As the Japanese weren’t able to supply enough to meet the increasing demand, the Dutch started ordering cotton (typically chintz) versions from South-east India. These were also worn by some Japanese, Jackson adds, with the brightly-patterned cottons from South Asia and South-east Asia being especially desirable.
In Europe, kimonos were also being made from imported or locally produced silk, like French brocade.
“These garments were called Japonse rok (Japanese robes) in Dutch, regardless of their origins, and nightgowns in Britain. They were worn informally around the home but not in bed, and it was perfectly acceptable to receive guests while wearing one. It was not deemed socially acceptable to wear them outside the house, although people did,” Jackson says.
While the garment was usually associated with men, women also wore them — as can be seen in the 1678 portrait of Anna Elizabeth van Reede by Gerard Hoet at the exhibition.
“Their appearance in portraiture reveals the enormous popularity of such garments. They symbolised status and style, as well as a sense of engagement with the wider clothing world. People would have known the difference between kimonos made in Japan and those made locally from other fabrics,” Jackson says.
While only a few kimonos reached Europe during the Edo period (which began in 1603), the situation changed in the mid-19th century, when Japan was forced to open its ports to foreign trade. This triggered enormous interest from Europe and America; the subsequent flood of goods that reached their shores led to a craze for all things Japanese, especially textiles that would be draped on furniture or used as curtains and on screens.
Jackson notes that women also wore kimonos in the home, and that the garments evoked “the novelty and exoticism of Japan. They suggested luxury, non-conformity, and being associated with aestheticism and a bohemian lifestyle. They could also hint at the supposed eroticism of the East. Kimonos were central to the alluring vision of Japanese women and the fantasy of the geisha. For those advocating dress reform, however, the kimono offered a style of clothing free of restrictive corsets.”
Meanwhile, a new wave of designers in Japan are approaching the creation of kimonos with imaginative patterning and more casual styles. Kimono designs have also moved away from the use of heavy silk to jersey, wool and denim.
Among these contemporary designers, Kyoto-born Jotaro Saito leads the charge with fashionable kimonos for everyday wear. While Saito’s pieces uphold many Japanese traditions — they are made by hand, from dyeing to stitching, printing and embroidery — they also incorporate modern touches such as fur-lined hoods and polka-dot obis.
There is also Hiroko Takahashi, who bridges the divide between art and fashion with modern graphic-print kimonos that feature a mixture of circles and straight lines. Reflecting on the exhibition, Jackson says: “I hope that visitors will come to realise that fashion is not a European invention — it flourished in Japan as it did in other parts of the world — and that they will realise the enormous impact of kimonos on global dress styles, and how fashion can transcend geographic borders, blurring boundaries between the familiar and foreign. Perhaps they will become tempted to add some Japanese elements to their own wardrobes.”
This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of A Magazine.