Kimono(きもの/着物)is a traditional Japanese garment, and the national dress of Japan. It is a T-shaped, wrapped-front garment and is worn left over right (unless the wearer is deceased). It is usually worn with an obi belt, alongside a number of other accessories, such as zōri shoes and tabi socks.
The kimono is constructed of mostly rectangular pieces of fabric, cut from a specific bolt of fabric known as a tanmono, which is 38–42 cm (15–17 in) in width and 12.5 m (41 ft) in length. Various types of kimono indicate the wearer's age, gender, the formality of the occasion, and less commonly, marital status, when worn; decoration, style of wear, and accessories also denote these. Types of kimono can range in formality from the extremely informal to the most formal of occasions.
The first prototypes of what would become the kimono were introduced to Japan via Chinese envoys during the Kofun period. The Imperial Japanese court quickly adopted Chinese styles of dress and clothing.
As a clothing, it was first called Kosode (meaning 'small sleeves'), and later evolved into Kimono (meaning 'the thing to wear') during the Meiji period(1868-1912).
By the mid-seventeenth century it became the principal item worn by everybody in Japan, rich or poor, man or woman, thanks to the emergence of 'pattern books' which show the outline of the kimono with indications of the pattern, colour and style allowing people from all over Japan to choose the kimono design they wanted.
As the people influencing fashion and taste during that time were the Kabuki actors and the courtesans like Geishas who all wore Kimonos, Kimono is connected to the 'floating world' – a world of pleasure, entertainment, and drama that existed in Japan from the seventeenth century through to the late nineteenth century.
In order to cater to the discerning tastes of the Kabuki actors and Geishas who like to wear kimon with particular shade and design, the Japanese craftsmen had elevated Kimono making into an art form, using hand painted silk fabric. Some of the Kimonos are so precious they became family heirlooms, passing down from generation to generation.
The exhibition of Victoria & Albert Museum: Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk presents the kimono as a dynamic and constantly evolving icon of fashion, revealing the sartorial, aesthetic and social significance of the garment from the 1660s to the present day, both in Japan and the rest of the world.
In the mid-seventeenth century Japan guarded its door to western world meticulously and its only trading partner is the Dutch East India Company whose employees had taken the kimono back to the west, which became so popular they asked the Japanese to make more kimonos in particular styles that satisfied the tastes and demands of Europeans, and called them 'Japanese robes'.
But it was in the nineteenth century, when Japan opened its ports to international trade, that the kimono really took off in European fashion.
According to the exhibition curator Anna Jackson:
"Kimonos were brought over en masse to Europe, America, New Zealand – often stylish women were depicted in such garments."
The kimono also appeased the intellectual and aesthetic movements of Orientalism and Japonisme that emerged in the nineteenth century, when Japan and its culture problematically represented an 'exotic other' to Europeans. For the painters specifically, the intricate detail and embroidery of the kimono 'allowed artists to show off their skill.
After the Second World War, Kimono became outdated as it was reputed to be uncomfortable and difficult to wear, and the modern Japanese has adapted the western clothing instead.
But it has experienced a number of revivals in popularity over the decades and is still worn as fashionable clothing within Japan, most often older men and women (who may have grown up wearing it), geisha, maiko, and sumo wrestlers, who are required to wear traditional dress whenever appearing in public.
And Kimono as a culture influence to the west has never stopped, both in fashion and in art and has been object of private collection as well as that of the museums around the world.
The V&A exhibition is unique in the sense that it intents to change museum traditions, which have often divided fashion and fine art into separate categories.
According to Anna Jackson, the museum is displaying the kimonos on mannequins and models rather than simply using traditional display cases.
'If you look historically at how kimonos are exhibited in museums, including in the V&A, they are always displayed on a T-bar structure, as this allowed viewers to see the detail on the kimono's surface – the patterning, the colour, the design. But the danger of displaying the kimono in this way means you only see it as a work of art rather than as a piece of clothing.'
'Unlike what we have in the west, there isn't a divide in Japan between fine art and decorative art. They painted on a kimono and designed on a kimono – it was like a canvas that one could wear.'
'Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk' is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 29th February to 21st June 2020.