The Art of the Kimono, from Kyoto to Catwalk


Asian Art newspaper takes a look at the influence of the kimono and the  art of the kimono in fashion through Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Perhaps one of the most recognisable symbols of Japan, the kimono has fascinated and influenced Western dressing and design for centuries. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) exhibition, exploring the art of the kimono, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk was sadly cut short when the museum had to temporarily close earlier this year. The museum – and this exhibition – are now open again, waiting for visitors to enjoy and explore.

The exhibition looks at the social significance of the kimono from the 1660s to the present day – both in Japan and the rest of the world. There are rare 17th- and 18th-century kimono on display in the UK for the first time alongside pieces from contemporary fashion designers, such as Japan’s Living National Treasure Kunihiko Moriguchi.

At the Beginning: Kimono as Art and Fashion

The mid-17th century is the starting point for the show, a time when a vibrant fashion culture was beginning to emerge in Japan. The increasingly wealthy merchant classes demanded the latest styles to express their affluence, confidence and taste, while leading actors and famous courtesans were the trend-setters of the day. The simple structure of the kimono focussed attention on the surface, allowing for the creation of sumptuous patterns using sophisticated techniques. The first section of the exhibition will explore these designs and shine a light on a fashion-conscious society not dissimilar to today’s, in which desire for the latest look was fed by a cult of celebrity and encouraged by makers, sellers and publishers.

Kimono for Export

Kimonos were first exported to Europe in the mid-17th century, where they had an immediate impact on clothing styles. Foreign fabrics were also brought to Japan and incorporated into kimono. From early times, carpets and textiles woven in Turkey, Egypt, Iran and India were brought to Europe not just as trade goods, but also as diplomatic gifts, and their technical and aesthetic excellence was widely acknowledged by the West. However, these textiles were not just admired in the West, the art of the kimono was admired, too. In the East, Japan was another destination for these exotic goods. From the early 17th century, many Europeans and Japanese were fascinated by Indian textiles. While imitations of Indian printed and painted textiles were popular in Europe, in Japan people still preferred to obtain original Indian textiles which surpassed their imitations in both colour and design.

Imported Textiles Used in Kimono

Yumiko Kamada, in her paper for the Textile Society of America, The Use of Imported Persian and Indian Textiles in Early Modern Japan, states that ‘it is known that as early as in the late 16th century, a handful of people, such as war lords and high priests valued imported Persian textiles and carpets. In spite of Japan’s seclusion policy in the Edo period, people admired imported Indian textiles to enjoy and to use. The Kodaiji-temple in Kyoto owns a coat made from a 16th-century Persian silk tapestry. This famous coat is said to have been used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a powerful general of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) in Japan. The Japanese also valued imported Indian cotton and other textiles, similar to Europeans who were fascinated by them. Yamaga Soko (1622-1685), a famous Confucian scholar of the Edo period, was said to have worn a coat made of 17th-century Indian painted cotton textile. This type of Indian textile with zigzag design, which was a typical example made for the Southeast-Asian market, was popular in the early 17th century and occasionally depicted in Japanese screen paintings as a fabric used for kimono’. This coat is still preserved in the Matsura Historical Museum at Hirado in Nagasaki prefecture.

Indian Textiles in Kimono and Other Personal Belongings

Gradually, Indian textiles became accessible to the wider population. From the late Edo period, the wealthy classes used Indian painted and printed textiles to decorate many of their personal belongings and enhance the art of the kimono. Two tobacco pouches and pipe case can been seen in the exhibition, with the earliest covered in Indian cotton from the Coromandel Coast in India, circa 1700 to 1800. There is also an 18th-century under-kimono for a man (juban), made from Indian cottons imported from the Coromandel Coast. Rare survivors from this early period of cultural exchange, including garments made in Japan for the Dutch and kimono tailored from French brocade and Indian chintz, are displayed to reveal the fluid fashion relationship between East and West that resulted from the global trade network.

Geisha and the Art of the Kimono

During the Edo period, from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, geisha were trend-setters. Their elegant clothes and manners exuded the avant-garde chic of the day (iki). They would compete with each other to have the most original and expensive kimono to become the primary arbiters of kimono fashion. The term kimono (from mono ‘thing’ and kiru ‘to wear’) came into use in the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the craze for all things Western led to a need to distinguish between Western and Japanese clothing.

How Much Fabric is Needed for a Kimono?

The kimono is made from full widths of specially woven kimono fabric, which is about 35 cm wide and sewn with a simple running stitch to form the garment. The length of each kimono bolt is around 11 to 11.4 metres, which is enough to make one kimono. A half-length section is sewn to each side in the front to form an overlap, left over right, and sleeves, each another width of the fabric, are attached to the sides of the body. Then a neckband, or collar, is attached to the neckline and extended about a third of the way down the front opening.

The Art of Yuzen in Kimono Design

A popular design for the art of the kimono is the paste-resist dyeing technique of yuzen, named after the Kyoto artist-monk, Miyazaki Yuzen, (active late 17th/early 18th century). In the lengthy process, outlines of the designs are drawn on the fabric, then a line of starch paste, or glue, is applied to the drawing from a cloth tube with a metal tip, which prevents the bleeding of one colour into another. The fabric is then steamed to set the dyes and the starch paste washed away to reveal the design. The technique uses both natural dyes, such as indigo, and aniline, or synthetic dyes for more brightly coloured creations.

The Art of the Kimono in the West

The late 19th century saw a world-wide craze for Japanese art and design and the art of the kimono. In the early Meiji period, circa 1860s to 1880s, the fascination for the West in Japan almost led to the abandonment in Japan by the elite of Japanese traditions, including Japanese clothing. However, the reaction in the 1890s against the abandonment of Japanese culture did save the kimono from vanishing into history, but it survived to be worn mainly by women. Early it had been worn by both sexes and by all classes and ages. The two major centres, Kyoto and Kanazawa, were famous for the art of yuzen dyeing. In the late 19th/early 20th century, in Japan, any women had their kimono made to order by Japan’s famous department stores, such as Mitsukoshi in Tokyo, which catered to high-society customers. In the West, Kimono were also bought from exclusive department stores such as Liberty & Co in London and worn by those wishing to express their artistic flair. Japan responded by making boldly embroidered ‘kimono for foreigners’, while the domestic market was transformed by the use of European textile technology and chemical dyes. This craze became extremely popular– Ellen Terry, the famous Edwardian actress, dressed herself and her children in kimono.

The Art of the Contemporary Kimono

The final section of the exhibition looks at the kimono in contemporary life. The kimono’s biggest impact on Western fashion came in the early 20th century, when designers such as Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny and Madeleine Vionnet abandoned tightly corseted styles in favour of loose layers of fabric that draped the body. However, the garment continues to inspire fashion around the world today, with such designers as Thom Browne, Duro Olowu and Yohji Yamamoto, and the more casual styles of small, independent studios such as Rumi Rock and Modern Antenna.

Until 25 October,2020, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. A catalogue is available.