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Exhibition review - Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk
11th March 2020

Before visiting this exhibition, I had imagined a celebration of very beautiful traditional Japanese kimono, but its so much more than that.

Yes, there are stunning examples of the most exquisite Kimono, but also the most fascinating exploration into how this garment has remained relevant from 1600 to the present day, both in Japan and beyond.

Kimono are straight-seamed garments secured with a sash (obi). In western dress, cut and construction emphasise or suppress the body shape, In Japanese clothing the body is irrelevant and it is the flat surface of the kimono that is important. Colour, pattern and technique indicate status and taste.

As the introduction to the exhibition explains the word Kimono means simply 'the thing to wear'. The garment has a history that stretches back over a thousand years and by 1615, the beginning of the Edo period, everyone in Japan wore one. By the middle of the 17th century, a distinctive fashion culture started to emerge in Kyoto, the centre of luxury textile production. This was when the kimono was first exported to Europe, where it had an immediate impact on dress styles.

The Edo period (1615-1868) was an era of unprecedented political stability, economic growth and urban expansion. Fashion was a major social and economic force in Japan during this period and demand for the latest styles stimulated technical advances, while a cult of celebrity encouraged spending on clothes. Kimono makers, retailers and print publishers worked together to exploit the commercial opportunities.

In this woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) we see three fashionable women meet outside the Daimaruya kimono shop. Inside assistants carry great piles of fabric for customers to view. Prints like these were powerful advertisements for kimono retailers. They acted as guides and souvenirs for travellers to Edo (modern day Tokyo) spreading information about the city, its shops and the latest clothing styles.

The growing market for fashionable dress was served by Kimono pattern books containing illustrations of kimono with notes on colour and technique, interspersed with images of the latest styles being worn. They were read as we read modern fashion magazines.

Kimono merchants would use a network of artisans including designers, weavers, dyers and embroiderers to create elaborate kimono. This example from 1800-30 of figured satin silk includes tie-dyeing and freehand paste-resist dyeing which is over embroidered in silk threads.

Yuzen or freehand paste-resist dyeing was an important technical development of the Edo period. A thin ribbon of rice paste is applied to the outline of a drawing on the fabric. Dyes are then brushed within the paste boundaries. This technique allowed for extreme detail.

Kimono are secured around the waist by an Obi. Not many survive as they were easily damaged by frequent tying and not treasured in the same way as kimono. On the left examples dating from 1850-70. On the right a modern example from 1925-38 depicting Olympic rings and athletes. Japan produced many successful Olympians in the 1920s and 30's. In 1936 Tokyo was chosen to host the 1940 Olympic Games but these were cancelled because of the war.

For most of the Edo period Japan was a 'closed country' that restricted foreign relations. However The Dutch East India Company which was permitted to trade in the country, bought fabrics to Japan and shipped kimono back to Europe. This had a major impact on fashion. In the late 19th century, Japan became open to the world. The textile industry rapidly modernised and trade expanded dramatically. From New York to New Zealand, a craze developed for wearing Kimono. The Japanese responded by making garments specifically for export.

In Japan members of the elite adopted western dress to signify Japan's modernity and equality. In this woodblock print from 1890 a woman wears European fashions while sitting on a western-style chair at a table, reading a western book. Its title is Daydreaming of foreign travel, something the Japanese were not allowed to do in the previous two hundred years.

By the 20th century the kimono began to influence British and European designers.

The simple form and bold patterns of the kimono appealed to modernist artists. In this painting from 1919, Scottish painter William McCance depicts his wife, the artist Agnes Miller Parker.

Western influences merged with Kimono. This is a section of a man's under-kimono, printed wool from 1925-40. It includes trains, yachts, lighthouses and beach paraphernalia; motifs reflecting new opportunities for leisure, travel and holidays by the sea. 

In the post-war period, as Japan adapted to the modern world, most people stopped wearing kimono as an everyday garment. The garment was reserved for special occasions like weddings and traditional activities such as flower arranging and tea ceremonies.

In the rest of the world the Kimono has continued to influence dress and fashion. For her 'Homogenic' album Bjork wears a kimono style dress from McQueen with Masai neck rings and hair in the style of native American tribes.

The recent revival of kimono is linked to Japanese street style. Creative young people flock to areas like Harajuku in Tokyo to be photographed wearing their interpretations of how to wear the kimono.

There is much more to this exhibition than I have recounted here, do visit if you get the chance. Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk runs until 21st June 2020. For more information and tickets go HERE