(From the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition)

Wed, Sep 23, 2020

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: ‘Kyoto to Catwalk’ kimono exhibit at V&A

As museums are reopening, I was able to visit the long-awaited exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (on until Oct. 25, 2020). The kimono is one of the most recognizable and beloved forms of creation from Japan. Coincidentally, the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, also had a kimono-related exhibition planned for this spring (now rescheduled for 2021) and Kimono: Fashioning Identities was held at the Tokyo National Museum this summer, further highlighting the enduring power of attraction of the garment, both in Japan and abroad.

The first major exhibition on the subject to be held in the U.K., it is a show with a broad scope, spanning from the 1660s to the present day and encompassing historical and aesthetic trends, social significance, influences from and to other cultures, related works of art and contemporary global fashion. This is also for visitors a welcome opportunity to admire a substantial number of kimonos — in London at one given time there is usually only a very limited selection on view at either the Victoria and Albert Museum or the British Museum.

Simply meaning ‘the thing to wear,’ the word kimono only started to be used in the 19th century, although it is now commonly employed as an umbrella term for traditional Japanese garments. While its history covers about a thousand years, it became the principal item of dress for everyone in Japan in the 16th century and particularly flourished during the Edo period. The exhibition opens with that period and unfolds chronologically, underlining early on one of the most remarkable features of the garment, which is its simple T-shaped fashioned from seven pieces of cloth seamed together along straight lines. Yet this plain form (which in contrast with Western-style clothing does not highlight the shape of the body) became a canvas that could express stunning displays of craftsmanship, wealth, creativity and personality.

Outer-kimono for a young woman
Probably Kyoto, 1800-1830
(Image courtesy of the Joshibi Art Museum)

Particularly illuminating in that respect are several masterpieces from the Khalili collection of Japanese kimonos, itself part of an outstanding ensemble of eight collections in different fields (another related to Japan focuses on Art from the Meiji era) assembled since 1970 by Professor Nasser D. Khalili. A kimono for a young woman (furisode) gives an idea of the sumptuousness of some these pieces. Dating from 1905-1920 and probably made in Kyoto, its fabric is a silk crepe decorated with freehand paste-resist and stencil dyeing (yuzen and kata-yuzen techniques respectively) and embroidered in silk and gold-wrapped silk threads with applied gold and silver. It features an extravagant array of colourful motifs taken from the natural world.

Kimono for a young woman (furisode)
1905–20, probably Kyoto
(© Khalili Collection, K106)

In the first galleries, the kimonos are behind glass and hanging flat on T-shaped stands, which allows visitors to admire the fabric’s design in full. Yet these are clothes and it is revealing as the show progresses to observe them arranged on mannequins, which helps us understand how they were worn and imagine how they could move along with the body they covered.

I enjoyed the exhibition very much, but have to admit that I was perplexed by the presence of sound in the galleries. Waves, various instruments, winds, etc., formed a soundscape, seemingly a requirement in some shows nowadays, yet without much relation to what was on view, now and then at a somewhat intrusive level.

Notable is the section titled ‘kimono in the world’ that presents the impact of Japanese fabric on taste and trade, a phenomenon that expanded dramatically once Japan opened to the world in the late 19th century. A craze for kimono developed in fashionable households in the West, as illustrated in many paintings of the time. Intriguingly, the V&A possesses the only known Edo-period kimono made in Japan from European textile, an exquisite silk brocade made in Lyon, France, in the mid-18th century (outer-kimono for a woman, on view).

Following in the steps of the V&A spectacular blockbuster fashion shows in recent years, such as those on Alexander McQueen and Dior, the display ends in a theatrical visual feast. One circular room is lined up to its ceiling with dozens of kimonos of diverse colours and patterns, each one standing in its individual box. The last gallery is a vast open space inhabited by a myriad of garments made in Japan and elsewhere that illustrate the many transformations of the kimono since the mid-20th century onwards. While the wearing of kimono has declined in Japan, the garment has never ceased to inspire designers from across the world.

(From the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition)
(From the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition)

Perhaps sometimes perceived as traditional and timeless, the kimono is here presented as a dynamic item of clothing that carries a wealth of meaning and has influenced global trends. The show demonstrates the unique and fascinating place it holds within the history of fashion.

Sophie RICHARD

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Art Historian

Sophie RICHARD

Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)

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