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THE KIMONO EXHIBITION at the V&A: From Japan to the Catwalk
Over the past millennia, the kimono has transformed from a traditional Japanese dress to a constant influence on modern fashion, becoming one of the most globally iconic items of clothing to come from Asia. The exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London perfectly captured the unique journey of the kimono, exploring the cultural and technical changes it has undergone since it first gained popularity in Japan during the early 17th Century. The visitor has the chance to walk through the history of the dress, from its origins to the modern day. The bold and colourful designs of the traditional kimono present inspiration for a unique contemporary style, from boardroom to catwalk.
Understanding the history of this dress is certainly worthwhile for anyone who is interested in fashion or wishes to add some adventure to their wardrobe.
The exhibition begins by displaying the origins of the kimono. Traditionally, the kimono is a straightseamed garment, worn with an obi (a waist sash). In the West, clothing is usually designed in response to the figure of the wearer, whilst in Japan the body is seen as irrelevant. As a result, the flat surface of the kimono becomes a canvas for expressing style and social status, with bright colours, bold patterns and innovative techniques. The exhibition shows how, during the Edo period in the 17th Century, the exquisite style of the kimono came to be used by the merchant class of Japan as a medium for expressing themselves, showcasing examples of both men and women and exploring the work of specialist artisans who created intricate designs. Walking through this section of the gallery is truly mesmerising, being able to explore a selection of styles from a past age.
MODERNISATION of the KIMONO
Much like in the modern day, certain styles and designs of kimonos became popular through being worn by celebrities. The Victoria and Albert Museum unveils traditional paintings of actors sporting their kimonos and the subsequent designs inspired by these famous faces. The colourful patterns of these dresses seem timeless; even kimonos from 300 years ago seem to be relevant today. Perhaps this is why, in the late 19th Century when Japan opened its borders to European explorers, the kimono instantly became a subject of fascination in the Western world. The exhibition showcases the geographically transcendent craze that developed in this period, presenting kimonos made for Parisian fashion houses as well as paintings depicting the elegant garb being worn for the first time by European women, whilst also showing jewellery from Cartier inspired by the look. As the world became aware of the kimono and the textile industry modernised, the early 20th Century saw the mass-production of the dress and thus began the process of its truly global influence. As the visitor wanders through towards the contemporary kimono designs, they can see the models shifting from depictions of traditional Japanese scenes to skyscrapers and modern abstract patterns. They see kimonos used as nightdresses by American socialites, such as Emilie Grimsby, and obis depicting the rings of the cancelled 1940 Olympics.
While the entire exhibition is fascinating, it is not until the final room that the real depth of the kimono’s influence on the fashion world can be truly understood. Here, there is a minimalist take on a zen garden decorated with mannequins that sport modern interpretations of the dress from designers such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. For these designers, the kimono presented an opportunity to flawlessly merge modernity and tradition for the contemporary woman. Furthermore, this final room shows the relevance of the kimono in pop-culture, from outfits worn in Star Wars to custom pieces designed for musicians like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Overall, the kimono has spent the last one thousand years developing from a local traditional dress into a global fashion sensation. Through experiencing the exhibition, we can learn how to take from the bold design of the dress and don creative and ambitious outfits in both the workplace and on the catwalk. Whether it be wearing a design directly inspired by the kimono, or simply utilising the bold block colours and delicate patterning, there is much that can be translated from the centuries-old dress to the wardrobe of the professional woman. In an age where we become more aware of issues like cultural appropriation, this exhibition provides us with a legitimate understanding and respect for the origins of the kimono. If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the kimono, or how it is worn today, feel free to take a look at our article which takes an in-depth look (Cultural traditions - kimono), and if you would like to experience the exhibition itself, tickets are available until the end of October.