From Shoguns to Star Wars: V&A’s personal guided tour of the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk

From Shoguns to Star Wars: V&A’s personal guided tour of the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk


Close your eyes and travel in your mind over to Kyoto Japan where pink cherry blossom flutters down and tripping towards you in her high wooden geta, chiselled from a block of wood, is a vision of perfection – a young Geisha Maiko, her snowy white face smooth, black hair coiffured and wearing a kimono of shimmering silk. From behind her an obi or stiff wide brocade sash hangs down in two folds from shoulder blade to ankle. Without a kimono there would be no Geisha.

From the comfort of your armchair, we can explore in depth the fascinating world of the kimono and how it has always been a dynamic and influential piece of clothing. Our V&A curator Anna Jackson gracefully ushers us through an enchanting exhibition, gallery after gallery revealing a thousand-year history. With modest beginnings as layered underwear, and rising over the generations to a magnificent outer coat for nobility, we learn that kimono means literally ‘the thing to wear’. The straight-line method of tailoring evolved early on because it was quick to make and easy to fold. Unlike western clothing, the kimono doesn’t adapt to the body, the body adapts to the kimono. From a deconstruction we see how the simple T shape is made from a single bolt of cloth cut into 8 straight edged pieces and made for everyone. New creative freedom was found with a dyeing technique using usen paste mixed from rice flour, lime and water squeezed out onto fabric, acting as a fine barrier between colours.


Gliding down the aisles, allow your eyes to feast on sumptuous silken treasures stretched out on T bars like elegant headless scarecrows. Kimonos are shown as clothing for real people; a samurai mannequin stands tall and proud in his kimono uniform kamishimo, a sleeveless garment made of linen and starched to make the shoulders stand out, worn with a pleated split skirt. Arising from humble beginnings the samurai warriors became the most powerful ruling class of the Edo Period, lasting 260 years from 1603, and though the regime imposed strict rules, kimono tailors perfected their craft, elevating the clothes to haute couture works of art. Merchants became wealthy and with their growing importance kimonos became more exquisite, valuable and treasured, passing down through families from generation to generation. Obis designed to enhance the kimono got wider and more elaborate, and though very precious they were tied and re-tied so often many did not survive the ordeal.

Moving through into another area we can see an irreverent expression surfacing in the literary and visual arts, giving rise to Kabuki theatre. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a print of the playful actor Ichikawa Danshiro VII wearing his kimono of black sickles (kama), circles (wa) and the character nu meaning kamawanu, meaning ‘I don’t give a damn!’. Naturally this sent his fans wild. Our guide points out a woodblock print of a parade in Yoshiwara, the pleasure area of Edo, brimming with brothels and higher-rank courtesans, the fashion icons of the age, wearing fabulous kimonos.

In the 19th century exports expanded and silk merchants seized the opportunity to make western style fashionable clothes in Japanese embroidered silk. A radical influence on fashion in the West grew and Kimono-style evening wear like the purple dress worn by Lady Duff Gordon beneath her fur coat, which famously survived the Titanic sinking in 1912. In the final sections from the 20th century to the current day we can see how Kimono fashions in Japan shifted to a form of traditional costume worn by brides or girls celebrating special birthdays. Entering a mirrored room and peering up at a tiered tower of windows displaying a variety of bold designs we see how Japanese women could buy ‘off the peg’ kimonos in department stores, with designs ranging from city life and skyscrapers to wild waves depicting the speed of a modern world.


Contemporary designs in the last gallery combining East and West are enhanced by a sensational futuristic display of a large sculpted red cloud tree. Inspired by the kimono, a new wave of designers appealing to a young generation work with digital printing and abstract designs on cotton rather than silk. In the world of arts and entertainment, the kimono has always had a timeless and dramatic appeal; film director George Lucas had a samurai-like costume made for his main zen monk-like character Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, and singer Bjork commissioned a silver satin kimono, embroidered with frost crystals and complete with obi designed by Alexander McQueen, for the cover of her 1997 Homeogenic album.


Lynne McGowan


Available to watch here here | #KyotoToCatwalk




About author