Home > History, Reviews > Event Review: Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the V&A

Event Review: Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the V&A

Until Sunday 25th October 2020

(left to right) kimono bought by Freddy Mercury whilst on tour in Japan, Madonna outfit by Jean-Paul Gautier , Bjork outfit by Alexander McQueen

Corona virus information:

Book ahead to get a time slot and do get there at least 15 – 20 minutes beforehand because of the queues to get into the museum. Entry is via the Sackler Courtyard.

V&A FAQs for safer visits https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/reopening-questions

Opened briefly this year before lockdown this exhibition was briefly followed up before re-opening with five online YouTube video short tours curated by the Keeper at the Asian Dept. Anna Jackson – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEf0iFNTVGw

This excellent exhibition examines the kimono from the 1660s to today in all its sartorial elegance. It might have been classed as astonishing but there was one minor let down… …but we’ll get to that in due course.

Design and kimono (kosode) for a samurai woman. Both probably Kyoto 1800–1850.
Design: Mounted on printed paper as part of a scroll 1870–1890. Ink on paper. Given by Misses Alexander. Kimono: crepe silk (chirimen) freehand paste resistant dyeing (yuzen) embroidery in silk and silk threads. Design V& A. Kimono The Khalili Collection of Japanese Art.

Kimono (着物), meaning quite literally ‘the thing to wear’ (着 ki – wear, 物 mono – thing): Kyoto to Catwalk roughly follows the themes of these online curatorial.

The exhibition begins by looking at the kimono in Japan during the Edo period from 1603 – 1868 during sakoku (self-enforced isolation) and its use as a square non-body delineated standard item of dress in its various forms such as uchikake, furisode, kosode, kamishimo and so on, its design and assembly, and the development of various dyeing techniques, and its popularity as formal wear amongst the samurai class. It gradually works its way through the various stages of transformation in design and influence arriving at the modern period when the kimono has gained a worldwide reputation as an item of global fashion, an object of fascination, of elegance, of curiosity and of remarkable adaptability.

Samurai kimonos. (left) A woman’s kimono. (centre) man’s kimono (kosode) for the Lord of Nabeshima. Figured satin silk (rinzu). Probably Kyoto 1760-1810. (right) woven in France believed to be the outer kimono (uchikake) of the wife of the Lord of Nabeshima. Silk brocade. Lyon, France, 1750-1770. V&A.

The influnce of the class system, of the very wealthy merchant classes, as well as that of the samurai, on kimono design is covered along with the 17th century change from large scale patterns to smaller scale patterns and the 18th century development on the design of sleeve ends and hems and the growth in popularity of the obi, or sash.

Two 19th century obi (belts). V&A.

All of this is on display and is complimented with explanations on the influence of the popular souvenir woodblock prints of the day, their promotion of certain styles and designs of kimono at the time, and their use to promote various popular shops as a means of product placement within an accepted and popular cultural oeuvre.

Women outside the shop Daimaruya by Utagawa Kunisada. Edo (Tokyo) 1840–1845.

Given the breakdown of class hierarchy in Japan during the Edo period (in order of seniority – samurai, farmer, artisans and merchants) perhaps more could have been made about the influence and avoidance of the sumptuary laws on the non-samurai classes and the wearing of particular types of kimono amongst the artisanal and merchant classes, and the upper class ‘Yamanote’ and plebeian class ‘Shitamachi’ Edokko (citizens of Edo). During the Edo Period (1603-1868) sumptuary laws were established by the ruling body, the Bakufu, to prescribe the appropriate level of ostentation in dress for each class of society in order to visually define the limits of their wealth, prevent confusion between classes by the wearing of fashionable clothing, and to maintain morality. Ironically the merchants at the lower end of the class system were often the wealthiest, making substantial profits from the sale of kimonos and yet, as is pointed out, having to conceal their own personal more ostentatious designs under plain outer robes.

Gathering at the house of Ichikawa Danjuro VIII by Utagawa Kunisada. Colour print from woodblocks. Edo (Tokyo). 1849
Ichikawa Danjuro wiping his face, with the onnagata Iwai Kumesaburo III in the centre. The kimono on the right belonged to the future incredibly popular Ichikawa Danjuro IX who is also pictured in the woodblock print. Ichikawa Danjuro VIII later committed suicide in Osaka whilst on tour with his father Ichikawa Ebizo V (Ichikawa Danjuro VII).

A small part of the exhibition covers the involvement and influence of the actors from the Kabuki theatre, especially that of the onnagata (female role specialists) on the development and popularity of kimono design through their stage costumes. There is also a picture of the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro VII wearing his personally designed hanjimono (hidden meaning) kamawanu ‘we don’t mind’ pattern kimono of the Ichikawa Kabuki dynasty (kama – sickle, wa – circle, nu – written character), still popular amongst Kabuki fans and still worn today by the members of the Ichikawa Guild acting company on the Kabuki stage. What isn’t mentioned is that Danjuro VII fell foul of the sumptuary laws at the time (for both being overly ostentatious and for using real samurai armour on stage even though it had been given to him by his samurai patrons). His villa was burnt down and he was he banished from Edo for eight years, initially sheltering at Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Narita, close to where airport is today.

Ichikawa Danjuro VII (Ichikawa Ebizo V), colour print from woodblocks, 1805–1810. Paul Shelving Bequest. V&A.

Though there is a finite limit to what can be covered perhaps something could have been made out of the juxtaposition of Ichikawa Danjuro VII’s kamawanu ‘we don’t mind’ and the hanjimono of Kabuki actor Omezu Ichikawa’s  kamaimasu (kama – hook, ‘i’ – written character, masu – box)  ‘no, we do mind’ pattern kimonos.

(left) Kamawanu and (right) Kamaimasu patterns

Because of the sumptuary laws the merchants were unable to make displays of their wealth through outward displays of sumptuous kimono. This ban on the outward display of ostentation did not, however, apply to inro and netsuke (in place of pockets inro carrying boxes were hung from the belt, their cords secured with netsuke) of which a small section is on display. With these the merchant class, as a way of undermining the effects of the sumptuary laws, were able to indulge themselves and display their wealth. Consequently the netsuke accompanying inro became more and more fashionable, elaborate and increasingly expensive. In many cases, through the visual art of the carver, the contemporary designs could be used to allude to and make socio-political statements which would otherwise have contravened the Bakufu’s imposed standards.

Inro and netsuke. V&A.

Examples of the Edo era influence of the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter’s Oiran (highest ranking courtesans) as fashion icons is on display, both with an elaborate mannequin and a large woodblock print. The mannequin is in full Oiran clothing including the very high black lacquered geta glogs and one thing that would have complimented this might have been the inclusion of film showing the parade of an Oiran which is very particular in its formation and procession as can be seen at this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtaDz-VwHhA.

As a stroke of genius to highlight the rising passion for things Japanese in the West towards the end of the 19th century, and continuing the theatre as fashion theme, is the inclusion in the exhibition of a kimono ‘jacket’ that belonged to the famous (or infamous as she was considered amongst some theatre circles in Japan) Kawakami Sadayakko (who could probably warrant an exhibition of her own) who along with her husband the avant-garde dramatist Kawakami Otojiro wowed the fin de siècle theatre world both at home (though in somewhat controversial circumstances), and abroad, becoming a popular star, particularly in Parisian society. This was, as the exhibition explains, capitalised on and the Viennese coffee shop and Oriental art emporium ‘Au Mikado’ marketed garments like this as Kimono Sada Yacco.

(left) Sadayakko performing in the play The Geisha and the Knight in Paris, photo Waseda Memorial Theatre Museum, 1902 (right) her kimono ‘jacket’ in plain weave silk with stencil dyeing 1900–1910.

There were no examples of kamiko paper kimono though the dress from Hanae Mori came close in design to a resemblance of the most famous kamiko in Japan, that of the character Fujiya Izaemon from the Kabuki play Kuruwa Bunsho Yoshidaya (Love Letters from the Licensed Quarter).

(left) Dress for Hanae Mori Boutique, Tokyo Autum/Winter 1989. Printed silk chiffon. The Kyoto Costume Institute collection.
(right) the character Fujiya Izaemon in his kamiko paper kimono in the play Kuruwa Bunsho Yoshidaya. National Theatre of Japan.

Examples of kimonos designed by non-Japanese designers are also included in the exhibition by designers from Norway to Nigeria both created under their own auspices and under contract for Japanese design studios. However, and isn’t there always one of those…

Belted wrap coat by Nigerian designer Duro Olowu. London. Autumn/Winter 2015. Jaquard woven merino wool. Duro Olowu.

…this, and the use of the kimono in non-Japanese contexts raises, as the Kimono Performance information plaque points out, the unfortunate use of the disagreeable phrase ‘cultural appropriation’. It’s regrettable in light of Japan’s long history of highly adept let’s call it cross cultural fertilisation. Japan has a recognisable historical expertise in taking products from abroad and adapting them. There is not enough space in this article to list and explain them all. Suffice to say that anyone applying the term ‘cultural appropriation’ to anything Japanese in use outside of Japan is misguided to say the least. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery as they say.

In the final section the modern use of and wide ranging adaptability of kimono both in Japan and abroad is on view including outfits for some of the most famous names in music, films and show business.

(left to right) Toshiro Mifune’s kimono from the film Sanjuro. V&A, Alec Guiness’s Obi wan Kenobi outfit from Star Wars: Episode V. A New Hope. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Costume for Star Wars: Episode III. Revenge of the Sith. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Finally on the note of disappointment referred to briefly at the start of this article; the ‘wigs’. Some of the mannequins with heads are furnished with ‘wigs’, and that is stretching the term somewhat. If an exhibition of this standard is going to go to extremes to display what can only be described as some of the best visual examples of kimono in the world it wouldn’t go amiss to invest in some appropriate wigs examples of which could have been purchased for the exhibition via a broker in Japan. They are available in shops on Asakusa’s Nakamise Dori in Tokyo for around £50 each.

Apart from that the exhibition otherwise has everything going for it. For someone who is as at home wearing Japanese kimono, obi (belt), zoori (sandals) and tabi (split toed socks) as wearing trackie pants and training shoes (albeit Japanese ones!) this was a really refreshing exhibition of a very large swathe of the range and history of a much loved item of Japanese clothing. In turns stunning and staggeringly beautiful! Heartily and thoroughly recommended!

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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