Kimonos: they are not what you think. The Japanese word means “the thing to wear”, and once you know that, everything changes. Kimonos cease to be hobble-kneed, cherry-blossom-covered chrysalids from which young women peep as if from beautiful sleeping bags. They can be for everyone; they are constantly changing.
This V&A exhibition, curated by Anna Jackson and Josephine Rout, opened briefly before lockdown. It follows the kimono from the mid-17th century when merchants, eager to show off their affluence, triggered the expansion of textile production, through to its most recent adoptions and reinventions. Here is Björk, floating in the high-collared brocade, kimono-inspired dress created by Alexander McQueen, and Madonna in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s strident ox-blood combo of cropped kimono, shorts and PVC obi (sash). Alec Guinness, hesitating over whether to take part in Star Wars, was apparently won over when shown the sketch of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s threadbare brown kimono.
Eager to dispel the cliche of the kimono as something “timeless”, which drifts above taste, flux and commerce, the exhibition and its comprehensive catalogue emphasise that the garment has always been accompanied by publicity and celebrity. Courtesans were early models: woodblocks show them poring over new patterns and fabrics; prints of them wearing new kimonos publicised in one go both brothels and clothes sellers. The costumes of actors in the kabuki theatre were avidly studied and copied. The check design of an obi worn by the dashing Sanogawa Ichimatsu in 1741 still carries his name. It is not known whether the wildly arresting skeleton and skull design, worn by another actor playing a thief, spawned any imitators.
The exhibition is framed as a fashion show – and so takes its place within what is becoming, following last year’s Dior and Mary Quant exhibitions, the V&A’s speciality: not so much costume as mode. This has an occasional cost. At times the kimono seems so infinitely adaptable that its singularity almost vanishes. Occasionally it ties itself up in its own obi: its alliance with fashion is sometimes more interesting as a phenomenon than for the clothes it inspires.
Still, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is a revelation. It is full of individual glories: of fabrics, embroidered or stencilled, boldly or delicately patterned, both sumptuous and simple, muted and radiant. Vitally, it shows how a garment can capture the history of a country. The ebbs and flows of Japan’s trade with the outside world can be traced in the appearance of Indian chintz and French brocade. The rigidity of the sumptuary laws may be gauged by the tiny gestures by which they were flouted: a red dye, banned for an outer kimono, became widely used on linings and undergarments; a woodcut shows a woman flirting with a fellow by slightly raising her hem to show a hint of scarlet beneath.
Occasionally the kimono becomes a literal historical record or propaganda item. A 20th-century under-kimono designed for a man is staunchly patterned in bands of blue and white with pictures of cars and trains. A little later in the 1930s, as Japan expanded, a startling undergarment for an infant boy is utterly martial. Meticulously hand-painted, with embroidery in gold-wrapped silk threads, it shows a battleship cresting the waves, with fighter jets flying above.
The kimono is disconcerting for anyone brought up on the principles of western dress. Instead of enhancing or exaggerating the body, cleaving to bosom or bum or building them up, the kimono ignores it. No tailoring; a single bolt of cloth; a flat plane that becomes a canvas: pattern and fabric and colour are the crucial elements, not shape. Then there is the question of sleeves. These are not mere appendages: they are essential and they are expressive. To put on clothes in Japanese is “to pass one’s arms through the sleeves”; a marvellous six-fold screen showing a series of kimono hanging on a stand is called Whose Sleeves? It refers to the idea of a beautiful woman who is absent and missed.
Yet the influence of the kimono is here proved to be penetrating and long-lasting. When in the 1880s Europeans began to worry about the crushing, distorting effect of the corset, an organisation such as the Rational Dress Society in Britain had an alternative image in the kimono. In the early, corsetless 20th century it was thoroughly assimilated by high fashion. Lady Duff-Gordon, who designed under the name Lucile, became celebrated for her escape from the Titanic wearing a squirrel fur coat over a mauve silk kimono. Paul Poiret designed a wonderful mustard mantle, which hangs loosely from the shoulders and is caught at the side by a large flat bow. A tremendous dramatic coat, in thick black and white stripes with a huge shawl collar, was probably designed by Emilie Flöge, who ran a fashion house with her sisters in Vienna – though she has been more celebrated for being Gustav Klimt’s companion and the subject of The Kiss.
The ravishing fabric, the bravura sweep and intricate scatter of their design, and the way they are traditionally displayed – on bamboo poles, with the sleeves stretched out on a cross – makes it easy to think of kimonos as works of art rather than clothing. Eager to rectify this, the V&A has broken with convention by placing some kimonos on specially made mannequins so that the fabric furls down, wraps around and the design begins to have a dynamic.
The idea of drama and of an evolving form is enhanced by the distinctive settings of different rooms. Early on, with the sound of water playing in the background, there are screens and clumps of bamboo; at the end is a futuristic garden with gravel. Across from this are two apparently sober but striking fusions of east and west, in male clothing. Thom Browne’s 2015 grey suit is conventionally western in its components – jacket and trousers, but with the whole covered in a diagonal, kimono-like design that almost dissolves the shape; Fujikiya Mikisuke’s office wear is a traditional kimono tubular shape, but made out of pin-striped worsted wool from West Yorkshire, and worn with a collar and tie.
Most spectacular of all is a display of 20th-century kimonos at the centre of the exhibition. Loops, stripes, swirls, crosses and dots, sometimes suggesting skyscrapers in a cityscape, but mostly abstract whirls – fill a circular mirrored room with intense purple, pink, orange and emerald; the garments are reflected high above upside down. Bolts of cloth like bolts of lightning.