Glide Into A Fashionable Exhibition On Kimonos At V&A

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, V&A ★★★★☆

Glide Into A Fashionable Exhibition On Kimonos At V&A Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, V&A 4

Even those who know little about fashion are familiar with kimonos. The national dress of Japan is instantly recognisable and V&A has dozens of them on display as part of its latest fashion blockbuster exhibition. From those that are centuries old to the Kimono inspired creations gracing catwalks in recent years; and thankfully no Kim Kardashian shapewear in sight.

While it's a piece of clothing most associated with women, it was originally worn by both genders in Japan, although those for men were less decorative than for women. The historical opening section of this show is easily the most fascinating, with remarkably well preserved garments that in some cases are several hundreds of years old. The designs on the kimonos for women are beautiful — flowers bloom, landscapes are as detailed as paintings, and the gold thread around a maple leaf makes it shimmer as it's just caught the sun's light.  

The history of Japan can be viewed through the clothes on display — when young men came of age their kimonos initially had imagery related to the Samurai, but as technology evolved this was replaced with fighter jets and battleships.

As trade between Japan and Europe opened up, so the kimono spread with it and it's influence may be seen in a 17th century portrait of a Dutch woman wearing a gown that is clearly styled from Japanese fabrics. The trade flowed both ways with a kimono made using European textiles being gifted to the wife of a Japanese daimyo (lord), and Japan exporting kimonos that were designed for Western tastes.

It's fascinating to read that while Western aristocrats were craving all things Japanese, the Japanese were donning suits as Western formal wear was seen as exotic to them. It's a timely reminder that there's more to a cultural exchange than just the West adopting from other cultures.

The second half of the exhibition is a beautiful affair of dresses and designs inspired by kimonos — whether it be one with a Union Jack on its back, or a rather funky creation that gives a Japanese twist to a three piece suit. It's all impressively displayed, even if the stories behind them are nowhere near as interesting as the historical first half of the show.

As this is a V&A exhibition it is of course beautifully and subtly designed — bamboo stalks dotted around the rooms, the sounds of insects and flowing water piped, and a screen depicting a party on a floating stage in 17th century Japan. It may not have the extravagance of the Dior or Tim Walker exhibitions, yet that feels right given that this isn't just a fashion show but a ribbon of cultural history as well.

The vast size of the exhibition means there's plenty of content here to ensure both fashionistas and history buffs leave satisfied, having learned about the influence of clothing in Japan and seen some beautiful examples of it.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is on at V&A from 29 February to 21 June. Tickets are £16-18.  

Last Updated 26 February 2020