Hannah Betts explores why a kimono is the timeless cover-up that will always take your outfit up a notch.
Despite being engaged in the very serious business of previewing an exhibition on a dark, rainy afternoon, I am spinning like a child in a mirrored chamber full of fuchsia and sky-blue silks, tulip patterns and roses as big as fists.
We are used to the Victoria & Albert Museum entertaining us with lavish visual delights. However, the dazzling spectacle of East meets West in its latest set-to-be blockbuster, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, is especially joyous.
It embraces more than 300 items, from 17th-century treasures that have never before left Japan, via priceless haute couture from Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, John Galliano and Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, to outfits sported by Madonna, Björk and Freddie Mercury.
This celebration of the kimono will be Europe’s first major exhibition on the garment. For, despite many in the West regarding it as traditional and timeless – the very opposite of fashion – the V&A is keen to establish the kimono as a dynamic and constantly evolving fashion force.
As keeper of the Asian Department and exhibition curator Anna Jackson explains: ‘We tend to think of fashion as being a European invention, but what this exhibition shows is that it flourishes elsewhere in the world.
‘The kimono never really changed its shape, because it’s not about the body – it’s about what’s happening on the surface of the cloth and how you can design any pattern, any scene. It’s a very different conception of what clothing is, and that’s why people have marginalised it.’
The reasons why the museum has decided to hold the exhibition now are threefold. First, there is this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, turning attention to all things Japanese. Second, Japanese art and design has been one of the V&A’s strongest suits since it was founded in 1852. And thirdly, kimonos are having a moment – being taken up again as much by women (and men) on the streets of Japan as they are by London fashion students.
As curator Josephine Rout notes: ‘It looked as if the kimono might die out in Japan. But then there was a resurgence about 20 years ago with young people wearing kimonos as a reaction against the ubiquity of Western fast fashion. And suddenly it’s very much a fashion thing again: kimonos are fun, liberating, young.’
The kimono, meaning ‘the thing to wear’, first became a hit during the mid 17th century when the increasingly wealthy merchant classes in Japan created a vibrant fashion culture about themselves to display their affluence and social sway.
The kimono’s USP is that it is constructed with minimal shaping, not cut to emphasise the body à la most Western dress. This formula provided a blank slate upon which decoration could flourish. It also created a layered, relatively covered look, with a seductiveness in what was left uncovered, be it a wrist, ankle or bare foot.
It was during the late 19th century, when Japan opened up its ports to foreign trade, that the style took off worldwide. Kimonos could be purchased from department stores such as Liberty & Co, taken up by free spirits wishing to express their artistic flair.
Later, in the early 20th century, designers such as Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny and Madeleine Vionnet abandoned restrictive, corseted-waist styles in favour of loose layers draping from the shoulder kimono-style, with women breathing easy at last. The Japanese, meanwhile, began donning Western dress.
After the Second World War, kimono-wearing in Japan was seen as staid, ceremonial and associated with a past many were keen to forget. Today, East and West are reclaiming the garment as a modishly gender-neutral site of creativity. And so, in the V&A’s final room, we have Jotaro Saito concocting kimono couture, textile queen Hiroko Takahashi modelling her punchy, geometric designs, and the kimono inspiring global names such as Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thom Browne and Yohji Yamamoto. Compare these with the dashing Fujikiya pinstripe take, which V&A director Tristram Hunt must surely sport to the exhibition’s launch.
One emerges enraptured, longing to robe oneself in some fabulous Japanese finery. Fortunately, the gift shop will oblige with rails of vintage and specially commissioned kimonos, if not Kyoto’s finest couture.
‘My kimono obsession’
By YOU’s beauty director Edwina Ings-Chambers
It started in my early teens when I discovered a silk number from the 1930s that had belonged to my mother’s aunt. I quickly adopted it as a dressing gown, wafting around the house like an extra in an old Hollywood movie (in my own head, at least). The beautiful weighty silk of it, the delicate but colourful print, the reversible element (one side is a base shade of spring sky blue, the other black) and those loose, low-hanging sleeves that add drama and elegance.
Almost all of mine are vintage finds from fairs, shops and the occasional auction, largely ranging from the 20s to the 50s. Although they’re made in Japan, they have been created with a Western wearer in mind, and so are knee length rather than the traditional floor length, yet with the same beautiful cloth and prints.
They are of varying lengths and fabrics – early rayon versions are in the mix – and I have different uses for them. A floor-length pink one is a swanky dressing gown which I take on trips abroad (I once wandered round the Hôtel du Cap in the South of France in it feeling very F Scott Fitzgerald novel-esque), but with the right accessories it can double as an evening dress.
Others are day-to-day dressing gowns or loungewear. Most are worn as knee-length jackets or summer cover-ups.
That’s part of the kimono’s charm – its versatility. And with its billowing shape and sleeves it’s also flattering no matter the body shape beneath it. Of course, that could be because none of mine (bar a simple blue and white cotton version my sister brought me back from a trip to Niigata in Japan) have a sash (or obi). So each is at once both sophisticated yet also floatily casual.
For me they are a style staple, as essential to my wardrobe as trousers or a trench coat. Though I currently own more than 20 of them, my obsession shows no sign of abating. My latest quest includes finding one similar to those worn by Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. Any pointers?
Meet your new spring essential
YOU’s fashion director Shelly Vella picks her favourite kimono-style wraps.
Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, sponsored by MUFG, runs until 21 June at the V&A, London. Tickets from £16, vam.ac.uk.