V&A brings kimono culture to London

In its first fashion exhibition of 2020, the V&A explores the iconic Japanese kimono and its far-reaching influence upon the worldwide fashion industry.

Ask anyone where the concept of fashion was invented, and it’s likely they’ll answer Paris or Europe, referencing haute couture and (if they’re real experts) Charles Frederick Worth. For decades, this view was accepted, even by the most well-read of scholars. A new generation of academics are working to counter this myth as evidence emerges that Indian, Chinese and Japanese cultures shared similar fashion systems to those found in Europe.

With this in mind, curators at London’s V&A museum felt it was time fashion systems from other parts of the world were represented in the West. The V&A’s Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is one answer to this. Anna Jackson, the curator of the exhibition, produced it as a way of celebrating traditional Japanese kimono, while dismantling perceptions that they’re merely a ceremonial, or ritualistic, costume. “It is about showing that there was a really developed fashion culture in Japan as far back as the 17thcentury. The kimono has always been an incredibly fashionable garment,” explains Jackson, sitting opposite me in the ornate V&A café one wet winter morning.

The curator is troubled by the lack of representation of non-Western fashion in exhibitions and educational environments. Exploring her reasoning behind this project, she repeatedly highlights how, “Most exhibitions focus on Western fashion and designers, so we wanted a show that proved fashion flourished elsewhere, to contradict the perception that fashion is a European invention.”

“We also wanted to show that kimono had a massive influence on dress styles outside of Japan,” offers Jackson. “There was a tradition in Europe of wearing loose gowns but suddenly [after the Dutch brought back kimono from Japan in the 1660s] there were these incredibly beautiful, colourful silk garments arriving which took everything by storm.”


Madonna wearing kimono in nothing really matters music video

Photo: V&A Press Office

It’s not just the history of the kimono that sparked the team’s interest. They’re currently undergoing a massive revival in Japan. “It started with young people buying vintage kimono and styling them up in a new way, which led to the emergence of a new set of designers who’re trying to do something fresh and not as expensive,” Jackson says of the modern influences upon the kimono.

Naming a few of these emerging designers, such as Jotaro Santo and Hiroko Takahashi, who’re re-inventing the kimono for a younger audience, Jackson hopes featuring their pieces will highlight the evolving nature of kimono to a Western audience.

Naturally, the curator and her team spent much of their time in Japan in preparation for the exhibition. While Jackson explains that the V&A’s kimono collection might be the best in Europe, many of the older pieces in the show have to be borrowed from Japan. “Most museums like the V&A started collecting in the late 19thcentury when they were founded, so you don’t find the older, rarer and most spectacular [pieces].”

Inspiration for the exhibition hasn’t only come from Japan. Stand-out pieces from Western pop-culture include a kimono worn by Freddie Mercury as well as Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier Nothing Really Matters outfit. “She was inspired by Memories of a Geisha,” explains Jackson. Bjork’s famous Homogenic album cover look, designed by Alexander McQueen, also makes an appearance. “We have the artwork that Nick Knight has lent us, as well as the actual garment borrowed from the personal collection of Steven Philip.”

Thom Browne runway

Photo: V&A Press Office

Movie memorabilia will also fascinate visitors. The team secured pieces designed by Colleen Attwood for the Oscar-winning Memories of a Geisha. Costumes worn by Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Jedis in the Star Wars films also made the cut. “The kimono does have that timeless, universal quality, so it is also able to represent the future and alternative worlds,” Jackson says of the director’s choice to include kimono-inspired costumes within the futuristic franchise.

Young designers were also commissioned to produce pieces for the exhibition. Milligan Beaumont, whose Central Saint Martins’ geisha-inspired graduate collection was bought by Christina Aguilera, is just one of these creatives. “She’s really interested in the way kimono in their broad expanse can tell stories,” explains Jackson.

Beaumont says, “It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever been asked to be a part of.” The young designer’s work – an exclusive kimono hoodie called Fuji Heartbreak – is a true highlight of the exhibition. The hoodie is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and utilises old Japanese textile and details inspired by traditional kimono techniques. Beaumont is happy that the kimono will finally be showcased in the West. “I think it’s an incredibly important exhibit and the first of its kind because it’s showing the great influence the garment has had over centuries, as well as questioning the lines between cultural appreciation and appropriation,” Beaumont adds.

As a curator, Jackson’s job is both to entertain and to educate. I ask her what she hopes the public will take away from Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk. “To think about fashion more as a global thing and how fashion can be translated across boundaries,” she offers.

This exhibition hopes to prompt individuals to acknowledge the power of other fashion systems, offering visitors – both fashion experts and the general public alike – a new point of view that has long been ignored. Jackson adds, “Who knows, it might even inspire some to go out and wear a kimono themselves.”

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