The V&A’s new exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk explores the evolution of the garment from the mid-17th century to the present day. In the very first room the tone is set by a trio of antique kimono presented next to a Jean Galliano design for Christian Dior and a contemporary kimono by the Japanese designer Jotaro Saito.

The space is pale green and decorated with bamboo and white noren (Japanese room dividers made from sheets of fabric). Around the corner a mannequin wearing a heavily embroidered silk garment featuring Kabuki actors and geta platform shoes is framed through a circular marumado-style window, the sort frequently encountered in traditional tea houses. 

Hung on horizontal bars, kimono can appear simply as beautifully embroidered panels, but the V&A has commissioned a series of bespoke mannequins, with elaborate hairstyles, such as maru-mage and icho-gaeshi, rendered in thin gauzy material, so that they can be seen as what the term kimono actually translates as: "the thing to wear".

“What we’ve been seeing,” explains Josephine Rout, the Project Curator, “is a recent kimono revival in Japan. It is a twenty-first century phenomenon and it has been lovely to observe it as it has grown and developed. It’s come from a new generation who don’t have the same sort of hang-ups about kimono as the older generation did.”

“They don’t see it as this confining traditional garment and started wearing them as casual garments again, rather than just as a ceremonial costume. So, we really wanted to showcase some of the new designers who have come out of this movement.”

Over 100 kimonos are on display, spanning 400 years from Edo-period Kyoto to padded garments made for import to Europe on Dutch merchant ships and those made by contemporary designers like Rumi Rock, Yves Saint Laurent, Duro Olowu and Thom Browne. The range of kimono in the exhibition shows not only how the garment has travelled the world, but also how it has captured the popular imagination.

“We always wanted to start with the historic and bring it right up into the present day and show that it does have this long history, but that it is not always linear,” says Rout. “Fashion always looks back as well as looking forward.”

“And I think that there are lots of nice links throughout the exhibition. For instance, this 1963 dress by Rudi Gernreich is called 'Kabuki'.” She points to an A-line black and white checked mini dress with a pink striped obi-like panel fastened around the bust. The pattern appears like op art, but is actually, she explains, “ichimatsu check, named after the person (the 18th century Kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu) who popularised it.”

The exhibition’s final section sees mannequins assembled around an enormous red bonsai tree wearing garments from more recent popular culture: Freddie Mercury’s pink lounging robe; the red 1998 Jean Paul Gaultier kimono famously worn by Madonna in the music video for “Nothing Really Matters”; costumes designed by John Mollo and Trisha Biggar for Star Wars and an Alexander McQueen dress worn by Björk on the album cover Homogenic.

“The fact that its shape remains constant has meant that people tend to see the kimono as unchanging and traditional,” says Anna Jackson, the Exhibition Curator. “We want to show it as fluid and fashionable.”

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is currently on show at the V&A

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