S & S In Review – Kimono to Catwalk – The V & A Museum

In Review look to survey and report on the latest in literature, media & cultural attractions. This article was originally published via Fashion Roundtable – the essential link between fashion, business, consumers and policy leaders.

At a Glance

The Victoria & Albert Museum is no stranger to fashion and design exhibitions. In their latest work – Kimono to Catwalk, curator Anna Jackson and project curator Josephine Route look to the orient and Japan from where the history and design of this iconic garment can traced.

In Focus

Kimono translates simply into ‘the thing to wear’. It is symbolic not only of Japan but of innovative design that has global appeal, being both genderless and classless.

Divided into three, the exhibition is rich with the historical context of the kimono. ‘Kimono in Japan’ is the first section and explores the development of the gown during the Edo period (1615-1868) making reference to its ceremonious nature with many wedding interpretations on display.  Here, one can appreciate the luxurious textiles and century old weaving techniques which the Japanese government have stringently sought to preserve through to the modern day.

As the world began to open to trade, the next phase presents ‘Kimono in the World’. Exported by the Dutch East India Company, the influence of Asian fashion in the west reached new frontiers where silk robes, later giving birth to the dressing gown, were all the rage. Conversely, the upper echelons of Japanese society discarded traditional dress to adopt western designs in a bid to aspire to higher status.

Amongst the eclectic mix of silk robes, stand-out accessory pieces include the Cartier Paris display which call heavily upon Japanese stylist codes.

How is a staple of Japanese culture transformed into contemporary design? The final area sees the Kimono reprised following the Second World War and revived by international fashion houses.  

It is this display that truly conveys the power of the kimono to democratise fashion across borders. Stand out pieces include the dress and obi sash by Galliano, Alexander McQueen’s kimono jacket and the cocktail and bolero ensemble from YSL. Here, he fashioned an overskirt into a uchikake (padded outer kimono). Galliano’s lime green chee sie san masterpiece as seen below for Dior in the 1950’s is captivating.  

Memoirs of a Geisha

Space is dedicated to performance kimono and here fans of the 2005 cinematic interpretation of Memoirs of a Geisha can appreciate the Oscar winning costumes designed by Coleen Attwood. Those who have watched the film will resonate with how the item was so treasured, it was often used as a form of currency and means of power by the protagonists Hatsumomo and Sayuri. 

Occasionally, modern day interpretations of foreign cultures can come under much scrutiny. The Japanese way of life, both in terms of philosophy and cuisine have become increasingly popular in the west. Likewise, this can be said of South East Asian culture in general as we witness the seismic influence of Hollywood hits including ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Korean Oscar winner ‘Parasite’.  Translating the east for the west can sometimes teeter on the fine line of cultural appropriation. Just last year we saw the slaughter of Kim Kardashian following an initial ill-advised decision to name her branded shapewear ‘Kimono’.  The extent of this criticism and backlash from Japan prompted a rebrand to the now known ‘Skims’.

However, the execution of Kimono to Catwalk does well in walking this tightrope and the production is both tasteful and respectful. There is never a moment anywhere in the exhibition where the power and devotion to this symbol of Japan is mis conveyed to its audience.

Final Thoughts

The kimono has remained mostly unchanged throughout the centuries. Appealing to all cultures, classes and genders, the curation emphasises the timelessness of the garment. Beautiful and captivating whilst equally detailed with historical context, this exhibition is a must visit in London this spring.

Kimono to Catwalk runs at the V & A from February 29th – June 21st. Tickets are £16-£18.  

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