Another fashion blockbuster to add to your diary – the V&A has dedicated an entire exhibition to the ultimate symbol of Japan

26.02.2020 | Emma Firth

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images courtesy of The V&A

Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Mary Quant. The V&A sets the agenda when it comes to blockbuster fashion exhibitions. For spring, the institution is going off-brand, so to speak. Instead of focusing on a ‘name’, they are celebrating one item of clothing: the kimono. Literally translated as “a thing to wear”, the exhibition entitled ‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ traces the traditional Japanese garment’s universal appeal, rich history and ever-evolving style. Highlights include 17th and 18th century kimono, original Star Wars costumes, Björk's Alexander McQueen dress worn for her Homogenic album cover in 1997, plus designs from the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano.

“I want to change people’s perceptions of the kimono,” curator Anna Jackson tells BURO. “People often think of it as this quite traditional costume, that’s somehow distanced from fashion. I’d like people to understand it’s always been a dynamic garment that has transcended borders and blurred the boundaries between the foreign and the familiar.” Below, Anna talks us through the kimono’s aesthetic importance, subversive DNA and cultural impact from the 1660s to present day.


Historically, there’s no difference between a kimono for men or women – your body shape is irrelevant. They are the same shape, the same cut, everything. It was only really later that men’s kimono became much more subdued in patterning and darker colours, but often with a really flashy line. In the 1970s, if you think of people like Freddie Mercury – there was definitely a certain flamboyance in the way he wore a kimono. A sense of playing with your identity and expressing a sexual ambiguity and gender fluidity.



image | Getty images

I think the Kimono was at risk at some point, they were so expensive you’d think they would die out. When I first started going to Japan in the 1990s you saw very few people wearing them, unless you went to a tea ceremony or very smart restaurant. More recently it’s felt like more people have been wearing the kimono on the street. Especially in Japan – like a rediscovery of their sartorial history and perhaps a reaction to the ubiquity of western fast fashion, combined with sharing those ideas on social media. The kimono seems to be having a bit of a moment now. I’m now very conscious that younger people are starting to wear the garment again and styling it up in new kinds of ways. You have this great new wave of designers coming through on the catwalks of Tokyo fashion week - it’s so much easier to wear now and [it’s] not so expensive. I wanted to present an exhibition about the kimono to make people understand it is about fashionable dress, not about some traditional fashion costume.


images | courtesy of the joshibi art museum & the Khalili collection

With Kimono there’s a real sense of individual style. It’s all about how you style it up – you can be quite casual, worn over a pair of jeans in the summer, or be more extravagant and abstract - it has a lot of flexibility. Take Moriguchi Kunihiko – he’s a living national treasure. You can see he always makes these amazingly graphic designs, worked out with mathematical precision, so that they have any kind of meaning in the modern world.


image | Getty images

Jean Paul Gaultier is a very inventive designer and he’s taken elements of the kimono for that iconic Madonna look. It’s interesting to see how the kimono, really since the mid 17th century, has affected clothing styles in Europe and the rest of the world. Here, Gaultier has used the cross-over top, the long sleeves, the sash around the middle. It seems an immensely versatile garment. Perhaps because of its very simple shape, it can be creatively transformed.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk opens on 29 February at the V&A. You can book tickets here.