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Kosmic Kimono

Spoiler. We love exhibitions at the V&A. They're like a good bottle of wine, a perfect blend between curation, design, lighting and sound, and they almost always result in a triumph.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk doesn’t let the side down. A substantial exhibition necessitating a visit of around a couple of hours, it retraces the global story of the kimono in several stages, from its emergence as a fashion statement in early 17th-century Japan, to its impact on western fashion from the 18th century onwards, the return influence of western styles on Japanese traditions, and the rebirth of the kimono in 20th- and 21st-century fashion. A tale of fusion, the exhibition has been curated perfectly and is a delight for fashion purists as well as lovers of art and history.

Welcomed by an atmospheric sound design, combining the sounds of water, birds and gongs, the visitor is transported straight away to Edo Japan. The gallery space is vast, and the restrictions imposed by Covid mean there is even more space to circulate than normal.

Three kimonos introduce the central theme of the show: the first is a traditional kimono from the early 1800s; the second a design by John Galliano showing how the garment has influenced western fashion (2006); the third by Jotaro Saito (2019) reveals the re-birth of the kimono in contemporary Japanese culture.

Arranged both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition begins with the flourishing of the kimono in the Edo period (1615-1868). On display are luxurious kosode (the name given to kimonos at the time), the only garments which survived, alongside original screens, scrolls and prints. A clever video demonstrates how the sections of the kimono on display in the neighbouring cabinet would have been sewn together. That’s something which is often lacking in exhibitions, an explanation of the process of how the objects were made.

Three large rooms are devoted to kimonos in the Edo period. A colour print made from woodblocks (1847-52) depicts a woman with a mirror, brushes and combs; next to it are displayed examples of the same objects, including a box given to the V&A by Queen Victoria. We loved the way one kimono from around 1860-80 was associated with geta (shoes) from 2015, hinting at the overall direction of the show.

And then a change of scene takes place. A different soundtrack and a red lacquer wall welcome the influence of the kimono in the West. The Japanese started to trade with the Dutch in the 17th century, and soon kimonos became trend-setting gowns and accessories, albeit adapted to western tastes. Cotton originating in South Asia became a desirable material for the manufacture of kimonos, as the Japanese adapted to the market. One of the most striking scenes in the exhibition comprises an Edo era outer kimono made from European silk, side by side with a Japanese kimono made from Indian cotton and a Japanese under kimono made from either British or French cotton.

The exhibition design evolves constantly but never jars. The most striking room in the show is perhaps the gallery of mirrors, full of the reflections of Japanese kimonos from more modern times. Entering this room you come face-to-face with a poster entitled Staircase (1935), showing a Japanese woman who has not abandoned traditional values, yet at the same time embraces the latest designs, including a clutch bag and furs. This part of the exhibition also emphasises the patriotic side of the kimono in Japan, none more so than with the examples from the 1930s which depict battleships and fighter planes..

A dazzle of white and you’re in the last room, leading you down a futuristic, undulating path. This part of the exhibition celebrates not only the importance of the kimono as a ceremonial garment, but also its re-birth in fashion and in popular culture throughout the world. The show culminates with a display of kimonos worn in the movies, with excerpts from the films themselves being projected onto the wall.

Our only regret? That there were no videos of kimonos being worn on the catwalk. It would also have been nice to have had proper footage of Madonna and Bjork wearing their kimonos designed by Alexander McQueen and John Galliano respectively, rather than the static models in their place.

It's not until the very end that the exhibition finally asks whether the kimono in western fashion is an act of cultural appropriation. The question itself is buried in the panel introducing clips from films and musical performances (Star Wars and Ziggy Stardust among them), and it comes immediately after a striking assemblage of kimonos showing how trends from East and West have been fused with those from as far afield as Ghana. One wonders whether this debate is now redundant. By this point it has become apparent that this form of dress has never been restricted to Japan, with fabrics and influences travelling in both directions. When a western designer creates their own response to the kimono, is that less an act of cultural appropriation and more one of veneration?

What are the greatest strengths of this exhibition? It has a real focus on social history (slightly regrettable in that case that there were only two male visitors in the gallery when we went round, which implies that the general public believes it's a show about fashion). Its outlook is truly global. The set design and soundscape is different from room to room, but is always sympathetic to the story being told. And, what makes a good exhibition, we learned a huge amount about the subject, and about Japanese culture in general.

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 25 October. The exhibition is now sold out but limited tickets are available daily from 09:30.

Karen Eeckman and Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels

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