(Flashback) Visiting the Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk Exhibition

kimono, Japanese, goldwork, gold work, thread, sewing, embroidery,
Picture of Natasha Searls-Punter

Natasha Searls-Punter

As a member of the V&A, I try to visit most of the temporary exhibitions they put on in the fine institution that is the Victoria and Albert Museum. At the start of March, they opened their doors on their newest addition ‘Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk’.

Held in North Court of the building, this exhibition brings a little Asian influence to their corner of the world. The Kimono is a fascinating piece of social history, carrying so much culture and responsibility within its relatively simple folds.

Kosode: From Edo period demonstrating Yuzen dyeing (Cloth tube fitted with a metal tip used to apply a thin ribbon of rice paste, then dyes are brushed within the paste boundaries) 1730-70

I won’t go into all the history as you should be able to make your own discovery of the exhibition and enjoy it fresh yourself, but I will show you a few of my highlights which may stir your interest. For an embroiderer or anyone interested in textiles, the exhibition is full of wonderful examples of hand embroidery and lesser known textile techniques. They draw a lot of attention to them, which was something I had not necessarily expected of the exhibition but was delighted to realise. As the basic form of a kimono is very clean and unfussy, once the structure of the garment has been addressed and the pattern explained there is not very much more to say about the shape. It is the varying and evolving elements of the details displayed on them which holds all the intrigue. Even though this is a fashion exhibition it is the textiles that does the lion’s share of the talking.

Design for a Kimono 1800-50

The historical examples at the start of the exhibition were very strong, the pattern books were a surprise but of course it makes great sense to sell such a garment in this way, with patterns being chosen and customised from a book rather than remade examples. The women of the elite military class could have designs made specifically for them, particularly for special occasions.

Detail from Kimono of a Geisha- a very elaborate example demonstrating the parallels between fashion and the theatre in 18th Century Japan

On the embroidery front, there are many great examples of goldwork and silk floss/silk shading styles throughout the exhibition. The lion above is quite an extravagant example, taken from the back of the kimono shown in the first image of this blog. Amazingly, the lion is only a very small part of the work on that kimono probably only measuring about 20-25cm high and isn’t even the main centre back motif. However I’m sure you will agree it is an exquisite use of Japanese thread (cotton core wrapped with gold leaf paper).

There are also a few pieces that feature a dying technique called Shibori which you may have heard of. It’s use is using much larger scale and bolder than the examples on the kimonos where it is used to create very small and delicate designs, creating a much more subtle and quietly expensive impression. The technique is quite labour intensive as it require parts of the fabric to be tied off very tightly before dying so they are left in negative as can be seen in the white squares pattern.

Uchikate- Outer Kimono for a young woman featuring Shibori and embroidery 1800-50

When Japan opened up its began trading with western countries such as Holland and Portugal, we can start to see the cultures influences each other, as Japanese kimono makers start to make kimonos from cottons South-east Asia and foreigners eager for everything Japanese started to use Japanese fabrics for their own pieces.

Day Dress: Misses Turner 1876-8

Japanese influenced robe, Victorian Era

Towards the end of the exhibition they turn the attention to more modern applications and influences of the Kimono. This includes pieces from modern fashion houses such as Dior, Commes De Garçons and Alexander Mcqueen. This room brings the exhibition full circle, they also demonstrate the cyclical nature of fashion as you can pick out the elements of kimonos that have influenced that ‘new’ piece.

‘High Voltage Power-Lines’ Yamawaki Toshiko 1956

Evening Dress: also by Yamawaki Toshiko (1956) featuring Obi like bow and scrolling asymmetric designTextile details, couched goldwork and red embroidery imitating kanoko shibori 

While this last room holds many beautiful pieces, the real gems of this exhibition are the historical pieces. Many people will be familiar with what a Kimono is on sight from walking through the Asia exhibits, but this exhibition delves so far into this garment and unpicks the elements of it. The V & A puts on lots of great fashion exhibitions and in London we are spoilt that we have fashion specific exhibitions at all. But as this one puts so much detail into the textiles and processes, it has something special to offer in my opinion.

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