Kimono exhibition at the V&A

There have been some whirlwind weeks as of yet, however I am well and eager to give you all the scoop behind the V&A exhibition I visited recently. I have to be honest with you; my visit there was because of work, but I really enjoyed myself and learned so many things. My only misgiving is that in the end, I had to rush, as the museum was closing at 5.30, but that’s on me (Sophie, you should really think about booking an earlier slot next time!). So, my advice to you is to book as early as you can, so you won’t have to rush or not pay attention to the last exhibits. The “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk” exhibition is definitely one to attention to every last detail!

Kimono and shoes

First things first; I am not familiar with Japanese culture at all, and aside from my love for sushi and the “Memoirs of a Geisha” film, I think this is the extent of my knowledge. My boyfriend has learned some Japanese, but our interests are not similar. He is more into weaponry, I am more into art. To each their own, I guess. So, despite me not having a clue about Japan, for me the exhibition points out the significance of the garment in Japanese society and the shaping of the relationship between Japan and the West. As the exhibition famously points out, kimono is not a static garment, timeless and unchanging; rather a fluid and fashionable one, both in Japan and beyond. So, let’s get into it!

Red kimono

Kimonos are constructed from a single bolt of cloth, with minimal cutting. Lengths of fabric drape over the shoulders, while separate lengths form the sleeves at the sides. All these are then sewn together to create these incredible works of art, the kimonos. It is wonderful to also witness the little details, such as yūzen-dyeing, a technique using rice paste to the outline of a drawing on a fabric. Apart from that, you will also be astounded by the depth of colour and embroidery used in the garments from the 18th or 19th centuries or even before. It’s also interesting to see the more muted and sombre kimonos for men, compared to the youthful-looking furisode (formal kimono for young, unmarried women) or uchikake (formal kimono as bridalwear).

Cocktail set
Decorative vases
Painting of a woman wearing kimono

While Japan was a “closed country” during the Edo period (the period when the use of kimonos really flourished), the Dutch East India Company was permitted to trade, which resulted in importing fabrics into Japan and exporting kimonos to Europe. This is where the second part of the exhibition lies; East-West relations. By the early 19th century, everyone was interested in these, exotic-looking garments and a general craze developed. Adapted for Western sensibilities, components of kimono were incorporated into day dresses, nightgowns, or even duvet-kind dressing gowns. I think this is one of the most creative sections of the exhibition, as you can clearly see the two-way influences in – not only fashion, but also accessories, home ornaments and homeware – every day life. Actually I adored the fans, dresses and all other exhibits shown there.


The third part of the exhibition focuses on the kimono after the 1940s and here you can actually feast on colour and imagination. You can believe that this is the other creative section I mentioned before. A bolero jacket and cocktail dress co-ordinating outfit by Yves Saint Laurent, extravagant designs by John Galliano, even costumes from “Memoirs of a Geisha”, you can find them all there! But don’t get me wrong, among these, there are modern Japanese designers’ styles, adapting Western details and, in essence, actually re-inventing kimono as a garment. I strongly believe that these Japanese works of art (because they are indeed works of art) can be found at a museum of modern art as much as at a design and fashion museum.

Madonna’s kimono (centre), Freddie Mercury’s (left), Bjork’s kimono (right)
Alec McGuinness’ kimono in Star Wars

The most interesting exhibits here are those used for film and music performances, and looking back at the history of the garment, this is only natural. I know I mentioned the “Memoirs of a Geisha” costumes, however this wonderful medley is accompanied for one by Madonna’s red kimono by Jean Paul Gaultier from “Nothing Really Matters” music video. There is also a kimono owned by Freddie Mercury and even an Alexander McQueen kimono worn by Bjork on her Homogenic album cover. If that is not fascinating, I don’t know what is! To be so close to (music) history for me is ground-breaking and for that reason, I am ever so glad I’ve visited this exhibition!


Despite not having a single clue about Japanese culture beforehand, I will admit I didn’t get bored not even once! Fortunately the V&A didn’t focus too much on dry subjects, such as materials used or for example embroidery techniques. There was a short video on the construction of the kimono, but nothing overwhelming after that. I loved the portrayal of East-West, tradition and modernity, I loved the garments, decorative screens, magazines and paintings and especially how a single piece of clothing managed to influence so many aspects of our lives! It seems so extraordinary, but is in fact not. So, I think you have to go and see for yourselves what I am taking about – hopefully the virus will not prevent bookings the following months of the exhibition!

Till next time,


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