Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk to YouTube


As I lounge on the sofa in a well-worn tracksuit, a place I seem to end up most of the time nowadays, there is a wealth of culture to explore online. Cultural institutions across the world are rapidly investing in their online infrastructure; some have hit the mark, others have missed.

The virtual exhibition of the 2020 BP Portrait Award is easy to navigate and full of high quality images of stunning portraits. By contrast Durham Oriental Museum’s own attempt at a virtual YouTube tour of ‘Pushing paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now’ was clunky and dispiriting.

‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ is an exhibition currently installed at the V&A. In their own documentary-style videos filmed just before the V&A closed its doors, curator Anna Jackson leads you on a personal tour of this fascinating exhibition. Dressed in what appears to be the kimono version of Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat, she is a fountain of knowledge with evident passion for her subject.

‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ seeks to challenge the conventional view of the
Kimono as a timeless, unchanging garment by exposing its dynamic history up to the present day. This it has done by assembling the largest variety of the Japanese garment into the most densely packed area seen since seventeenth century Kyoto.

Delicate kimonos, deconstructed kimonos, kimonos decorated with flowers, kimonos decorated with skulls and bones, kimonos made for export to the Western market, woodblock prints of kimonos, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s kimono, kimonos seen in Kurosawa films, the list goes on. As Jackson explains, kimono simply means ‘the thing to wear’ and was worn by everyone from
children to samurai, merchants to geishas, regardless of gender or age. Since their early popularity, kimono designs were constantly evolving with the development of increasingly intricate designs.

During the Edo period, Dutch trade brought checked and striped Indian fabrics to Japan, drawing the kimono into an increasingly globalised world of interconnected trade despite the Japanese policy of isolation. European demand for all things Japanese in the mid-nineteenth century helped silk merchant Shino Shōbe create what may have been the first global fashion brand in 1859 from Yokohama. Kimonos created for the Western market were more tightly-fitting and padded for the colder climate. In the twentieth century, the preference for Western suits amongst men
symbolised a desire for ‘modernity’; women, on the other hand, sought
increasingly colourful and garish kimono designs.

‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ shows that virtual exhibitions, whilst no substitute to visiting in-person, can be engaging and well executed.

The arguments to reopen museums and galleries are beginning to gain traction. With IKEA stores open and non-essential retail stores set to reopen from 15th June, why not an exhibition? These are spaces that will surely boost mental health more than a Billy bookcase or Kallax shelving unit.

Viewing art and objects in person is an experience that cannot be replaced by the unemotional glare of a screen. These debates will continue as museums slowly lose income and local institutions edge closer towards insolvency. Until then, the move towards virtual engagement has its upsides and is proving great for improving accessibility.

Viewing the exquisite beauty of the kimonos in all their embroidered glory is something I look forward to when the V&A does finally reopen. As Jackson notes, during the shogunate the kimono became “a blank scroll to create a piece of art to wear”. Something to bear in mind next time I throw on my tracksuit and old t-shirt combo for the hundredth time.

Image: V&A

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