Exceptional fashion exhibits are the V&A’s backbone. Recently, Christian Dior: Designer of dreams, sold out so rapidly that the show was extended for a further seven weeks. Before that, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a transfer from the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, was widely seen as a critical success. The London museum’s newest flagship offering, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk; represents a thematic divergence that is no less enchanting.
In venturing away from the evitable allure of an iconic brand, Anna Jackson’s curation exists in stark contrast to the almost garish wow-factor of previous exhibits. Traditional glass display cabinets are embraced. Spring green hues compliment warm creams, and plain drapes make for an air of authentic tranquillity. To rush around this exhibit verges on ignoble. Doubtlessly, the atmosphere is enhanced by the nature of the exhibits themselves.
Each garment is delicate. Some to the extent they may never again be displayed; even when returned to Japan. Each item – and there are over 300 – invites a pause. Here, to look is to savour. It is as if studying a living butterfly at close range. One does not need to understand or appreciate the art of embroidery to grasp or gawp at the intricacies of these garments. Arguably, this represents Anna Jackson’s greatest success. The boundaries of esotericism are effectively broken.
In numerous respects, the kimono is fixedly ahead of its time. One 18th century piece is embroidered with lines from a romantic poem; foresight, perhaps, of the universal appeal of the slogan t-shirt. Both utilitarian and unisex, the garment does not distinguish between the masculine or feminine frame, feeding into present day considerations of sexual expression and gender fluidity. Indeed, the translation of kimono: literally ‘a thing to wear’, counters common misconceptions around the garment’s performative origins. It is the simplicity of cut that lends itself so ideally as a canvas; one upon which implication; be that political, social or sexual, has played out with immense passion and ingenuity. While the kimono is often abstract, modern designers have produced astonishingly overt attires, often carrying clear political messages. One such example is Ishikawa Narutoshi’s vibrant ensemble, which depicts a broken war plane submerged in the ocean; a clear call for an end to conflict.
While the Japanese have worn the kimono since the Heian period (794-1185), the chronologically structured exhibit begins in Sixteenth Century Kyoto. Here, a vibrant fashion culture developed, driven by the wealthy merchant class. While a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity meant that merchants could revel in their wealth, rigid social constructs prevented any form of social mobility, regardless of economic success. As such, the merchant class invested in luxuries. Cravings for the latest fashions prompted the production of pattern books, akin to today’s Vogue. Yet merchants remained restricted to certain styles. That the width of a sleeve could indicate social standing demonstrates the kimono as in many senses linguistic. Each garment can be read, giving a glimpse into the circumstance of she (or he) who adorned the silk.
The final element of the exhibition showcases the kimono as a global performative garment. Artists have turned to the garment as a medium through which to explore identity, be that national, sexual, ethnic or gender. While there is a fine line between performative licence and cultural appropriation, the global influence of the kimono, both on catwalks and in popular culture, is undeniable.
It is here that the V&A is able to play its celebrity trump card. Visitors have to wait for the household names, but upon arrival they come in droves. Freddie Mercury’s delicately patterned and overtly feminine kimono stands beside Jean Paul Gautier’s fabulous ensemble, made for Madonna’s Nothing Really Matters music video. Original Star Wars costumes feature opposite the iconic Bjork / Alexander Mcqueen collaboration, which illustrated the seminal Homogenic album.
Through the exquisite lens of the kimono, Anna Jackson has presented an eye-watering exploration of Japan through the ages. It is a jaw to the floor, must-see celebration and preservation; of both national culture and global influence.
From Feb 29 to June 21, V&A Museum (vam.ac.uk)