Unlike the ever-changing silhouettes of western dress, the iconic cut of the Japanese kimono, a straight-seamed T-shaped robe, was developed in the Heian period (794 -1185) and has remained relatively unchanged through modern times. Central to almost all ensembles in traditional Japanese dress, kimono designs were seen as intimate reflections of the wearer’s identity. Newly available in paperback, Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion is a vibrant showcase of objects in the world-renowned Khalili Collections in London. Edited by Anna Jackson, Curator of Japanese Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it thoroughly explores how this wearable art changed over time technically and aesthetically, often as a response to the cultural context in which it was produced.

One of the most recognizable garments in Japanese fashion, kimonos were closet staples for people of all classes, ages, and genders. Literally translated as “a thing worn”, it is a term broadly used to describe a T-shaped costume with sleeves partially detached under the arm that can be wrapped around the body and secured with a belt. Over time, the simple yet iconic design in many ways became a canvas for imagery that communicated information about the wearer’s identity.

Japanese art was a breath of fresh air to the citizens of 19th-century France, whose country was being overwhelmed with rapid modernization and industrialism. The focus on individual craftsmanship and quality stood in stark contrast with mass production, and the simple utilitarian designs were the antithesis of perceived contrivances in European schools of art. Japanese aesthetics quickly permeated all aspects of popular culture, from fashion to theatre to home decor, and assembling collections of Japanese imports became a common pastime for the wealthy elite. This enthusiastic reception and emulation of Japanese art was called japonisme.