“Japanese Dress in Detail” by Josephine Rout

Detail of plate from Japanese Dress in Detail Detail of plate from Japanese Dress in Detail

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 Dress in Detail features a number of costumes and accessories in the prolific Asian Art collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and sheds light on how they reflected evolving notions of modernity in Japan. Accompanied by demonstrative diagrams, prints, and photographs, this beautiful publication is an excellent introduction to the history of costume in Japan, as well as a vibrant showcase of a single collection.

Japanese Dress in Detail explores some of the most impressive pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 Japanese Dress in Detail (Victoria and Albert Museum), Josephine Rout, Anna Jackson, (Thames & Hudson, June 2020)
Japanese Dress in Detail (Victoria and Albert Museum), Josephine Rout, Anna Jackson, (Thames & Hudson, June 2020)

The story of the kimono begins in the Heian period (794-1185), when the utilitarian garment was reimagined as a vehicle for self-expression. There are very few surviving examples of costume from this time, but contemporary paintings show that the progenitor of the modern kimono was remarkably similar to those seen in Japan today, with straight seams, geometric silhouette, and textile designs inspired by scenes from classical literature and music.

From the 12th century onwards, variations in kimonos (and their associated accessories) did emerge to accommodate the different circumstances in which they were worn. However, in general, structures changed only incrementally, whereas trendy new styles of surface decoration emerged more frequently and tended to have a relationship with contemporary culture and politics. The patterns and motifs used in kimono design were also often imbued with codified visual language that would have been understood by the wearer’s peers.

This status quo was disrupted dramatically in the Edo period (1600-1868), when regional seats of power like Kyoto and Tokyo became thriving metropolitan centers. Although artisans, merchants, and actors were traditionally regarded to be among the most lowly classes according to Confucian principles, their trade flourished by way of the increased consumption of the urban growing elite. This group, composed of warriors and aristocrats, were part of the demimonde popularly known as the ukiyo or “floating world”. It was a space of ephemeral pleasures, leisure activities, and most importantly, indulgent expenditure. The people in it flaunted their new wealth and social gravity by donning garb with flashy designs and expensive materials.


The proliferation of print in the Edo period ensured that fashion trends changed more rapidly and developed independently from the sequestered courts of the emperor and military government (Shogunate). The latest catalogues, manuals, and pattern books were in high demand and circulated widely throughout the country, demonstrated in the significant number prints from this time showing fashionable young urbanites pouring over the latest trends. Taking into account prospective buyers desire for the new, vendors hoped to convey through these materials that their shops were privy to the most novel developments in apparel design. In order to grab people’s attention, many included designs that were clearly derived from the work of well-known artists, were known to be worn by famous actors, or were inspired by foreign imports (primarily Chinese).

In the modern world, kimonos are perceived as icons of Japanese pop culture.

There is particular focus in Japanese Dress in Detail on how rapid industrialization and the exposure to the western world in the 19th and 20th centuries influenced personal expressions of individuality and sense of place in the changing world. With the opening of Japan’s borders (closed to foreigners from 1633) in 1853, the impact of European and American imports flooding the Japanese market was immediately apparent in Japanese fashion. Consumers were undoubtedly fascinated by the new aesthetics, and like their country, became swept up in efforts to “catch up” with the rest of the world after years of isolation.


The materials, synthetic or natural, newly available to Japanese vendors expanded the horizons of dress. Designers emulated western textiles and took advantage of modern means of production, in some cases hybridizing conventions of East and West. Although imagery derived from classical literature was still popular, Japanese dress also began to feature subject matter that referenced western landmarks or cultural icons. Ironically, Europeans and Americans were enamored with the more traditional styles, and did not want imported goods “tainted” by western aesthetics. By the 1930s, on the eve of World War Two when the newly industrialized Japanese military forces began invading the surrounding region, one started seeing militaristic imagery like planes and battleships that represents the nationalistic zeitgeist of the era.


In the modern world, kimonos are perceived as icons of Japanese pop culture. In response to this, contemporary artists have approached kimono production in a variety of ways that addresses its place within Japanese aesthetics. Some have made a noted effort to revitalize the stark silhouette and understated aesthetics, while others use them to hold a mirror to the forces of mass media, referencing subjects ranging from Hello Kitty to politics to Disney.

Japanese Dress in Detail explores some of the most impressive pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum and through these explores how costume reflects wearers’ responses to their cultural context.

Fiona Collins is a Japanese print cataloguer and researcher at the Worcester Art Museum. She holds an MA in Japanese Studies from SOAS, University of London, and her research interests include premodern Japanese design and material culture studies.