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.
The majority of the objects featured in Kimono were created in the Edo period (1603-1868) which, after many years of civil war, ushered in an era of peace. With political stability came increased consumerism, and the merchant class (once considered the lowliest citizens, below even farmers) flourished in cities such as Kyoto, Edo and Osaka. They accommodated the expensive tastes of aristocrats flocking to the distractions of these bustling urban centers, and satisfied their desire for the most novel trends in fashion design.
As the merchants continued to aggregate power, divisions within Japanese social stratification became ever more nebulous; people living in this period often turned to costumes as a means to assert wealth or status. In particular, sumptuous dress was quickly incorporated into the visual language of authority and acted as a crutch for the members of the ruling military class who could no longer distinguish themselves through feats on the battlefield. The zeitgeist of this era and its impact on fashion is captured in a quote from the publication from 1688 Nihon Eitaigura (translation: Japan’s treasury of the Ages):
Fashions have changed from those of the past and have become increasingly ostentatious. In everything people have a liking for finery above their station … In recent years, certain shrewd Kyoto people have started to lavish every manner of magnificence on men’s and women’s clothes and to put out design books in color. With modish fine-figured patterns, palace style hundred-color prints, and bed dapple tie dye, they go to the limit for unusual designs to suit any taste.
The demand for finery increased, means of production diversified and designs took on a communicative function: by combining certain motifs, patterns, and color palettes, wearers were able to relate complex narratives about themselves through dress. It is clear from surviving prints that people went to great lengths (scouring costume catalogues, upcycling old garments, etc.) to acquire new kimonos that were both trendy and suited their own aesthetic sensibilities. For those who could not find what they were looking for via mail order, it was also possible to commission a bespoke design. In some cases, these efforts were collaborative, a passage from the famous publication Life of a Sex-mad Man (Koshoku ichidai otoko) describing a situation where:
The courtesan Kaoru commissioned the renowned artist Kano Yukinoku to paint a picture of a flaming autumn on plain white satin. Eight court nobles were next asked to inscribe vignettes in verse, in black decorative calligraphy, on this gorgeous design. The result was a picture of breathtaking beauty, admirably suitable for a hanging scroll. But Kaoru had no idea of putting it to such trifling use. She had it made into a robe for herself.
The new variety in surface designs naturally concerned the ruling Tokugawa family, who meticulously censored art that could be considered politically subversive. To maintain social order, they periodically instituted sumptuary laws prohibiting people from wearing garments deemed inappropriately extravagant for their status. However, since the military and aristocratic classes often found themselves indebted to affluent textile merchants when they were unable to financially sustain their lives of leisure, these laws were difficult to enforce. Additionally, it seems that in many cases, a blind eye was turned to most legal transgressions because illegal costume, like prostitution or pornography, was a commodity that were just as popular among authorities as laypeople.
The Khalili collections also contain kimonos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time characterized by rapid industrialization and westernization. As Japanese artists were increasingly inspired by western imports and were exposed to mechanized means of production, conversations surrounding kimono design often presented concepts of tradition and modernity or East and West as polarities instead of commingling sources of inspiration. The dynamics of these seemingly conflicting priorities in kimono design have continued to fascinate artists up to the present day, many of whom experiment with historic techniques in their effort to explore their potential as a medium for contemporary art.
Full of beautiful illustrations and utilizing a diverse range of sources, Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion explores how costume holds a mirror to major developments in the social history of Japan. With high quality photographs and contributions from leading experts on the subject, this catalogue would be a wonderful addition to any library.
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.