Who am I? I rose to popularity in the 17th century as the principal item of dress for Japanese men, women, and children, (my name translates as “thing to wear”). I retained my title as the main item of attire in Japan for centuries — I’m still worn there ceremoniously. In the late 19th century, I went international, becoming popular with European women posing for portraits.
By the early 20th century, I had evolved into a dynamic and radical influence on Western fashion. I have now “crossed-over” into mainstream fashion — modern-day celebrities worldwide don me; high-end designers have reinterpreted me; boho babes wear me at Coachella. How many items of clothing can claim the history or versatility that I, the Kimono, can?
Just two weeks before the mid-March pandemic lockdown, Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London opened the first major UK exhibition on the subject: “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk.” The exhibition shows the history of the T-shaped, straight seamed garment of Japan’s Edo period. Originally cut from a single bolt of fabric and assembled in 7 pieces (one is shown deconstructed at the museum), the exhibition traces the Kimono through its origins as a garment of the merchant class, through its adoption by the ruling Samurai class.
The exhibition also covers various methods of printing, dyeing, embroidery, and painting, (all done in different workshops) and, finally, the Kimono’s adaptation as a global fashion item. There are under and over kimonos, seasonal and festive kimonos, unisex, and specifically gendered garments. The men’s pieces are generally executed in darker colors and are less decorated than the women’s often floral or crane themed pieces. By the late 19th century, men started to wear western-style clothing, but women stayed in kimonos.
According to Curator Anna Jackson, these “pieces of art to wear,” many from the 17th and 18th centuries, are often shown on a T-bar stand in museums. “You forget that they’re clothes, so we’ve put some on mannequins,” she adds during her fascinating and informative virtual five-part tour of the 300 piece collection.
Jackson speaks of the real renaissance of Kimono wearing in the last 15 or 20 years in Japan. “It started on the street with the restyling of vintage garments by young Japanese who perhaps didn’t have the same associations as their parents or grandparents.” She remarks that the youthful rediscovery is also a conscious reaction against the ubiquity of fast fashion. Contemporary kimonos popular with Japanese youth come from brands like Rumi Rock, Modern Antenna, Yoshikomono, and others, and made of cotton or polyester featuring digitally printed geometric designs.
In the last room of the exhibition, more modern-day designs by Thom Browne, John Galliano for Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Rei Kawakubo abound. Additionally featured are Jean Paul Gaultier’s red “mini” Kimono (worn by Madonna in her “Nothing Really Matters” video), and Bjork wears an Alexander McQueen kimono on her “Homogenic” album cover. A kimono worn by Queen’s Freddie Mercury at home (he also wore them on stage) is here as well as Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi kimono worn by Alec Guinness.
Since the early 20th-century kimonos have been made commercially for export. However, they often stir up quite a bit of controversy in our current social and political climate. I remember reading (and writing briefly) about another exhibition involving a kimono back in 2015 at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The MFA had a summer program called “Kimono Wednesdays,” affording attendees a chance to don a replica kimono for a photo op in front of Monet’s “La Japonaise.”
The 1876 painting by Claude Monet features his wife Camille sporting a breathtaking red kimono while wearing a blonde wig, holding a fan, and posing in a flirty over the shoulder stance. The work of art is an ironic nod to the current trend of the day– French culture’s fascination with all things Japanese, especially kimonos.
This event got more publicity than expected owing to protests (and subsequent counter-protests). The protesters asserted that this experience constituted “cultural appropriation” and “yellowface.” Eventually, the social justice warriors won –the Kimono was left on view to touch, but try-ons banned following the bizarre saga. It seems that the whole idea got lost in translation somehow. What happened to “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” I had to shake my head when just last week many cheered on Nancy Pelosi’s photo op featuring members of Congress “taking a knee” in Kente cloth. Appropriation or even worse, pandering? It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
A more recent “kimonotroversy” unfolded upon the unveiling of Kim Kardashian West’s line of shapewear initially branded “Kimono.” Never mind that it was an unfortunate pun on her name and had nothing to do with actual kimonos — cancel culture came for her quickly declaring “Kim-Oh-No!” Of course, she issued an apology over her perceived insensitivity via social media and renamed her product “Skims.” Clearly, no similar appropriation enforcement exists in the dairy industry. Can we defund these “police?”
Another example of “kimono-speak” is a term sometimes used in business dealings. If someone says they want to do a deal, “open kimono” resist the urge to slap them – they are not inappropriate. This expression refers to the open sharing of all information on both sides.
Meanwhile, as we begin to re-navigate the world (or at least get out of our houses), I think kimonos are the perfect transitional piece. They feel familiar like the silky robe you may have lived in during quarantine while adding so much style to a simple outfit of t-shirt or tank top and jeans. Authentic kimonos are in all price ranges from 1stDibs to Etsy. Fun “kimono” music festival-wear options are trending at Free People and Anthropologie.
More upscale versions abound at Net-a-Porter and The Outnet from Alice + Olivia, Camilla, and others. Haute designers such as Gucci and Etro have their luxe take. Yohji Yamamoto, who contributed a colorful “face” kimono and matching dress for the V&A exhibition, recommends that you “style up a kimono any way you like – after all it’s just a thing to wear.”