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  • Writer's picturePatrick Cabasset

The versatile kimono

From modest housecoat to rich ceremonial garment, alluring outfit for listless geishas

to warrior uniform for hard-faced samurai, the kimono is nothing if not versatile. An

exhibition showcasing every aspect of the garment is currently on in Paris in

response to the resurgence in its popularity.

Ladies’ over-kimono (uchikake). Probably Kyoto, 1860-1880. Silk satin (shusu), appliqué and silk and gold silk thread embroidery © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This ultimate symbol of Japan, the embodiment of national culture and sensibility,

has become a sought-after item on a global scale since the 18 th century. As of 1650

and the advent of the Edo period, Japan effectively closed itself off from the rest of

the world. It was forbidden to travel there, to trade, or even to call at its ports, a

privilege granted exclusively to Dutch merchants and only as of the 18 th century.

Once there, they discovered the true richness of the kimono, an everyday Japanese

garment worn by men and women alike that could also, in its highly decorated silk

versions, be worn as court dress. They exported the garment to the West, where men

of letters, initially, were finally able to wear this precursor to homewear, a much less

dull alternative to their traditional dressing gowns.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) Three women in front of the Daimaruya Edo kimono shop (Tokyo), 1840-1845

Comprising 8 strips of fabric assembled together, the kimono can be adorned with a

thousand precious decorative pieces using the yùzen technique of applying a rice

paste to resist-dye the fabric.

It was an immediate hit among Europe’s higher social classes, so much so that the

Japanese were unable to keep up with this growing foreign demand. Never short of

ideas, however, the Dutch merchants started to have them produced in India—the

first of multiple outsourcing initiatives! The arrival of the 19 th century saw the

popularity of the kimono really soar in the West, heralding several waves of Japonism

and a taste for the exotic in general.

“The kimono is symbolic of a Japan that influences the world and allows itself

to be influenced by the same”— Emmanuel Kasarhérou, President, musée du quai

Branly — Jacques Chirac

Kimono for export Probably Kyoto, 1905-1915 Silk satin (shusu), silk thread embroidery © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Organised in conjunction with London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the exhibition at

the musée du quai Branly has chosen to demystify this cult garment. Far from seeing

it as a timeless and unchangeable piece, the curators (Anna Jackson and Josephine

Rout) have chosen to highlight its fluidity, its ability to adapt to the fashion world and

its appeal beyond its culture of origin. Worn as something of a standard or a symbol

of guilty indolence, whether cultural, religious or simply practical, this icon of Japan

demonstrates its ability to influence the world in allowing itself to be influenced by the


This spectacular display features nearly 200 truly extraordinary kimonos, from pieces

by Paul Poiret to those of Yohji Yamamoto and John Galliano, from the unique model

created by Kunihiko Moriguchi, a ‘living national treasure’ in Japan, to the original

Star Wars costumes by Trisha Biggar.

Poster of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust 1974 Ink printed on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s also worth noting that Japan is now witnessing a real resurgence of this

enveloping and endearing garment— something Esmod Tokyo students are seeing

on a daily basis, firstly out on the street, where young designers who have become

tired of the constant changes in Western fashion are stylising old kimonos, and also

in the emergence of a new wave of designers who are appropriating the kimono in

innovative and sometimes subversive ways. They are all turning the kimono into a

dynamic piece of fashion that’s a far cry from its traditional roots.

Kimono: Until 28 May 2023, musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. 37 Quai

Branly, 75007 Paris.

Kimono (kosode) Japan, 1840-1860 Cotton satin (menjusu) from China, stencil resist dyed (katazome) Donation by Yoshida Kōjirō © Kyoto Living Craft House Mumeisha © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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