The V&A does an excellent line in fashion exhibitions that are bright, brash, frothy, OTT madness – a mirroring, perhaps, of the atmosphere surrounding most major fashion weeks. So it comes as a surprise, initially, to step inside ‘Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk’ and absorb a calming scene of cool mint walls, plain white ceiling drapes and a fairly traditional layout of glass exhibition cases.
The first part of the exhibition, which concentrates on the Edo Period (1603-1868), feels almost quaint in its commitment to being more of a Serious Museum Exhibition than a Big Fashion Blockbuster. But it’s a decision that pays off (although it might make the show slightly tricky to digest when crammed with hoards of visitors) because it focuses so completely on the complexities of kimono-creation and wear within Japanese society, providing a parallel fashion narrative to our usual French-centric one.
It also works because the items in those simple glass cases are fascinating and beautiful (very beautiful). From the flamboyant ruby reds and blazing motifs of a newly-minted merchant class to the pared-back (but achingly expensive) minimalism of the elite, the garments on display have the codified strictures of society woven into them as intricately as their embroidery patterns.
The second part, which begins with the relationship between Dutch traders and Japanese kimono-makers, before wiggling through British Victorian and Edwardian obsessions with the country and ending with an explosion of modern reinterpretations, is more recognisably a V&A fashion exhibition.
Pre-empting any potential comments about cultural appropriation, orientalism and exoticising, the V&A has taken a lot of care to critique, for example, the ridiculous images presented in ‘The Mikado’. But it’s actually at its most interesting, and persuasive, when it takes Western views out of the picture altogether – like in the first section.
Although it’s interesting to consider the ‘influence’ of kimono lines on Western creatives, the best contemporary reinterpretations are by Japanese designers and wearers, maybe because they have a deeper understanding of the garment and its possibilities. The photos of young women mashing up western, eastern, modern and historic fashion into kimono-based outfits at the close of the show are characterised by playfulness, joy and creativity – exactly what keeps any fashion truly alive.