The Evolution of Kimono

A dialogue across continents

Kimono for a Girl (Furisode) (1920-1940)The Khalili Collections

A Thing to Wear

"Kimono", which simply means "a thing to wear" has more than a thousand year history. But it is from the 16th century onwards that it became the main item of dress for almost everyone in Japan, regardless of class, gender or age. This dynamic part of Japanese dress has influenced global fashion in ways we're only beginning to understand. This exhibit uses one of the world's most significant collections of Kimono - The Khalili Collections - to chart the evolution of the Kimono and spotlight its profound impact on Western culture.  

Unlined Kimono for a Woman (Hitoe) (1910-1920)The Khalili Collections

Wearing Art

Throughout their history, kimono were often used as an everyday canvas where statements and allusions - whether they be political, personal, or social - were made. Over time, as new techniques and motifs developed, they became works of art in their own right. Being a 'one-size-fits-all' garment, people relied on the patterns rather than fitting to express their identities. 

Kimono for a Woman (1920-1930)The Khalili Collections

A Simple Concept

The basic shape and construction of the kimono has remained the same for centuries. Usually, a single bolt of fabric would form the body and sleeves of the kimono and sometimes be used for the neckband and collar. The length of fabric would be draped over the shoulder and cover the body down to the hemline, sewn together through a central seam running down the back. Later, sleeves would be attached and finally the neckband and collar. The garment would wrap around the body, left side over right, and secured with a sash, known as obi. The ‘T’ shape then created on the back of the garment would become the canvas on which designers and weavers would unleash their creativity. 

Summer Kimono for a Woman (Katabira) (1820-1850)The Khalili Collections

Late Edo Fashion

Towards the latter part of the Edo period (1603-1868), the country began to open up to Dutch trade and cultural exchange and was characterised by sophisticated Kimono designs of the imperial court, samurai aristocracy and affluent merchant classes. 

Kimono for a Woman (Kosode), 1780-1820, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Underkimono for a man (juban), 1800-1850, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Young Woman (Uchikake), 1820-1850, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Woman (Uchikake) (1800-1850)The Khalili Collections

A Growing Merchant Class

Although the merchant class were considered the lowest of all in Edo Japan, their growing wealth following the opening up of Japan from the mid 19th century onward meant that there wa a growing demand for Kimono with more intricate designs, and which were decorated with various dying and embroidery techniques. 

This lavishly decorated kimono is made from a silk crepe (chairmen) and is freehand paste-resist dyed (yūzen). It is embroidered in silk and metallic threads.

The design shows a landscape with a pavilion, gateway, fishing nets and nobleman's cart.

Outer Kimono for a Young Woman (Uchikake), 1840-1870, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Young Woman (Uchikake), 1840-1870, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Young Woman (Uchikake) (1850-1880)The Khalili Collections

A woman’s formal outer kimono, known as uchikake, dating from the 1850s and made with figured satin silk (rinzu), and applied gold.

It is dyed using the yūzen technique and then elaborately impressed with gold and silver.

Real-life cranes are considered mythical beings, used as a symbol of longevity and good fortune due to the belief in Japanese folklore of their thousand year life-span and habitation in the land of immortals, as opposed to the hō-ō birds which were purely fictional.

The crane holds special significance in Japan – the Ainu tribes of northern Hokkaidō have even devised a dance dedicated to the celebration of the birds’ movement.

Outer Kimono for a Young Woman (Uchikake) (1870-1900)The Khalili Collections

Meiji Kimono

The Meiji period was defined by its drive towards both Westernisation and industrialisation, kickstarted by Japan opening its borders to the world in the 1860s leading the rapid import of Western culture and technologies. Importantly for kimono, this included synthetic dyes as well as a number of Western design motifs. 

Kimono for a Woman (Kosode), 1870-1900, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Young Woman (Uchikake), 1880-1900, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Woman (Uchikake), 1880-1890, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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A plain, bold colour, featuring an elaborate design around the hem was a common Meiji design.

Set of four padded-silk panels - 4 by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

Everyday Workwear

Kimono were not only worn by the wealthy urban elite, but also by different castes across rural areas of Japan. This Meiji-era padded textile called Oshi-e, which itself is skilfully made from offcuts of cloth (sometimes Kimono), shows how Kimono of different types were worn on a day-to-day basis in rural Japan. 

This composition focuses on a rural village, depicting many characters mostly from the working classes

Kimono here are depicted relatively plain, although we see that they are nonetheless produced with subtle designs

Another example of an outer kimono worn for the purposes of manual work

Men generally wore less extravagant kimonos

The three kimonos (1905) by George W LambertArt Gallery of New South Wales

Introduction to Western Culture

In late nineteenth century Europe and America, the kimono signified something artistic, fashionable, exotic and, at times, non-conformist. In the aesthetic interior it could denote a woman’s social confinement, while hinting at the supposed eroticism of the East. Kimono could be bought in shops such as Liberty’s, but the actual wearing of them was limited to the artistic and social elite – it was a bohemian garment that would only be worn indoors. The percieved eccentricity of a Western woman, in a society used to corsets, wearing this loose, ‘exotic’ garment resulted in turning the Kimono into the symbol of the risqué. 

Courtesan: after Eisen (October 1887 - November 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Depiction in Western Art & Fashion

Western familiarisation with kimono also came from famous paintings during this period which depicted the garment often. Many Western artists including Vincent Van Gogh were particularly fascinated by Japanese culture. In fact, Van Gogh is famed for stating: "In a way, all my work is founded in Japanese art". His interest in Kimono can be seen here in his painting The Courtesan.

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine) (1863-1865) by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

This painting, which hangs over the mantel in the Peacock Room, was part of a series of costume pictures undertaken by Whistler in the mid-1860s in which western models appear in Asian dress, surrounded by Chinese and Japanese objects from Whistler's own collections.

Not intended as a portrait, the painting instead demonstrated a new ideal of beauty, one derived from Japanese ukiyo-e prints

Meisje in witte kimono (1894) by Breitner, George HendrikRijksmuseum

Inspired by Japanese prints, Breitner painted at least twelve versions of this girl in a white kimono around 1894. Each time, her pose is different and the kimono is a different colour.

Here the embroidered white silk kimono with red trimmed sleeves and orange belt are what draw our attention.

Mother and Child (The First Portrait) (c. 1888) by William Merritt ChaseThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This portrait is William Merritt Chase’s earliest study of his daughter, Alice, who holds a coral whistle and looks over the shoulder of her mother, dressed in a Japanese kimono.

Nine Cartoons for the Execution of a Frieze for the Dining Room of Stoclet House in Brussels: Part 8, Fulfillment (Lovers) (1910–1911) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Fashion designer and socialite Emilie Flõge, considered by many as the muse of artist Gustav Klimt, was fascinated by kimono which inspired many of her designs.

The Kiss (1908-1909) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

In fact Floge's interest in kimono could be seen in some of Kimt's own masterpieces, including The Kiss.

Opera coat (1911/1911) by Paul PoiretThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Renowned early 20th century French fashion designer Paul Poiret drew much influence from Japanese kimono, a classic example being the famous Poiret Coat.

Unlined Kimono for a Woman (Hitoe) (1912-1926)The Khalili Collections

Taishō and early Shōwa periods

Kimono evolved in ways that vividly reflected the changes in Japanese society. In the earlier parts of the 20th century, during the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1912 up to WWII),women were inspired to wear even bolder and more striking designs encouraged by the art movements sweeping Europe, mainly Art Nouveau and Art Deco, but also Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism. Along with Western dress, which became rapidly dominant due to the cultural changes sweeping across Japan, kimono was becoming cheaper, more innovative and fashionable. 

Kimono for a Young Woman (Furisode) Kimono for a Young Woman (Furisode) (1912-1926)The Khalili Collections

This kimono utilizes the traditional chrysanthemum motif, enlarged and repeated in bold colours, combining the traditional and the modern.

The introduction of the inexpensive machine-spun meisensilk in the 1920s allowed for faster production of garments and utilised stencil-printing and chemical dyes to create striking effects.

This enabled the kimono to develop in the direction of an everyday, durable yet appealing item which attracted the contemporary urbanised classes.

Outer Kimono for a Woman (Uchikake) Outer Kimono for a Woman (Uchikake), 1920-1930, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Outer Kimono for a Woman (Uchikake), From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The inner lining of the kimono, showing the attention to the finest detail

Kimono for a Woman (1920-1926)The Khalili Collections

Modernist Influence on Kimono

Kimono for a Woman, 1920-1940, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Kimono for a Woman, 1920-1940, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Unlined Kimono for a Woman (Hitoe), 1920-1940, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Evening Cool, from the series Twelve Figures of Modern Beauties, Artist: Ito Shinsui, Publisher: S. Watanabe Color Print Co., 1922, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art
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Kimono for a Young Woman (Furisode) Kimono for a Young Woman (Furisode) (1912-1926)The Khalili Collections

Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk

The Khalili Collections are proud to be major contributors to the recent seminal exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum titled “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk”. At his opening night speech, Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, stated: “We have borrowed some remarkable objects not only from Japan, but from museums and private collections in the UK, Europe and America. Special thanks are due to Professor Nasser David Khalili – a great friend of the V&A – for his enormous encouragement of the exhibition, and for being so generous in lending pieces from his collection.” 

Exhibition – Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk / Curator Tour (4 of 5)The Khalili Collections

Anna Jackson, keeper of the V&A Japanese Department and curator of "Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk" takes us on a tour of the Mirror Room which displays Kimono loaned by the Khalili Collections.

Credits: Story

The Khalili Collection of Kimono comprises more than 450 garments and spans three hundred years of Japanese textile artistry. It is one of the world’s most outstanding private collections of traditional kimonos, and works from the collection have been exhibited previously at the Moscow Kremlin Museum, the Guimet Museum in Paris and the V&A in London.

The Khalili Collection of Kimono is one of the eight Khalili Collections, each considered the most significant of its kind.

Collection curator: Dror Elkvity

Digital Exhibit curated by Waqas Ahmed

Video content: V&A

Digital exhibit curated by: Waqās Ahmed

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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