Translated by
Nicola Mira
Feb 16, 2023
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The kimono in all its guises on show at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris

Translated by
Nicola Mira
Feb 16, 2023

From haute couture to pop culture. The kimono has been the garment of courtesans and samurai, of pop stars like David Bowie and Freddy Mercury on stage, and of the Jedi knights in the Star Wars saga. In a retrospective open until May 28, 2023 and simply called Kimono, the Quai Branly Museum of civilisations in Paris, in partnership with London's Victoria and Albert Museum, is exploring the history of this traditional Japanese garment, and its influence on contemporary fashion.

Print by Utagawa Kunisada featuring brocade kimonos after the fashion of the Imperial Palace in Edo, ancient Tokyo - Victoria and Albert Museum London

While the kosode, the kimono’s short-sleeved predecessor, first appeared nearly a thousand years ago in Japan during the Heian period (794-1195 AD), the kimono became widely popular in the country during the ​Edo period (1603-1868). At the time, the metropolis of Kyoto was a hub for luxury silk craftsmanship, home to countless high-end shops selling this refined garment.

Over the centuries, the kimono’s tubular sleeves grew in size, but the garment retained its wide fabric belt called obi, fitted tightly around the waist, hindering the wearer's gait. French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier riffed repeatedly on the kimono, adopting it for his geometric silhouettes, and designing a scarlet PVC model for Madonna’s Nothing Really Matters video (1999), and later, in 2002, creating a version with knotted strings.

Symbol of Japanese lifestyle

Over time, the kimono (which in Japanese means ‘the thing one wears’) gradually came into generalised use. It was worn by both sexes, from the ladies of the imperial court, who adopted it as an indoor garment, to members of the samurai warrior caste and wealthy merchants, as well as kabuki actors and commoners. 

Due to Japan’s shift to a closed political system favouring national isolation during the Edo period, it was only much later in history that this T-shaped garment reached the West, where it is regarded today as a symbol of Japanese fashion and lifestyle. 

Kimonos began to be exported once the Japanese borders opened up in the Meiji period (1868-1912), notably through the intermediation of the Dutch East India Company, a trading company that was authorised to have commercial relations with Japan. Kimonos made on imported European jacquard looms then became the symbol of the modernisation of Japan's textile industry in the 19th century, and the interest for this timeless long-sleeved garment gradually spread all over the world.

The kimono’s straight lines, its feminine fabric drape and the way this traditional garment, made with stitched rectangles of silk, linen or hemp, falls to the ankles, has appealed to countless fashion labels and designers.

British designer John Galliano, in the Spring/Summer 2007 haute couture collection he created for Dior, introduced the kimono in exuberant fashion with multiple layerings, featuring models with oversize sleeves and lavish embroidery.

David Bowie in 'Ziggy Stardust', wearing a kimono created by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto in 1974 - Victoria and Albert Museum London

Alexander McQueen styled a futuristic kimono for pop singer Björk, a brocade dress version with a high, broad collar made in sky blue silk satin, in a nod to the romantic ideal of the elegant geishas depicted in Japanese period prints.

More recently, London-based Nigerian designer Duro Olowu reinterpreted the kimono in a kaleidoscopic version, transforming it into a double-breasted, merino wool jacquard coat fitted tightly at the waist with a sash belt, decorated with a mix of check and polka dot patterns. 

The Parisian exhibition showcases nearly 200 kimonos as well as other items of clothing and associated objects (for example prints), highlighting the timeless and international character of a garment that has crossed continents and eras. 

The Kimono exhibition runs from November 22, 2022 to May 28 2023 at The Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, at 37 quai Branly in Paris.

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