Kimono: the women’s garment shaping cross-cultural exchange

The social history of the kimono represents a unique cultural exchange between Japan and Europe

yellow, orange and white kimono with red and black dots
by
Waqas Ahmed (opens in new window) (The Khalili Collections)

Needing little introduction, the kimono is the iconic, elegant Japanese dress that so many of us admire and appreciate. The more we explore the social history of the kimono, the more we learn that over the last two centuries, it has represented a unique cultural exchange between Japan and Europe.

Kimono, which simply means ’a thing to wear’ has more than a thousand years of history. Since its establishment as the de facto national dress in Japan during the 16th century, it has often been used as an everyday canvas where political, social and personal statements were made. Over time, as new techniques and motifs developed, kimono became works of art in their own right.

colour photograph of a decoratively detailed kimono
blue kimono with a design showing different landscape views

Being a 'one-size-fits-all' garment, people relied on the patterns rather than the design and fit to express their identities. With its classic ‘T’ shape, the back of the garment would become the canvas on which designers and weavers – men and women - could express their creativity.

Women were by no means the passive recipients of these garments. Many were employed in their production and some - like the early 19th century maverick Den Inou - even invented new dyeing techniques. Inou single-handedly invented the Kurume Kasuri dying technique when she was only twelve years old. It went on to become a popular technique used on kimono and much more.

The kimono was worn by all classes, ages and genders in Japan, but the ‘big statement’ designs remained largely reserved for women. This was especially the case with sophisticated designs of the imperial court, samurai aristocracy and affluent merchant classes that emerged from the 19th century.

colour photograph of a bright red kimono with ornate detailed design
colour photograph of a brown kimono with a design showing a landscape with pavilion, gateway, fishing nets and nobleman’s cart

The story of the kimono underwent a paradigm shift when Japan opened up for the first time in centuries in the late 19th century, initially in the later Edo period and more emphatically in the Meiji era (1868-1912).

The former resulted in a cultural exchange with the Dutch and the latter with the rest of the Western world. It was the age of the Great Exhibitions across Europe and the United States, where kimono were worn and showcased alongside masterfully produced enamels, metalwork, lacquer-work and silk textiles that stunned and enchanted crowds.

colour photograph of kimono which is mostly black and white with a motif of hawks
Explore more kimono from The Khalili Collections (opens in new window)

The kimono became a subject of immense fascination, particularly for Western artists who depicted the garment beautifully and frequently in their work.

'In a way, all my work is founded in Japanese art' said Vincent Van Gogh who famously painted The Courtesan, a woman wearing a kimono. Other paintings by artists such as Whistler, Breitner and Roussel depicted Western women wearing kimono helped popularise the dress among a certain class of women in Europe.

painting of a woman wearing a kimono, pictured above a lake with water lilies
painting of a woman in a kimono, holding a fan
painting of a kneeling Japanese woman wearing a kimono
painting of a nude woman who is reading while sitting in a chair, with a kimono draped on the back

In fact, kimono could be bought in shops such as Liberty's of London, even if the actual wearing of it remained limited to the artistic and social elite – and that too was restricted to indoors. Wearing this loose, 'exotic' garment resulted in turning the kimono into a risqué or bohemian symbol.

'In late 19th-century Europe and America, the kimono could represent a number of things,' says Anna Jackson, Keeper of the Asian Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum. 'It 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. It could also be liberating, offering a new form of dress unrestricted by tight corsets.'

And yet it wasn't only kimono that influenced Western dress, but also Western fashion and culture in turn influenced the evolution of the kimono in Japan throughout the 20th century.

During the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (from 1912 up to World War II), 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.

colour photograph of a pink kimono with yellow, blue, black cross motifs
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In addition to Western dress becoming rapidly dominant due to the cultural changes sweeping across Japan, kimono were becoming cheaper, more innovative and fashionable. Technologies such as synthetic dyes and machine stitching as well as a number of Western design motifs began to radically change the nature and accessibility of the garment across Japan, particularly in urban centres.

Women in both Europe and Japan were finding new ways of expressing themselves through the kimono.

Kimono for men certainly had their place, but it was those made for women that had the most impact. This conversation across continents has continued to the present day, seen clearly through exhibitions and publications as recent as 2019, when the kimono was the focus of the exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the V&A Museum.

The Khalili Collections – which holds one of the world’s most important collections of kimono - was the main contributor to the exhibition, which is currently touring Europe.

Kimono shall forever be unique - rarely had non-Western garments (with special focus given to the ones made for women) been so integral to cross-cultural, generational, and artistic inspiration.

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