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Edo period (1615-1868)

Kimono, Japan, 1780-1830, crepe silk with paste-resist decoration (chaya-zome), stencilled  imitation tie-dye (kata kanoko) and embroidery in silk and metallic  thread. Museum no. FE.12-1983, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kimono, Japan, 1780-1830, crepe silk with paste-resist decoration (chaya-zome), stencilled  imitation tie-dye (kata kanoko) and embroidery in silk and metallic  thread. Museum no. FE.12-1983, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Edo period was one of unprecedented political stability, economic growth, and urban expansion. Kyoto, the old capital, remained the centre of aristocratic culture and luxury production while Edo, the new headquarters chosen by the Tokugawa shōgun (military ruler), developed from a small fishing port into one of the largest cities in the world. In Edo and elsewhere, a dynamic urban culture developed in which fashionable dress played a central role.

The primary consumers of sumptuous kimono were the samurai, the ruling military class.Yet it was the merchant and artisan classes, or chōnin, who benefited most from the peace and prosperity of the period. However, the rigid hierarchy of Tokugawa Japan meant that they could not use their wealth to improve their social status. Instead they had to find different outlets for their money, such as buying beautiful clothes. It was this new market that stimulated the great flowering of the textile arts in the Edo period. The kimono developed into a highly expressive means of personal display, an important indicator of the rising affluence and aesthetic sensibility of the chōnin.There were even fashion contests between the wives of the wealthiest merchants, who tried to outdo one another with ever more dazzling displays of splendid costume.Such excesses troubled the shogunate as they threatened to upset the strict social order and sumptuary laws that restricted the kind of fabrics, techniques and colours used by the chōnin were periodically issued.

Although the laws were not consistently enforced, leading to regular shifts between opulence and restraint, they did usher in certain changes. New techniques were developed and the use of subdued colours and fabrics became increasingly common. This was part of a new aesthetic known as iki, or elegant chic, in which anyone with real taste focussed on subtle details.Those with style and money also found other ways to circumvent the rules. It became very fashionable, for example, to use the highly coveted, but forbidden, colour red on undergarments and linings, for these were not covered by the restrictions.

Meiji period (1868-1912)

Kimono, Japan, 1870-1880, crepe silk (chirimen), paste-resist decoration (yuzen) and embroidery. Museum no. FE.29-1987, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kimono, Japan, 1870-1880, crepe silk (chirimen), paste-resist decoration (yuzen) and embroidery. Museum no. FE.29-1987, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1853 an American naval squadron arrived off the coast of Japan demanding that the country open its ports to western powers. This external pressure combined with internal unrest and led to revolution, the overthrow of the shōgun and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868. The imperial court moved to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo.

The new government realized that the only way Japan would be able to compete with the military and industrial might of the West was to transform itself along western lines. An unprecedented period of transformation was launched that was to affect all areas of life, including clothing. It was at this point that the word 'kimono', the thing worn, was coined to define T-shaped garments as opposed to western-style ones.

Some members of the elite adopted western dress because of its association with the concepts of civilisation, modernisation and progress that the Meiji government sought to promote. Dress also began to diverge along lines of place and gender as men started to wear business suits for work. While men usually changed into kimono when at home in the private sphere, women, who tended to inhabit only the domestic space, continued to wear kimono most of the time. Interestingly, Japan's textile industry was one of the first to adopt western science and technology. Using new techniques silk fabric was produced in greater qualities and at reasonable prices. Many women could afford to buy silk kimono for the first time and, with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the sumptuary laws, were not forbidden from wearing them.

The 'opening' of Japan aroused enormous interest in the West and the flood of information and goods that subsequently reached Europe and America led to a craze for all things Japanese. Kimono were exported to the West, and by the 1870s were available to buy in shops such as Liberty's in London.

The interwar years

Kimono, Japan, 1934, silk crepe with resist-dyeing and embroidery. Museum no. FE.138-2002, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kimono, Japan, 1934, silk crepe with resist-dyeing and embroidery. Museum no. FE.138-2002, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Taishō period (1912-1926) was one of confidence and optimism in Japan. Industrial development was stimulated by the First World War, economic prosperity being matched by political democratisation. It was a period of great urban growth, particularly in the capital, Tokyo. People moved to the suburbs, commuting on expanding railway networks to new types of office and factory jobs. Women entered the work force in large numbers, employed as typists, bank clerks, bus conductors and shop assistants. These workers were the consumers of a new mass urban culture that centred on the café, the cinema and the department store.

Although western-style clothes gained popularity among women, the kimono continued to be worn. The traditional cut of the garment remained the same, but the motifs were dramatically enlarged and new designs appeared, inspired by western styles such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Their striking patterns reflected the confident spirit of the age and provided an exuberant visual statement for the modern, independent, urban woman of the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1926-1989).

In creating these boldly patterned and brilliantly coloured kimono, textile designers benefited from technological advances made during the late 19th century. Power-operated spinning machines and jacquard looms introduced from Europe had speeded up production and lowered costs, while chemical dyes allowed for the creation of dazzling colours. In the early 20th century new types of silk and innovative patterning techniques were also developed, making relatively inexpensive, highly fashionable garments available to more people than ever before. These vibrant kimono styles remained popular until the 1950s.

Kimono today

Kimono, 'Spring', Matsuda Eriko, Japan, 2005-2006. Museum no. FE.145-2006, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kimono, 'Spring', Matsuda Eriko, Japan, 2005-2006. Museum no. FE.145-2006, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Since the end of the Second World War western-style clothing has been the everyday wear of most Japanese. The older generation often continue to wear kimono, as do geisha, actors, and those serving in traditional restaurants or engaged in activities such the tea ceremony. Generally however, kimono are only worn at a limited number of formal occasions and there are fairly rigid guidelines about what type of garment is appropriate for what event.

Kimono are also very expensive. If this limits the wearing of them, it also proclaims their high cultural value. Indeed, the garment may be worn much less, but its symbolic importance has grown. As Japan has come to define itself within the western world since the late 19th century, the kimono has come to mark a boundary with the foreign, to stand for the essence that is Japanese. This is reflected in the fact that most contemporary textile designers working with traditional techniques still use the kimono as the primary format for their artistic expression.

The 21st century, however, has witnessed something of a kimono renaissance. Elegant kimono in beautiful modern fabrics can be seen increasingly on the streets of Japan, while second-hand kimono are becoming popular with the young, who often re-style them or combine them with other items of dress. The resurgence of interest in kimono is particularly apparent in the summer, when department stores are full of yukata (summer kimono), which are much simpler to wear than formal garments. After the Second World War kimono were often viewed as a product of Japan's feudal past or a symbol of woman's oppression, but today they are just another choice in a woman's - and even occasionally a man's - wardrobe. They are an item of fashion, just as they were in their Edo heyday.

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