A wonderful and colourful exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly celebrates the kimono in all its glory. The exhibition was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where it opened at the end of February 2020, just two weeks before the UK lockdown. The exhibition reopened in August 2020 and is now touring the world.

The kimono has a surprisingly long history. It first appeared in Japan more than a thousand years ago. The word “kimono” actually means simply “the thing to wear”. Initially the kimono was mainly worn by the merchant class and the samurai class. From the 17th century onwards, it was the garment of choice for everyone in Japan, irrespective of gender or social status.

As Anna Jackson, curator of the exhibition explains, in the West the kimono tends to be seen as a timeless, traditional costume, when in fact it has always been a very dynamic item of fashion. Even though the basic shape hasn’t changed much over the centuries, the fabric, colour and patterns have been subject to fashion. Artists have also used the surface of a kimono as a canvas for elaborate embroidered scenes.

In the 19th century, when Japan opened its borders to foreign trade, Japanese art and artifacts began to appear in shops and galleries in Paris and London. As “Japonism” took hold, kimonos also became much sought after. The Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) created a series of paintings of a girl in a kimono.

After World War II, most people in Japan adopted a Western dress code, suits for men and skirts and dresses for women and of course jeans and t-shirts. Kimonos were only worn on special occasions like weddings.

In recent years the kimono has made some sort of a comeback, both in Japan and in global fashion. The costumes for the first Star Wars movies were inspired by the kimono and pop stars from David Bowie to Madonna and Björk have contributed to its popular appeal. The exhibition includes a montage of excerpts from films and music videos which feature a kimono and a number of contemporary designs and creations by fashion designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

The exhibition doubles as an exhibition of Japanese art and design and includes some amazing woodblock prints.

Kimono is at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris until 28 May 2023.

The art and culture of Kaga Yuzen