In the West, is there any garment more elegant than a tuxedo, one that makes its wearer, no matter what size or age, almost always look (and feel) great? In the East — specifically, in Japan — the kimono may be a similar, inestimable costume. It is unrivaled in its inherent elegance, which derives as much from the beauty of its fabrics and decorative patterns as it does from the remarkable simplicity of its design.

Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion (Thames & Hudson), a new book principally written and edited by Anna Jackson, offers an informative look at just what makes the kimono such a unique and iconic creation among the world’s many ethnic or national-cultural forms of dress. Jackson, the keeper (or chief curator) of the Asian department at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, also serves as the curator of the Khalili Collection of Kimono, whose holdings reflect a 300-year span of Japanese textile-art history. Its owner and namesake is one of the most tireless collectors in the world. As Forbes has noted, he’s also a billionaire.

Based in London, Nasser D. Khalili, who is now 70 years old, is an Iranian-born Jew whose family was involved in art dealing in his native country; as a young man, in 1967, he headed to New York, where he earned an undergraduate degree at Queens College. Later he moved to England to continue his studies, focusing on art of the Islamic world. He settled in London, where he invested in real estate, dealt in art and, in time, built up his personal fortune.

Khalili has underwritten research and scholarship in Islamic and Middle Eastern art and archaeology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and at the University of Oxford. In 1995, he established the UK-based Maimonides Interfaith Foundation, whose big task is the promotion of peace and understanding between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Khalili boasts a long list of honorary titles, including knighthoods bestowed by two popes. Considering all of this philanthropic activity alone, how does he ever have time for art collecting and real estate deal-making in one of the world’s most expensive cities?

Answer: Khalili is not someone who tends to sit still. In fact, the Khalili Collections, eight groupings of treasures in specific categories that he has amassed over the years, have become known to experts as some of the most remarkable specialized collections in the world. Along with Japanese kimono, their subject areas include Aramaic documents, enamels of the world, Hajj and the arts of pilgrimage, Islamic art, Japanese art of the Meiji era, Spanish damascened metalwork and Swedish textiles.

Flower-decorated woman’s kimono made sometime during the late Edo/early Meiji period (circa 1850–80), satin silk and embroidery in silk and metallic threads, 62.4 x 46.85 inches (Khalili Collections item KX189, photo © 2015 The Khalili Family Trust)

Speaking by telephone from London, Khalili told me, effusively, “The kimono is one of the wonders of the world! When I started collecting some 45 years ago, there were certain fields in which people were not actively collecting, and even as I acquired objects in different fields, I noticed that there were certain voids, Japanese kimono being one of them. I wanted to fill the voids.” Today, he said, his holdings in this category total some 220 pieces. Just over a decade ago, when the V&A presented an exhibition of kimono culled from the Montgomery Collection, the prize of an American based in Switzerland, Khalili responded to the bedazzling display (“about fifty to sixty,” he estimated) by purchasing the lot. Another void filled!

Khalili does not operate a museum of his own. Instead, over the years he has lent selections from his holdings to museums around the world and made generous donations to certain institutions. Working with various publishers, the Khalili Collections, his London-based organization, has produced dozens of books, which have featured photos of and scholarly essays about the artworks and decorative objects he has accumulated. Kimono is the latest book of this kind. Khalili, who is still looking, assessing potential acquisitions and purchasing works, told me, “I don’t like fossilized collecting.” (That is, allowing a collection to lie stagnant, without growing meaningfully and substantively.)

In a separate, recent phone call from London, curator Jackson observed, “All kimono are made up of essentially the same basic pattern of rectangular pieces of fabric. In the West, though, when we think about fashion, we tend to focus on the cut of the clothes and on how it changes from garment to garment. With the kimono’s pattern, however, there is no cutting into the fabric. As in the basic garments of certain other parts of the world, it’s one that wraps the wearer’s body.”

Still, as Kimono shows, that is not to say that there has been no development over time in Japan’s signature garment. For example, the lengths of kimono sleeves have varied, as has the width of the arm openings inside the draped pieces of fabric shaping those sleeves, but such changes have been relatively subtle compared to the differences between, say, 17th-century hunting skirts and hot pants, or Victorian corsets and the Wonderbra.

Kimono traces the roots of its subject back to Japan’s Heian period (794–1185) and notes that, by the Momoyama era (1573–1603), the recognizable form and character of the kimono as it is known today had emerged. The book begins with a selection of kimono from the Edo period (1603-1868), during which feudal Japan was controlled by nearly 280 daimyō (hereditary, land-owning regional lords), above whom the shogunal Tokugawa family ruled. Back then, Japan’s emperor was merely a powerless figurehead representing ritual and tradition, and Edo, which would become modern-day Tokyo, was still a new place, having been created from scratch after a prolonged period of fighting between those regional warlords. By the mid-1700s, though, fast-growing Edo was the largest city in the world.

Edo-era outer kimono, known as a “uchikake,” made for a young, samurai-class woman (circa 1800–50), figured satin silk, ink painting, stenciled, imitation tie-dyeing and embroidery in silk and metallic threads, 64 x 49.6 inches (Khalili Collections item KX144, photo © 2015 The Khalili Family Trust)

In the early 1600s, the Tokugawa shogun instituted a system whereby all daimyō and their retinues were required to divide their time between Edo and their respective home territories, with the lords obliged to leave their wives and families permanently in the big city. The women in those familial groups needed attractive clothing for those times when they stepped out into Edo society, but as Timon Screech writes in Kimono, referring to the legions of daimyō-associated samurai warriors who had to lay down their swords while in residence there, too, “How do you keep a city of bachelors under control?” (Screech is a professor of art history in the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.)

Edo’s rulers responded by creating a licensed entertainment district, the so-called Floating World, which encompassed the sex trade, kabuki theaters and other diversions. There, attitudes regarding the sumptuary laws dictating what kinds of fabrics or colors could be worn were relaxed, and women with an eye for drumming up business decked themselves out in extravagant kimono. Many Edo-period woodblock prints documented the styles and atmosphere of the metropolis’s “pleasure quarters.”

Meanwhile, the textile industry in Japan itself was growing, with Kyoto in the south-central part of the main island of Honshū remaining the production center for the most luxurious goods. In Japan’s ranked social system, the samurai occupied the top position, followed by farmers, artisans and, at the bottom, merchants. It was the merchants who had money to spend — and they did, within the limits of the sumptuary laws, with merchant-class women competing among themselves on the battlefield of fashion. Kimono shops catered to their style needs and even sent sales reps to customers’ homes. Jackson writes that, although women were prohibited from wearing beni-red, whose pigment was extracted from safflower petals, “there was no restriction on using the dye for undergarments or linings.” A flash of red peeking out from a kimono’s open collar or turned-up hem could send male onlookers into paroxysms of desire.

Meiji-era layered kimono set (circa 1880–1900), decorated with images of pine trees, bamboo, cranes and thatch-roof houses along a shoreline; outer kimono: broken twill silk, paste-resist dyeing (yūzen), ink painting and embroidery in silk and metallic threads; 58 x 50.39 inches (Khalili Collections item K101, photo © 2015 The Khalili Family Trust)

Among others, Khalili’s Edo-era holdings include a kimono made for a young samurai-class woman that is known by its inventory number, KX144. Made of figured satin silk, its decorative patterns evoke the spirit of Japan’s ancient imperial court with depictions of rolled-up and unfurling palace curtains in a flower-filled expanse; those motifs were made by ink painting and through a stencil technique that imitated tie-dyeing.

Portuguese traders had arrived in Japan as early as the 1540s, but they were only allowed to occupy and operate out of a base in southern Japan. Later, the Dutch tried to convince Japan’s feudal leadership to open the country to trade with the West, but to no avail. Finally, in 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry led four steamships into Edo’s broad bay and demanded that Japan open up its market to foreign commerce. It capitulated, and as the Meiji period (1868-1912) got under way, so did Japan’s reception and assimilation of a tide of ideas, fashion, technology and products from the West.

As the feudal system dissolved, and the Meiji Emperor assumed his office’s long-suppressed powers, the race was on to modernize. Art-and-design schools were established in Tokyo (formerly Edo, now the national capital), Kyoto and Kanazawa, and Japan showcased its artisanal and industrial wares in international expositions. Jackson notes in one of the book’s essays that, during the Meiji era, in Japan, the separate notions of wafuku and yōfuku emerged. The former referred to traditional Japanese-style clothing, like the kimono, while the latter referred to Western clothes. Foreign fashions served up a minefield of cultural confrontations for Japanese men and women who tried to adopt such styles but sometimes struggled with the customs and comportment that went with them. In one essay, Jackson writes, “[M]en abandoned the shaved head and topknot in favour of cropped hair to better express their modern attitude.” After all, she adds, it was said that if one tapped a head sporting a Western-style haircut, one could expect it to “sing out ‘civilization and enlightenment’” — the very motto of the Meiji era.

Woman’s kimono from the Taishō period (1912–26), decorated with chrysanthemums; machine-spun, plain-weave pongee silk and stencil printing of warp and weft threads, 53.94 x 48.82 inches (Khalili Collections item K53, photo © 2015 The Khalili Family Trust)

Modern in spirit, even as it features traditional imagery — pine trees, bamboo, cranes, thatch-roof houses — kimono K101 exemplifies the Meiji period’s melding of elements and sensibilities old and new. Made through a variety of techniques, including the yūzen paste-resist dyeing method and embroidery in silk and metallic threads, K101’s front side is decorated with a bright-red-and-white pattern of giant fans and falling leaves trimmed in a deep purple-blue. That same color covers the vast upper portion of the piece’s back like an impenetrable night sky, which descends upon a gathering of pine trees and houses along a shoreline.

Khalili’s kimono collection spans the short Taishō era (1912-1926) and reaches into the early Shōwa period (1926-1989). (Japanese historical periods are named after the emperors who presided during them; in Japan, these rulers are known by their reign-period names, not by their personal names. Thus, Hirohito was and is known as “the Shōwa Emperor.”) In Japan, the Taishō years were marked by an effervescent mix of aesthetic, intellectual and political ideas from the East and the West, but the rise of militarism and early Shōwa’s war-making extinguished a nascent democracy movement’s flame.

With their clean lines and often bold, spare, geometric patterns, many of the kimono of the Taishō and early Shōwa years look and feel as fresh today as they must have appeared radical in their time. Jackson told me, “Fashion — something that is always changing and is very expressive and sometimes looks back on itself — is not something that is only found in the West. To assume that or to think that fashion only started in Japan after its first encounter with the West is wrong.”

Woman’s kimono from the early Shōwa period (circa 1930–40), decorated with wavy horizontal lines, machine-spun, plain-weave pongee silk and stencil printing of warp and weft threads, 56.69 x 48.03 inches (Khalili Collections item K46, photo © 2015 The Khalili Family Trust)

To examine the fine creations reproduced in Kimono is to grasp how rich and multifaceted the history it recounts really is — and how relatively contrived or downright quizzical are such Western concoctions as the hoop skirt, the high-heeled shoe, pantyhose, or men’s baggy plus-fours. Just imagine donning and walking down Fifth Avenue in K53, with its Pop-flavored explosion of giant chrysanthemums (the Japanese imperial emblem), or K46, a gem from around 1930 to 1940, whose abstract play of bold, wavy lines appears to have been painted onto its surface but in fact was painstakingly composed and dyed into the warp and weft threads of the garment’s woven silk. Who would ever want to wear cargo shorts, a soulless shirtdress or one of those corporate-uniform, skirt-and-jacket ensembles with a frilly-bow blouse again? There’s a place for such sartorial misfortunes: some other, forgettable kind of void.

Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion, edited by Anna Jackson, with essays by Nagasaki Iwao, Timon Screech, Christine M. E. Guth and Kendall H. Brown, has been published in the U.S. by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the Khalili Collections.


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Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise,...