The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is one of the leading museums focusing on art and design. It’s special for me due to the vast range of their collection, excluding no material or technique. V&A collects everything from ancient Chinese ceramics to Japanese kimono to Alexander McQueen haute couture dresses. What is more, the vast portion of the collection that is not on display is made available for browsing online.
Whenever online shopping becomes dangerous for my wallet, or may result in slow starvation until the next payday, I go for the safer option. No less fun, though. Pick a word, color, thing or technique and explore V&A’s collection. I usually start with the featured ones and then dig deeper into the complete catalog. I get to see beautiful things- in a way not much different from online shopping- but I cannot buy them, which is probably for the best; and on top of that, I usually learn something new. Today we’ll look at the beautiful kimono from V&A collection.
(Apparently, the plural of kimono is also kimono as the Japanese language does not distinguish plural nouns.)
Ducks on Rippling Water among Irises and Pinks
The combination of delicate embroidery and dark blue satin fabric gives this kimono a striking, lustrous appearance. This kimono has a design of ducks on rippling water among flowers. Paired ducks are a symbol of marital harmony, so this kimono may have been part of a wedding trousseau (the clothes, linen, and other belongings collected by a bride for her marriage).
Cranes under Blossoms and Pines
The design of this kimono illustrates the close connection between painting and textile arts in Japan. The surface of the garment has acted as a kind of hanging scroll for the creation of a hand-painted and dyed image of cranes among pines and plum blossoms. Touches of embroidery highlight the crests of the birds and parts of the pine boughs.
The red-crowned crane, also called the Manchurian crane or Japanese crane, is a large East Asian crane among the rarest cranes in the world. In some parts of its range, it is a symbol of luck, longevity, and fidelity.
Blossoms, Fans, Tasseled and Ribboned Flower Bouquets
This elegantly patterned kimono celebrates the beauty of textiles through its decoration- which depicts lengths of fabric hung on an elaborate stand and gently fluttering in the breeze surrounded by clouds, fans and falling cherry blossoms. The design was created using a technique called yuzen. This involves drawing the pattern on the cloth with rice paste extruded through the metal tip of a cloth bag. The paste forms a protective coat that prevents the color penetrating when the dyes are applied. Here the skills of the dyer have been enhanced by those of the embroider, who has highlighted the stand and the edges of the fabrics in gold and added flowers, blossoms, and elaborate ties and tassels in pink, white, and green.
Peonies, Leaves, and Ribbons
The white-spotted parts of the pattern on this striking red kimono were created using a method called shibori. In this technique, tiny sections of cloth are bound with thread prior to being dyed. The color does not penetrate the protected areas. After the dye is dry the binding is carefully removed. Shibori was costly and labor-intensive and was usually combined with embroidery as in this kimono. The dense pattern of peonies, chrysanthemums, and hollyhocks combined with a key fret pattern is characteristic of kimono worn by women of samurai families.
The Japanese peony, considered the “King of Flowers,” has a symbolic meaning that includes wealth, good fortune, honor, daring and masculine bravery. The peony originated in China; around the 8th century, the Chinese introduced the peony to Japan.
Peony, Chrysanthemum and Daisy
Outer kimono (uchikake) with long swinging sleeves (furisode). Embroidered white figured silk-satin padded and lined with red satin. Long hanging sleeves lined with red silk crêpe. The opulence of this kimono suggests it was probably worn by a bride. The shimmering white ground has been embroidered with chrysanthemums and other flowers and large butterflies, no two of which are the same.
The chrysanthemum, or Kiku in Japanese, is a symbol that represents longevity and rejuvenation. When first introduced to Japan during the Nara period (710-793 AC), the Japanese Royal Family was fascinated with them. Eventually, they become the Imperial Family Emblem.
Pine Trees and Clouds
The elegant design of pine trees on this kimono was created using a technique called yuzen. This involves drawing the pattern on the cloth with rice paste extruded through the metal tip of a cloth bag. The paste forms a protective coat that prevents the dye penetrating. The large pattern areas were then completely blocked with paste before the background color was applied. The cloudy areas have been created using gold leaf, and tiny parts of the design have been highlighted with touches of embroidery.
In Japanese culture, the pine tree represents longevity, good fortune, and steadfastness. It is commonly linked with virtue and long life, even immortality. The pine tree is iconic of the Japanese New Year: as a symbol of rebirth, renewal, and a bright (hopeful) future.
Hibiscus and Dianthus
The fabric of this kimono is ro, a type of silk gauze in which rows of plain weave alternate with one where adjacent warps cross over each other, which results in an “open” horizontal stripe. The soft, fine fabric is ideal for unlined summer kimono. It has been dyed a delicate green color and patterned with flowers including fuyō (hibiscus) and nadeshiko (dianthus), the latter a Japanese symbol of femininity. Prior to the 20th century, the focus of the pattern was always on the back of kimono, but this then shifted, as seen here, to the lower front. The five crests indicate that the kimono was designed to be worn for formal occasions. It was part of a complete ensemble acquired by American Bernice Eileen Boo who taught at the Narimasu High School in Grant Heights, Tokyo, Japan, from 1957-1959.
Bridge Across a River Gorge
The motif on this extremely exuberant outer kimono (uchikake) is a theatrical one relating to the Chinese legend of Shakkyo (Stone Bridge). This refers to a bridge over a steep gorge near the summit of Mount Seiryo which is reputed to lead to the Buddhist paradise and which is guarded by shishi (mythical lions). The kabuki play adapted from this story culminates in a dramatic shakkyomono, or lion dance. The figure on the bridge is a kabuki actor who embodies the spirit of the shishi, while below actual shishi are depicted with other figures surrounded by peonies. Costumes worn on stage certainly needed to be flamboyant and eye-catching, but the motifs were not normally so literal. It is more likely, therefore, that this kimono belonged instead to a high-ranking courtesan.
Battleships and Planes
A child’s visit first to a Shinto shrine, about 30 days after birth, marked an important rite of passage when parents would thank the gods and a priest would pray for the baby’s health and happiness. Infant boys would wear kimono with motifs symbolic of achievement and strength. In the 1930s, sometimes contemporary nationalistic images replaced the traditional samurai ones. This kimono features a design of battleships that reference Japan’s aggressive expansion in East Asia. It would have symbolically wrapped the young child in wishes for both his own and the nation’s future.
Rabbits Playing among Flowers and Grasses
This beautiful kimono is decorated with an autumnal motif of rabbits playing among flowers and grasses by the light of a moon which shines softly down from the shoulder of the garment. The design has been created using a free-hand resist dyeing technique with special touches, such as the faces and ears of the rabbits, in silk embroidery. The ground fabric has been woven with a motif of clouds to suggest a night sky. Geisha may have worn this kimono.
Because rabbits only drive on forward and don’t step back, people considered them lucky as a symbol of advancement. Also, the rabbit as a symbol of cleverness and self-devotion appears in myths. In the old days, it was a symbol of spring.