Exploring the Theoretical Meaning of Rei Kawakubo: Two Waves of Japanese Fashion in the West and Georg Simmel's Fashion Dualism

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Japan’s indigenous kimono has a flattened ‘distinctive T-shape’, and is made of ‘straight-edged pieces of cloth sewn edge to edge, resulting in vertical or horizontal seams, with the exception of the sleeve, bottoms, collar and lapels’.[1] The fundamental design philosophy is different from the West where people find ‘the body’s shape as the basis for the construction of clothes’.[2] On the surface of the kimono textile, various designs such as geometric patterns and flora and fauna are embroidered or tinctured (or dyed); kimono fabrics represent the canvas of art paintings.[3] Due to Japan’s location in the Far East and its sakoku seclusion policy for centuries until the middle of the nineteenth century, the arrival of Japanese fashion was next to zero in the West. An exception was a small number of kimonos called the ‘Japanese robe’ brought into Europe from the seventeenth century by the traders of the Dutch East India Company, which had been granted limited trading rights. The Japanese costumes were used only as an ‘at-home dress’,[4] although 100today Japanese fashion is well-integrated into a Western-dominated world of fashion. This is attributed to two waves of Japanese fashion. The first wave took place in line with Japonisme (the term first used in the 1870s after Japan’s Meiji Restoration of 1868), and the second wave was the recognition of Japanese fashion designers in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s. In order to assess the theoretical meaning of Rei Kawakubo, who put on her epic inaugural show in Paris in 1981, this chapter will critically explain the two waves of Japanese fashion arrivals first, and reveal to what extent they influenced the West. Attention will be paid to Georg Simmel’s fashion dualism, which acknowledges the two simultaneous fashion movements of an ‘adaptation to the social group’ and an ‘individual elevation from it’.[5] Although Kawakubo has contributed to the later condition, this could be due merely to her exoticism, rather than any proper appreciation of her aesthetics.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRei Kawakubo
Subtitle of host publicationFor and Against Fashion
EditorsRex Butler
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-3501-1825-6, 978-1-3501-1823-2
ISBN (Print)978-1-3501-1824-9, 978-1-3501-1822-5
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Fashion
  • Japan
  • Rei Kawakubo
  • Design


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