Literature in Art, Part One: Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A

     Last week I went to one of my favorite places on earth - the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the V&A for short - to see the retrospective exhibition of Yohji Yamamoto’s work that has been on show there since March. It was, as expected, beautiful and interesting, and put me much in mind of several writers, nuggets of literary history and distinctive literary styles, as things are apt to do.*

Yohji Yamamoto     It was a beautiful day outside but the exhibit space itself was somewhat chilly and sparse, with an industrial, studio-like feel. At first glance, Yohji Yamamoto's clothing appeared equally bleak and relentlessly minimal, putting me in mind of the cold sparsity of Larsson or the sharp economy of Hemingway, thanks to a strong proliferation of clean lines, deconstructed fabrics and designs and Yohji’s dominant usage of black. There is an echo of the punk stylings and the detached, defiant androgyny of Lisbeth Salander, for instance, in a series of hacked-up dresses (model W9, if you are able to go) and suits (W10), and a riot of raw edging and unfinished detail. However, things become more a little complex (and interesting) on closer inspection.

     The first thing to surprise me in this exhibit was the extensive use of non-commercial cultural referencing, which often seemed to hark back to the past of Japan or that of other cultures. There was several inclusions of aspects of styles of traditional dress, for instance, the most interesting of which I felt, in literary terms, was Russian-esque: namely rich costumes of fur, paisley and embroidery for guarding against the cold (W4 and W5). 

Ukigumo     Russia and Japan have a long-standing literary tradition, with their proximity on either side of the Sea of Okhotsk and their mutual late 19th century anxiety about the perceived superiority and cultural Imperialism of the West meaning that there was a great interest and cultural communication between them. This meant that the novels of the Russian masters, namely Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev, were amongst the first works of foreign authors available in translation in Japan. A key proponent of this was the writer Futabatei Shimei, who translated the works of Turgenev into Japanese and penned 'Ukigumo' ('Drifting Clouds'), which is widely held to be Japan first modern novel, thanks to its new realism and complex protagonist, which were directly influenced by his interest in and work with Russian texts. Others, such as Roan Uchida and Hideo Kobayashi, took the lessons and themes of the Russian literary establishment and incorporated them into their own works. Both cultures were, in the broadest terms, introverted and serious with little historic interest in the superficial, which put them at odds with the America that existed during the Meiji era and at the turn of the 20th century. There's a great book on this, if you'd like to know more, by J. Thomas Rimer.

Kafka on the Shore     Also striking was the Yohji Yamamoto collection’s surrealism and wit. Dali and Haruki Murakami sprung to mind in the exaggerated shapes and cloudy, witty nebulousness of the clothing, particularly with the scarfs that look like they are trying to strangle the wearer (M5 and M7) or the enormous yellow mushroom cloud hat, hovering above a similarly striking dress, that looks like a cross between a coolie’s hat and a rising atomic cloud (see it here). The Kafkaesque juxtapositions of some outfits feel in part ominously chaotic and sweetly liberated from convention, like the houndstooth suit with the non-functionally bulbous sleeves, a twisted homade to Dior (W37), the long black dress with a sequinned purse growing on the back like a permanent appendage (W19) or the Balenciaga-inspired cut-off crinoline dress in the centre of the room that put me in mind of some demented horse-woman or dark childhood rocking horse. 

     It was all incredibly interesting, cultured and quite, quite strange. It was all quite uplifting as a whole though (maybe its freedom is the thing that lingers) and the feeling that it ultimately conveyed to me is that Yohji Yamamoto must be a very erudite, very interesting and very respectful, with an equal interest in both the dark and light.

Yohji Yamamoto: My Dear Bomb     The final comparison I want to make between Yohji Yamamoto’s work and the best of world literature is inspired by a quote mentioned as part of the resident video display by an ex-tutor of his from Tokyo’s Bunka College of Fashion: ‘white is the absence of colour, black is the presence of all colours.’ This is thought to be the philosophy that blackened Yamamoto’s colour palette and influenced his minimalism and modernity. A discussion of white as nothing, black as everything, puts me in mind of the black of ink, the white of paper. For him, black is charged; like words in the right order, sprawling out across a page.

*Disclaimer: a lot of this is going to sound very fashion-y, but there are books hidden in amongst there too.


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