Christina here and for today’s post I’m going Japanese! As you may have seen from Anne’s introduction of me (here), I was lucky enough to live in Japan for several years and I fell in love with everything about that country, including its beautiful traditional garments. So when the Victoria & Albert Museum in London put on an exhibition of kimono earlier this year, I just had to go and see it! It was glorious and as we’re now all stuck at home, I thought I’d give you a little taste of what was on display and tell you about these very special robes which featured in one of my very first novels, The Scarlet Kimono.
The kimono is instantly recognisable and the word itself (which just means “the thing to wear”) is known throughout the world. The fact that it is hardly ever translated I think is testament to its fame. As the first sign at the exhibition said, for the Japanese it “embodies national culture”. Its shape has stayed the same for centuries, making it timeless, although the aim of the museum was partly to show that it can indeed move with the times and be reinvented and incorporated into current fashions as well.
In Japan, by the beginning of the 17th century, almost everyone wore a type of kimono called kosode – men, women and children. The word means “small sleeves” and just referred to the size of the sleeve openings. Made of silk (for the aristocrats – the samurai – and the rich merchant class) or cotton, they were worn in layers, one kimono on top of another, sometimes as many as twelve or more (although I think that was only for court or high-ranking ladies as that made it extremely heavy and not very practical!). The innermost robe is white, showing slightly at the neck. Layers can be added or shed depending on temperature – it gets very hot and humid in Japan during the summer months, so less layers and cooler materials like linen or cotton would be preferable then.
The design of a kimono is very simple – everything is straight and it is made out of eight pieces of material, cut from the same piece of cloth, and made to fit together in a precise manner. The exhibition featured an animated film showing exactly how to do it which was fascinating. There are no buttons or fastenings; instead it is wrapped at the front and tied with a wide sash called an obi, and the various ways of tying this have different meanings. (Courtesans sometimes had theirs tied at the front – presumably to make it easier to take off?). A kimono doesn’t flatter the wearer’s body, the way European clothing does – indeed, to the Japanese the body inside was totally irrelevant. Rather, the important part is the surface where the design covers the entire garment and is displayed, as you can see from the photos.
There are several types, such as the kosode I mentioned, the most common style with narrow sleeves and a hem just by the ankles; furisode, which is a version with very long sleeves that was worn by young, unmarried women; uchikake, which is an outer kimono for special occasions; and yukata, informal summer wear or a robe to be worn after a bath, made of cotton and normally dyed blue or blue/white patterns (see photo on the left).
During the Edo period (1615-1868) the kimono really became a fashion and status item. The finest ones were created by commission for wealthy clients. There were various finishes available, such as dyed, hand painted or embroidered. Just like in Europe, embroidery was done with all the colours of the rainbow using lots of different stitches, often mixed with gold or silver thread. Some fabulous patterns were created. Many were nature motifs, but some people had writing (in Japanese kanji) and even parts of poems stitched onto their robes like this one.
By the 18th century, the capital Edo was the largest city in the world with a population that craved culture and entertainment. They found it in the so called ukiyo – “floating world” – of the Yoshiwara district, an area of the town solely for the sort of establishments where entertainment could be found.
There were celebrities, just like we have now, both famous courtesans and actors. Woodblock prints of them dressed in their finery were circulated and ordinary people copied their outfits. This meant an increase in new styles of fashion – sleeves for young women became longer, for example. If you were rich, you would want to show off your latest kimono. The samurai – ruling class – could naturally afford to do this, but the merchant class also flourished during this period and started to buy luxury items.
For men, the fashion was for a more understated look, perhaps just using beautifully woven fabric – the more extravagant and colourful ones were mostly for the ladies. Men could wear theirs with hakama, sort of loose-fitting trousers that look a bit like a pleated skirt and which can be worn on top. For formal occasions they would also wear a wide-shouldered sleeveless jacket (see photo). A lord would often have his crest – mon – embroidered onto the shoulders, back and sleeves. Each clan had their own, making them very distinctive. Here is the one for the ruling Tokugawa clan, of which the Shogun was head. I was fortunate enough to live next door to the present-day descendants of the Tokugawa family and I believe they still use their crest now.
There were lots of accessories needed for dressing and to complete the perfect look, such as mirrors, combs, fans and hairpins. Many of these were made of lacquerware, which I absolutely love. A kimono doesn’t have pockets so some way of carrying small items was needed – this is where the inro comes in. Inro are like tiny stacked boxes that hang off your belt, secured by a netsuke, a carved ivory or wooden object, which acts as a counter balance. The inro fit together neatly and you can open each compartment separately.
Here’s a selection (together with a pipe and tobacco pouch).
During most of the Edo period, Japan was closed to foreigners, but they still traded with other nations. The English tried to establish a trading post, but eventually only the Dutch were allowed to stay and they were confined to a tiny island in Nagasaki harbour called Dejima. They were sometimes given kimonos as gifts and took them back to Europe, together with other Japanese items. These created quite a stir – everyone was fascinated. Some people tried to copy the designs using European silk, adding wadding to make them into a sort of thick ‘night gown’ that could be worn at home when relaxing. These were probably the precursors to modern day dressing gowns.
Modern designers continue to draw inspiration from the kimono, with their own take on it. They are often incorporated into the annual catwalk shows in various permutations. Costume designers are also inspired by the Japanese style – who could forget the amazing outfits worn by Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy for example?
What I love most about kimono are the stunning patterns. Each garment is a work of art and I actually use them as such, displaying the ones I own as decorative objects. I have several uchikake – the outer kimono worn by a bride after the ceremony. (For the actual ritual she is supposed to wear white as in the photo on the right). They are incredibly heavy, with a weighted hem that drags on the floor behind you. This is fine indoors as the floors are usually made of tatami – woven rice – mats.
The obi – belts – can be every bit as beautiful with striking designs. During the Edo period, one of the major changes was that the obi became much wider than previously, with the most amazing and colourful patterns, both woven and embroidered. I will admit to having bought quite a few last time I visited Japan, although my favourite is this one with a pattern of Foo dogs (like the real ones I have), which my daughter gave me for my birthday one year. Obis are easier to display and when I lived in Japan the foreign ladies often bought them to make into table runners. (They are very long, up to about 4 metres, so you’d get more than one out of each obi). I think it’s a shame to cut them up, but of course they are of more use that way.
Before you start to think that I must have spent a small fortune on these items, I have to tell you it’s possible to buy second-hand ones, which is what I did. I could never afford a brand new kimono as they are hugely expensive!
As this is my first solo post for the Wenches, I’m doing a small giveaway – please leave a comment below to be in with a chance to win this beautiful notebook and fan from the V & A exhibition shop, and let me know what you think of these stunning garments!