SA's Only Antiques, Collectables And Decorative Arts Magazine
THREADS OF SILK AND GOLD - The enigmatic Kimono

kimonoI have had a lifelong fascination with Asian textiles, especially kimono and obi and have, admittedly, long ago crossed the fine line between collecting and hoarding. Textiles and costume are fascinating and virtually inexhaustible fields of study.

Think of Japan and a few images immediately come to mind – cherry blossoms, samurai, kimono and sushi. Kimono literally means ‘thing to wear’ and includes a vast range of garments of various descriptions. A kimono is never just a thing to wear. It is a personal statement replete with clues about the wearer’s status, education, interests and understanding of this most recognisable form of national dress.

Up until the beginning of the Meiji era, silk was only worn by the upper classes. The poor had to make do with various bast fibres and cotton. Sumptuary laws regulated who could wear what, but they were more often than not flouted or ignored by those with the means to do so.

In modern times there is a basic rule with kimono wear: always match a kimono with a painted pattern with a woven-patterned obi, and a woven kimono (either plain or patterned) with a painted obi. The former is worn as formal wear, the latter as more informal wear. There are so many rules about wearing kimono that special schools have come into being to assist novices in navigating the minefield of potential faux pas. Seasonal patterns abound and it is considered a serious lapse in style to wear a kimono in the wrong season.

One of the most recognisable types of kimono is the furisode (swinging sleeves), with its bright colours and bold patterns. Furisode are worn by girls and unmarried women. The fluttering sleeves and exuberant patterns denote the cheerfulness of childhood. Who has not seen images of Japanese brides swathed in glittering silks? Often collected and displayed for its sumptuous design, the uchikake is bridal attire par excellence and is related to the furisode. A woman will wearfurisode for the last time on her wedding day.

Thereafter, she will wear more sedate kimono with shorter sleeves called tomesode. Worn over the bridal furisode, uchikake are never belted with an obi. They have thickly padded hems that aid in spreading the trailing hem to make the most of the gorgeous pattern. Bridal uchikake are virtually always made as rental garments – a basic new one can cost in excess of US$30 000 – putting it out of reach of most modern brides. Fine quality designer pieces can cost in the millions of yen when new. Uchikake in good condition are readily available and wonderful to display.

Kimono collectors have many options to focus on, such as seasonal pattern, type of weave (there are many) or hand-dyed yuzen. Yuzen is a type of hand-painted decoration in which rice paste resist is used to mask areas that are to remain undyed or to outline designs. An undyed outline is a hallmark of this type of dyeing, as is the beautiful shading. It is labour intensive and the result is simply gorgeous. Old kimono dating from before World War Two often have mirror image designs called ryozuma on the front lower half and are highly collectible. Yuzen is often enhanced with discreet embroidery.

Tsumugi kimono and obi are made of waste silk and cocoons damaged by the moth when hatching. Hand-spun and hand-woven, they can be breathtakingly beautiful and new pieces can sell for blistering sums. Interestingly, despite a high price tag, they can never be worn as formal wear. This is very much rooted in the iki aesthetic in which that which is hidden or appears ordinary, can very expensive and therefore the height of unobtrusive elegance.

Edo period (1603-1868) kosode (small sleeve) kimono are true collectors pieces and seldom come up for sale.

Kimono produced after the devastating Kantoearthquake of 1923 in which thousands perished and many kimono were lost have become popular in recent years. Women had to replace their kimono lost in the fires following the quake and meisen – a type of ikat weave – fitted the bill perfectly. They were inexpensive to produce and could be mass-produced at about twenty kimonos per design. Designs were stencilled by hand onto temporarily woven silk, which was then taken apart and woven. The design emerged with beautifully blurred edges. Colours and patterns reflect the times and vary from traditional to eye-poppingly bright and modern with designs ranging from Art Nouveau, to Art Deco, traditional Japanese floral designs, and some resembling Mondrian paintings. Hardly the traditional garment that springs to mind when thinking of kimono, aficionados enjoy not only wearing them, but also exhibiting them as modern works of art.

Far less formal, but with a quiet dignity are indigo patchwork worker’s garments, boro-boro (which means falling apart), featuring beautiful geometric embroidery patterns used to sew layers of old fabrics together. Shibori tie-dye was once so expensive, that it was forbidden by law to wear garments with an all-over pattern. Many variations exist, with kanoko (fawn spot) being the most recognisable.

An indispensable part of the kimono ensemble is the obi. Traditionally in Japan jewellery took the form of hairpins, as well as obidome – gorgeous little decorations worn on the cord that helps keep the obi tied. The same materials used for making netsuke can be found in obidome. Maru obi are the most formal type of kimono sash. They are usually about four metres long and the bolt is woven double as wide as that normally used.

The fabric is then folded lengthways to create a reversible garment with only one side seam about thirty centimetres wide. A heavy inner padding is also added. Ranking below the maru obi in formality is the fukuru obi, followed by the Nagoya obi and finally the most informal hanhaba obi. Modern maru obi are almost only worn by brides, onnagata (male actors, to this day, play the part of women in traditional plays), and they also form part of a geisha’s formal attire. The obi is always tied with a bow at the back.

An unmarried woman’s is tied higher and as she ages, her obi moves lower down on the hip. Kyoto maiko (trainee geisha) tie their obi so that two long ends hang almost to the heel. This is seen as cute and girly. The famous image of women with their obi tied in front – and often with coiffure bristling with hairpins, and sometimes wearing very high clogs – is one of the iconic images of Japan.

These ladies are, in fact, courtesans, for whom the tying and re-tying of the obi would have been easier if the bow was kept in front. Obi are to kimono what jewellery is to western dress. They can be embroidered, hand-painted, stencil dyed and sumptuous formal obi are today woven with a host of techniques including thinlysliced natural mother-of-pearl or lacquered paper.

One of the most expensive weaving techniques is tsume tsuzure (literally nail weaving), a type of weave similar to that used in kelims, and can be distinguished by small slits where colours abut. A laborious technique, the weaver wraps the warp threads by using small serrations filed into their fingernails. They also have to work backto-front and progress is checked using a mirror.

Depending on the design, only a few precious centimetres can be woven per day. Fukusa (gift covers) are often made with this technique and new items can cost as much as a family car. Luckily old pieces are available and much more affordable. Fukusa are fertile ground for the textile collector to explore.

Two books I would highly recommend are Taisho Kimono – Speaking of past and present by Jan Dees (ISBN 978-8857200118), and Kimono Meisen – The Karun Thakar Collection by Anna Jackson and Karun Thakar (ISBN 978-3897904187).

Alan Samons is an artist, collector and also deals in Asian art and antiques. Cell: 082 900-3607


Latest Digital Issue

















Digital Back Issues

Buy Digital back issues for $1