Japanese Kimono Questions

Marla Mallett     

Here are some of the questions that we frequently receive concerning kimono.

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Why is there such a wide range in antique and vintage kimono prices?
Many different factors determine prices.  First: age, rarity, and condition. Second: aesthetics.  Since in Japan the best kimono have always been considered textile art, kimono prices can vary as much as do prices on paintings. Thus, beautiful and rare antique kimono command a premium.  Some kinds of decorating techniques are held in especially high regard. Some hand-painted or yuzen-dyed kimono were extremely costly when  originally made, and beautiful examples have maintained high values.  




Embroidered and brocaded wedding kimono--uchikake--were also extremely expensive when they were made originally; $30,000 to $40,000 was not unusual. As a result, a  majority of Japanese brides have rented these garments for their weddings--with a typical rental fee of $1500 a day. It is truly fortunate that we can now acquire some of these spectacular pieces at a small fraction of their original cost. We may sometimes have access to them merely because of a tiny, insignificant stain on a lapel or hem, so we need to be a little accommodating in that regard. 

Original cost and continued high valuations also dictate the pricing of many hand-decorated furisodes and hikizuris-- garments commissioned in the past by highly paid geishas who were fashion trend-setters. Skinner and Martin, in Geisha, Women of Japan's Flower & Willow World, tell us that a geisha's formal kimono ensemble sometimes cost $12,000 or more. Then they point out that a geisha needed dozens of such outfits in her wardrobe.  Mineko Iwasaki, in her autobiography, Geisha, a Life, tells of routinely spending several thousand dollars each week on special kimono, most over $7000 each.  Decorating techniques such as yuzen dyeing and shibori (tie-dye) were extremely time-consuming and expensive; thus, pieces made with these processes were especially valued.  (For an explanation of these techniques, go to Japanese Kimono Design Techniques.)  In contrast, machine-printed kimono imitating these kinds of designing and made for everyday wear by most folks were relatively inexpensive, and continue to be so today.  Some of these mass-produced  pieces are now literally sold "by the bale." My interest has focused on hand-decorated garments that are textile art, however, and I only buy examples in excellent condition.

What are the historical periods used in Kimono dating?
Edo Period:  1603 to 1868
Meiji Period:  1868 to 1912
Taisho Period:  1912 to 1926
Showa Period:  1926 to 1989
What is the best way to display an antique or vintage kimono?  
The Japanese traditionally use a special kimono rack for free-standing display. The garments are hung over the top pole, then the front panels are spread outward and fastened to the side standards with clips. With these racks, garments that are especially long are allowed to drape gracefully on the floor. I have provided a link to one US source for kimono racks at the end of this page.

Most people opt for a wall display that is dramatic and easy. A simple rod is adequate--any material as long as it doesn't bend.  I personally prefer a plain rod, with only an inch or two visible at each end; other people like rods with finials or up-turned ends. Your local hardware store can provide brackets to hold a rod out from the wall slightly, or you can suspend it from above with nylon mono-filament. It is simplest of all to just rest the rod on two slanting nails or screws in the wall.  

Alternately, a rod can be suspended from a short cord that is threaded through two holes placed at its center, about 5 inches apart.  This cord holds the kimono collar upward. 

Either the front or back of a garment can be displayed--depending upon its ornamentation. The backs of dramatic wedding kimono are usually displayed, most often with the front panels spread to show the full width and continuous design of these pieces. The heavy padded hems add weight to the kimono. If you wish, you can sew small rings to the underside of the lapels and then slip these over screws in the wall. In most of my website photos of wedding kimono--uchikake and shiromuku--I've merely pinned these panels to the wall.

 

Lighter weight kimono can either be spread in the same way, or hung straight from a rod.  Either the back or front can be displayed.  Some people like these garments draped loosely and open, while others prefer their pieces hanging straight and undraped, as in the photo below.  If this is your choice, it can be useful to put a few loose basting stitches along the placket to hold the left side over the right. In many of my website photos, I have pinned the two sides together so that the garments hang smoothly.

Kimono can also be effectively displayed when hung above  credenzas, with the garments draping casually onto the furniture surface.

One caution:  A kimono should never be hung on a clothes hanger, as that puts unnatural stress on the underarm/sleeve seams so that tears are likely to develop in those areas. 
What is an Uchikake?
This is the elaborate, often colorful and dramatic wedding kimono worn by a Japanese bride at her wedding reception. Of all Japanese garments, these can be the most festive and exuberant.  They are full of auspicious symbols--the omnipresent cranes, for example, signifying wishes for long life. These spectacular garments may be brocaded, embroidered, or painted, and often incorporate couched gold or silver threads, metallic brocading, and painted or stenciled gold leaf--surihakuUchikake are cut very long and are not worn with an obi, but rather are left open and trailing, their heavy padded hems holding the robe outward in back. 

The groom's traditional attire consists of a black kimono, a black jacket, or   haori, with five crests, and a gray hakama--a long pleated skirt.













Wedding attire, showing a brocaded uchikake. From Norio Yamanaka's excellent Book of Kimono. Plate 13.
What is a Shiromuku?


A shiromuku is the traditional white or off-white Japanese kimono worn for the wedding ceremony itself. These have normally been brocaded, damask or embroidered garments. Cranes and floral motifs predominate. Because of the contrasting reflective surfaces, these garments have sometimes been called "triple whites." Some of the loveliest are soft eggshell-colored silk satins.
What are Tomesode and Irosode?
Tomesode are the dark kimono worn by older or married women for formal occasions--especially weddings.  Members of both the brides' and grooms' families have typically worn kuro tomesode--black kimono--usually with elegant auspicious designs near the hems. Slightly less formal irosode were made in other colors. Hand- drawn yuzen-dyeing techniques were favored for these garments, although we also find embroidered and printed tomesode. The most formal examples have five mon, or family crests--three across the shoulders on the back, two on the upper front.  Tomesode were also worn by geisha for formal occasions; the mon on these normally  represented the geisha houses.  Three crests appear on less formal garments; sometimes just one appears in the center back. Like uchikake and shiromuku, tomesode have sometimes been rented for weddings from companies specializing in wedding apparel.

 A Japanese wedding party as photographed by LIFE magazine in the 1930s.  The bride wears an uchikake, the married  women are all dressed in formal black tomesode, the younger women in colorful furisode
What are Furisode?
These are fancy kimono for young unmarried women. They are distinguished by their very long sleeves, which were thought to be seductive when they fluttered gracefully.  Ideas of "appropriate" sleeve length changed over the years for all kimono, and gradually became longer. Married women always wore garments with the shortest sleeves, however.  Furisode can be any color, and can be decorated with any technique.  Hand-drawn yuzen-dyed examples were often the most highly regarded and expensive. They were often commissioned for a girl's 19th birthday "coming-of-age" ceremony. They were also commissioned for young apprentice geisha--maiko.  These costly items have not survived in large numbers, and are of special interest to collectors.

What is a Hikizuri?
This is a kimono made specifically for a performing geisha. These garments were cut longer than normal and usually have a very lightly padded hem that allowed the garment to swirl outward gracefully as a dancer moved. In photos of geisha, we frequently see the long garments held up to allow the girls to walk on the street.  Hikazuri could be decorated with any technique-- embroidered, painted, brocaded, kasuri, shibori, or yuzen-dyed.  Some of the most interesting are sheer ro silk fabrics that were astonishingly expensive. Unfortunately, antique or vintage hikizuri were given hard use by the tea house performers and so are often stained.  It is difficult to find beautiful examples in excellent condition.

Wood block print, Suzuki Aarunobu,  1769
How should kimono be stored?
Kimono should be folded along vertical lines and laid flat in a drawer. They should NOT be hung on hangers as that puts unnatural stress on the garments. 
How about sizes of Japanese kimono? How can they be worn?
Size differences among extant kimono are minimal. They have all been made from a standard length of fabric--a tan--about 12 yards long and 14 or 15 inches wide. They are actually one-size-fits-all garments that can accommodate any woman who wears a Western dress size 2 to 12, sometimes 14.  Older garments tend to be smaller, as Japanese women gradually became taller over the years of the 20th century. Americans are usually surprised to discover how long most kimono are, however, as they were cut so that Japanese women could pull them up at the waist to the precise length needed, and bind them in place with an obi. 

There are many non-traditional ways for Westerners to wear these lovely garments. They can be bloused and worn with a chain belt or sash. They can be worn open, as dusters or luxurious evening coats. Occasional pieces can be shortened if desired, depending upon their designs.  Anyone wishing to wear kimono in the traditional manner with an obi should see The Book of Kimono, by Noria Yamanaka for complete instructions.  

For anyone wishing to make a kimono, the Folkwear patterns company stocks a kimono pattern, with construction guidelines.  A link to this company's information appears on our website LINKS page.
  How about an obi or sash?
  Occasionally someone asks me about a matching "belt" or sash for a kimono.   Japanese women, instead, wear a kimono with an obi--usually a wide, stiff, brocaded, 15-foot long piece that wraps around the waist several times and ties in an elaborate bow in back.  They rarely match these to the kimono, but rather choose contrasting colors and patterns.   

The only kimono that are sold with an accompanying sash in a matching fabric, are garments made specifically for the Western tourist trade or for export to the West.  These were also the types so often sold to US servicemen after the war in the late 1940s.  Although these garments often appear on websites such as eBay, they are rarely of interest to collectors of genuine Japanese garments. 

The only kind of kimono worn by women in Japan without an obi are uchikake--wedding kimono.  These are worn open, and trailing, as in the photo above. 

Westerners more often use obis as decorative hangings, just looping them over a short rod.  They also make stunning table runners. 
What are Haori?
These are short silk jackets worn over kimono.   Because they are  attractive and so comfortable to wear, they are favorites among Westerners. They can be suitable with either dresses or pants, and range from casual to extremely elegant evening attire. Like kimono, they tend to vary only a little in size, although they have been made in different lengths. They are worn open and the plackets do not meet at the center front. Some haori come with short braided ties attached just inside the center front; these can be used or not, as desired.  They can also be removed. Haori are all made with side gussets that can be let out by a competent seamstress if necessary.  Women who require a size 14 or 16 might consider wearing men's haori.  Of course haori can be lovely display items as well, hung from a straight rod. 


Most men's haori are brown or black.  The most interesting examples  have beautifully decorated linings and can be reversed, with the painted, brocaded or stenciled panels turned outward for display, as below.  Some Westerners wear these haori with the lining outward, although in Japan this would be thought quite strange. 
 

 
 
What is a Michiyuki?

This is a double-breasted, square-necked silk jacket or short "coat." These usually have covered buttons and snaps. To look nice, a michiyuki needs to be fastened, and thus the size is more critical, than with haori. They usually fit women who wear up to a Western size 10. They have sometimes been worn by Westerners as dresses.  Often these garments are made of brocaded fabrics, although we show a rare cut velvet example  here.
What is a Juban?
These are the shorter under kimono that Western women have discovered make lovely evening attire.  VOGUE magazine, in particular, has promoted this use. They may be hand painted, yuzen dyed, shibori, or exquisite rinzu silks. Some of the most luxurious are the old red Meiji period rinzu silk garments that were worn by geisha. Men's juban are sometimes quite interesting and are items Western women can consider wearing.  At the left is a man's juban decorated with an austere shibori design.  The woman's rinzu silk juban below has also been decorated with shibori, and the collar has been elaborately embroidered.


A source for kimono stands in the US:
TANSU   www.tansullc.com   Gene Riggin.  Decatur, Georgia   404-288-8125


MARLA MALLETT
1690 Johnson Road NE
Atlanta GA  30306   USA

E-mail:
  marlam@mindspring.com  
Phone:  404-872-3356
              or Toll Free:  1-877-542-0841
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