The Japanese Kimono

The Japanease Kimono and how its elaborately painted silk is a treasure trove of inspiration for the colours and designs of my silk scarf collection.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Japan. First stop was Tokyo…the city that never sleeps. Fast trains, fast food and fast living. With busy heaving shopping streets, karaoke bars, eateries and the notorious red light district, it would be difficult to be bored here. It is a modern day culture shock, sporting the very essence of style and everything that is outrageous. Chic dining and eccentric fashion. 

Present day Tokyo is fast and furious but does not forget or over shadow its past. Past and present work in harmony, taking inspiration and strength from each other. Life fizzes with energy and excitement and at the same time is hugely conformed and anchored firmly to history and tradition. Natives are friendly and charming with intriguing characters, always excited to meet a foreign face. Streets are orderly, immaculate, clean and carefree. There is no violence or vandalism only tasteful graffiti, “an ideal world ” I hear you say….but where’s there catch. 

The catch for me was that every inch of this city is utilised, every high-rise floor occupied by a bar, apartment or shop. Enormous advertising billboards and giant video screens hover above every busy pedestrian intersection. The city is dominated by giant skyscrapers that thrust into the sky from every angle, creating a dense concrete jungle. They block out the sun and all natural light. To make up for this, the city blasts out artificial light, generating a world of continuous daylight, often disconcerting and at times claustrophobic. It is quite possible to walk for a whole day and never see the sky or a horizon.

Outside of Tokyo, Japan itself has plenty of things too inspire a costume loving traveller. From Kabuki theatre and Geisha girls, to inspirational modern and traditional architecture and beautiful groomed landscapes. Japan possesses areas of intense natural beauty, rivers, mountains, volcanoes and the sun drenched islands in the south. The Maple trees and other native plants are spectacular. Even the large cities are teeming with beautifully manicured parks and intricately designed Zen gardens.

It was in the towns of Osaka and Kyoto that I found my inspiration. Brimming with traditional custom, fashion and architecture, life here exists as if they had never changed in hundreds of years. Seventeenth century Japanese style wooden houses and teahouses are nestled along the narrow riverbanks. Delicate Geisha and apprentice Maiko in brightly coloured kimonos shuffle elegantly along the leafy red Maple tree walkways.

Here the Kimono became my fascination. An unusual T- shaped garment with long wide sleeves, cut from this single length of fabric, 16 feet in length, the kimono is wrapped tightly around the body and secured around the waist with an Obi or sash belt.

The Edo period 1615-1868 in Japan, was recorded as a period of unimaginable political stability and economic growth, as well as urban expansion. Kyoto, the capital at that time, was the centre of Japanese culture and saw a dynamic development in urban culture. It was at this time that fashionable dress became a necessity for the now flourishing aristocracy. The Samurai warriors became the primary consumers of the Kimono, the hierarchy wanting a way in which to display their wealth, social status and affluence. Their wives would parade about the streets in competitive displays of dazzling grandeur.

The kimono became an artists canvas. Designs would often stretch across the whole length of the garment, using techniques such as tie-dye, embroidery and ink painting to create their elaborate imagery. In summer Kimonos they are worn unlined, worn padded in winter and lined in Spring and Autumn. The decorative patterns seen on the kimono dresses changed according to the seasons. Butterflies or cherry blossoms for Spring, water themed rivers and oceans for Summer, the red maple leaf for Autumn and bamboo, pine trees and plum blossoms for Winter. All of the expression of style and elegance being encapsulated in the kimono and the richness of its design. 

Over time the Kimono designs went from being subdued to outlandish, with a rebellious unruly use of colour. It became so out of control that laws were put in place to curtail these extravagant designs. Today these kimono artists are revered by the Japanese government and considered to be national treasures. It is important to them to preserve this historic artistic craft and the techniques of kimono decoration.

Of course with modern technologies coming into vogue, the kimono became less“occasion wear” and more a household garment. By the1870’s Kimonos were finally being exported and available to buy in shops such as Liberty’s London.

Western style began to gain popularity in Japan but the kimono continued to be worn. The overall shape stayed the same but motifs became dramatically bigger and inspired by western styles of Art Nouveau and Deco. In the early 20th Century, spinning machines, jacquard looms and modern chemical dyes meant the production of kimonos became relatively inexpensive and more widely available abroad. By the 1950’s the Kimono was a must have wardrobe essential.

Today it would be the older generation, Geishas, actors and hosts serving in traditional restaurants or in activities such the tea ceremony that would wear the Kimono. However increasingly on the streets of Japan and world wide we are seeing a massive resurgence in the popularity of the second-hand kimono, often re-styled with jeans, bikinis and beachwear.

This scarf was designed and inspired by the wonderful Kyoto and that beautiful sunny day I spent hiking abut the surrounding villages, talking with some wonderfully interesting folk and in awe generally of the diversity of natural colour, flowers, flora and fauna on my route. Click on the scarf link to read about my travel story that day.......