Friday 8 April 2022

Kimono fashion ~ by Lesley Downer

Kosode with autumn flowers
by Ogata Kōrin, 18th century
(Tokyo National Museum)
‘First the courtesan Kaoru commissioned the renowned artist Kano Yukinobu to paint a picture of flaming autumn on plain white satin. Eight court nobles were next asked to inscribe vignettes in verse, in black decorative calligraphy, on this gorgeous design. The result was a picture of breath-taking beauty, admirably suitable for a hanging scroll. But Kaoru had no idea of putting it to such trifling use. She had it made into a robe for herself.’

The Life of an Amorous Man
, Ihara Saikaku, 1682

The trendsetters of old Japan were the fabulously wealthy and celebrated courtesans of the pleasure quarters, as in the story above, by the famous writer and teller of naughty tales, Ihara Saikaku.

The key word is ‘trifling’ - ‘trifling use’. Why waste a beautiful painting by hanging it on a wall when you could have it made into a kimono? Then you could wear it and reveal how the painted image would change as you draped it on your body and, even more spectacularly, how it would flow as you moved, transforming it from a two dimensional object to a three dimensional work of art!

'Whose sleeves?'
Tagasode, 16th - 17th century (Met Museum)

There’s a genre of painting in Japan called Tagasode - 'Whose Sleeves?' Whose indeed? There are no people in these pictures, no beautiful women, just kimonos, draped seductively over a lacquered clothing frame. In old Japan a picture like this was considered provocative, even erotic. Just as a person’s fragrance and belongings can strongly evoke them, so it’s an invitation to speculate on the wearer. How gorgeous must the lady be who wraps herself up in one of these! In terms of allure clothing counts for as much as or more than the body wrapped up inside.

Moronobu Hishikawa (1618-1694) (Met Museum)

In woodblock prints the faces and figures of the courtesans, dancing girls and kabuki actors tend to be rather simply delineated, a hint rather than a studious portrait, not much differentiated. The focus is on the kimonos, rather, which are ravishing and distinctive. In this print by Moronobu each kimono is different.

Kimonos as art
Kimonos are always the same shape. What makes them different is not the cut or the style, which never change, but the painted design. In Japan the kimono is very far from just a garment. It is an art form and the great kimono designers are revered as artists. Museums worldwide show exhibitions of kimonos, both historical and contemporary. And in the women’s palace of the shogun’s castle in Edo (now Tokyo) and in daimyo’s castles and in wealthy merchants’ homes, sumptuous kimonos were hung on lacquered racks as a form of interior decoration.
Kosode moyo hinagata bon. Book
of painted kosode designs, second half
17th century (Met Museum)

In fact the silk kosode (the basic kimono) was the primary canvas for artistic expression in the 17th and 18th centuries in Japan. Kosode were often works of art on a par with paintings.

As in the story above, some designs feature written characters or whole poems used as decoration. Literature, the visual arts and traditional motifs and themes such as the ‘One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets’ happily combine with textiles to make a unified work of art. The artist incorporates their reaction to the feeling of the poem in their design, sometimes including a line or phrase in the pattern.

In the Edo period (1603-1868) kimono designers were as high in status, if not higher, than woodblock artists. Many artists, beginning with Moronobu, created kimono patterns. The legendary woodblock print artist Katsushika Hokusai, creator of The Great Wave and much else, also made designs for kimono fabric. He did small repeat patterns which became popular in the late Edo era when sumptuary laws restricting elaborate dress were increasingly enforced.

Kimono pattern books (Hinagata-bon)
Shops turned out kimono pattern books for every season promoting the latest fashions. A clerk would take a selection of books to a daimyo’s castle or a wealthy merchant’s home so that the lady of the house or an assistant could choose suitable designs. Less wealthy clients could go to the shop and study the pattern books there. Every year you would need to order new kimonos so as to keep up with the fashion.
Pattern book (hinagata-bon)
Enoki Hironobu 1751 (Met Museum)

The pattern books show designs for younger women, older women, young men, courtesans - but that doesn’t mean that the purchaser of the books would commission such designs, just as you wouldn’t actually expect to wear the clothes you see on the catwalk at Fashion Week. The pattern books were more like fashion magazines, like Vogue. People who couldn’t afford or wouldn’t want to wear such extravagantly glamorous clothes could still enjoy thumbing through the pages.

If you decided to commission a kimono, first you would choose your pattern from the pattern books. The tailor would record details of your requirements then make full size draft drawings with specifications to send to the dyers or embroiderers for the next stage of the production process. Once the decoration was finished the garment would be complete. 

Kosode, Edo period, 18th century, design of autumn
grasses and brushwood fences on  light green
chirimen crepe (Tokyo National Museum)
Edo period sumptuary laws decreed what sort of fabrics and designs you could and couldn’t wear. Certain fabrics and designs were reserved for the ladies of the imperial court or of the women’s palace at Edo Castle or for extremely high-ranking daimyos’ ladies. Conversely townswomen in particular were prohibited from wearing luxurious fabrics. 

As a result both they and their tailors became expert at, for example, designing a very plain unostentatious jacket with an incredibly expensive, over the top lining. It was the height of chic to dress very conservatively, allowing just a flash of the glorious lining to be seen.

The courtesans were famously flashy dressers. Yet what men found the most provocative was not the layers and layers of brilliantly coloured and heavily embroidered fabric - it was the tiny bare foot peeking out from under the voluptuous skirts, the only hint of the real woman gift-wrapped inside it all.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more see

Pictures courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Tokyo National Museum - by way of Wikimedia Commons. 


Carol Drinkwater said...

These designs are exquisite. The height of decadence, non? I knew nothing about this kimono history. Thank you, Lesley.

Penny Dolan said...

Such beautiful designs, Lesley! Thank you for this informative post.