The books on Japanese costume in Chelsea Reference Library’s costume collection have caught our eye this week. Although the early 20th Century saw the decline of the kimono as the everyday attire of Japanese people, we have discovered that this beautiful garment continues to inspire and influence Japanese culture and modern fashion around the world. And as the nights get longer and colder, we have been looking at the kimono in winter.
Traditionally, the choice of kimono reflects the season not only in how they are made, but also by the patterns that adorn them. We were fascinated to learn about the many levels of significance that the motifs used on kimonos hold. The natural world is the source of many motifs and symbols, many of which have a seasonal significance. There is a Japanese belief in the figurative and also literal power of images, which makes the pattern and colour of a kimono very important for its wearer. Winter kimono patterns include bamboo, pine trees and plum blossoms because they signify wealth and luck for the New Year. The plum blossom in particular is popular for suggesting that it will be Spring soon. Here are two amazing patterns depicting some of these things that we found in a book filled with images of patterns used on kimonos, called Kimono & the Colours of Japan.
And here are two motifs depicting wintery scenes:
In winter time extra layers and heavier fabrics are used to keep warm, and cotton padding is added between each layer. Here are some images we found in Kimonos by Sophie Milenovich of kimonos worn in the winter. Milenovich’s book focuses on how kimonos are worn in the present day. The shape of kimonos has not changed over time, unlike some other things:
We were interested to find out about how much Kimono patterns have in the past reflected the social conditions of the time. Wintery scenes can be a mark of a time of austerity, as with this photographed in Japanese Costume: and the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition by Helen Benton Minnich. This kimono depicts grasses covered in snow, and was made in a time of Kimono austerity in the Kyoho era under the eighth Tokugawa shogun (1716-36):
As we read more, we discovered different examples of how kimonos reflect a culture based on ideas very different from those of Western culture. In Beauties of the Four Seasons by Mitsuko Watanabe, we found out about how the clothes worn by women were not made to emphasise the shape of their bodies, as is the emphasis in the West, belying a very different relationship between clothes and their wearer. In Japanese woodblock prints, beautiful women were not depicted for their bodies, such as can be found in Western art, but for the gorgeous kimonos that they wore. Here is a print by Kitagawa Utamoro (c.1753-1806), The courtesan Madoka of the Tamaya-nai in which Madoka is wearing a winter kimono with lots of layers and padding:
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan started to be influenced by foreign cultures and the Japanese government encouraged people to adopt Western style of clothing. So today the kimono is worn mostly for special occasions, but it continues to influence fashion design and is deeply rooted in a Japanese aesthetic. Here is something we found in Making Things by Issey Miyake, who’s designs are heavily influenced by the kimono:
And here is an image of the fashion designer Kenzo Takada that we found in Kenzo by Ginette Sainderichin about the amazing clothing brand that he founded:
Gillian Nunns, Tri- Borough Reference Librarian
Chelsea Reference Library