Why is the Kimono considered Art?

Why is the kimono considered art, and is it a collectible? We look at the various elaborate and unique aspects that make a kimono a highly prized, valuable work of art with collector demand.

Picture of Carla Pohli, ArtRatio President

Carla Pohli, ArtRatio President

I was personally introduced to the kimono in its most humble form.

A working T-shaped garment that took much practice to learn to construct in order to wear, this was the uniform for all waitresses at a Teppanyaki restaurant where I worked to support my studies in Melbourne.

A solid navy robe with a simple red obi (or kimono “sash”) that wrapped around the waist several times and formed a soft sort of pillow at the back, mine was far too short for me and the heels of my large tabi clad feet fell off the back of my zori.

I shudder now at the inappropriateness of it all.

Of me wearing it!

But learning how to wear that kimono was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Japan.

What to know about Kimonos in general

The basic Kimono appeared in Japan as early as the sixth century.

The original garment, began as a simple unisex piece, originally known as Kosode (“small sleeves”).

Commoners continued to wear the simple printed kosode in only muted colours, while elaborate, multi-layered styles were developed for the nobility members of the imperial court.

In contrast to western garments, a kimono is designed to cover, rather than to reveal the body, putting the emphasis on the kimono itself, and its artistic decoration.

Kimonos as Indicators of Social Status

Kimono colours and patterns indicate everything from rank and social status, to age, marital status, the occasion and the season.

Prints and motifs decorating some special occasion pieces are simply fascinating – real works of art with brush painting, embroidery, tie-dyeing, appliques of gold and silver.

Designs reflected the power of warlords (the likes of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu), whose kimono were decorated with strong patterns of fearsome animals and bold family crests, rendered in metallic threads and gold leaf.

kimono dark background

The Junihitoe Kimono

The Junihitoe is known as one of the most expensive of Japanese collectibles.

From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, the Junihitoe became the official costume for noble ladies.

Literally meaning twelve unlined robes, it consisted of twelve layers of robes of different colours, but the number could vary from 5 till 40.

It was believed that multi-layered clothing gave a higher sense of dignity.

The layers?

All pure silk, with the intricate pattern of each layer visible only at the hem.

The colour combination was of great importance, with a woman’s own aesthetic ability to match colours seen as more important than physical beauty.

These Kimonos are incredibly rare and expensive. And heavy – a Junihitoe kimono can weigh up to 20 kgs including an under-robe and coat.

Today, the Empress still wears the Junihitoe to state functions and other formal occasions.

Historical periods used for dating Kimono:

  • Edo Period : 1603 to 1868
  • Meiji Period : 1868 to 1912
  • Taisho Period : 1912 to 1926
  • Showa Period : 1926 to 1989

Size and style of a motif, as well as the Kimono’s fabric quality and colour indicate age, status and aesthetic of its owner.

Designs range from simple stripes and solid colours to elaborate images with special meaning and auspicious significance. The crane features regularly as a symbol of longevity and good fortune.

Bamboo, that bends but never breaks, used as a symbol of perseverance. Birds, animals, butterflies and dragonflies often appear along with motifs from nature, such as snow, clouds and water.

Some depict whole landscapes with mountains and streams.

The numerous ways in which these popular motifs are used on garments is testament to the skill of kimono designers, dyers and embroiderers.

From the Edo period onwards, the upper classes competed in who could display the most elaborate designs and especially the works of the most famous artists.

This ensured that the Kimono became a highly prized heirloom treasured by generations, and a monument to an artistic past.

 

Is Kimono Art Collectable?

In Japan the best kimonos have always been considered textile art, meaning kimono prices can vary as much as paintings and other fine art.

Different factors, such as age, condition, materials, aesthetic designs and rarity contribute to kimono prices.

Some techniques are held in especially high regard, such as the hand-painted or yuzen-dyed kimono, extremely costly when originally made, with beautiful examples maintaining high values for collectors today.

Beautiful and rare antique kimonos always command a premium. Uchikake, shiromuku, furisode, and hikizuri, along with the Junihitoe, are considered some of the most valuable and collectible kimonos.

The Uchikake is an embroidered and brocaded wedding kimono – extremely expensive at purchase – and priced high in the secondary market.

Shiromuku is the traditional white or off-white Japanese kimono worn for the wedding ceremony itself. Normally brocaded, damask or embroidered with cranes and floral motifs. Sometimes called Triple Whites because of the contrasting reflective surfaces.

I remember buying one for a song at a Tokyo temple sale in the early 90s.

Furisode, or fancy kimono for young unmarried women – often commissioned for a “coming-of-age” ceremony and distinguished by their very long sleeves, meant to flutter gracefully.

Furisode can be any colour, and decorated with any technique.

Hand-drawn yuzen-dyed examples were often the most highly regarded and expensive. These haven’t survived in large numbers and are of particular interest to collectors.

Hikizuri, a kimono made specifically for a performing geisha, cut longer than normal and with a lightly padded hem allowing it to swirl gracefully as a Geisha danced. These could be decorated with any technique–including embroidered, painted, brocaded, kasuri, shibori, or yuzen-dyed.

Some of the most interesting are sheer ro silk fabrics that were incredibly expensive.

Unfortunately, antique or vintage hikizuri were worked hard by the performers and are often damaged and stained, making it difficult to find beautiful examples in excellent condition.

Where can you buy Antique/Vintage Kimonos?

Vintage kimonos can be bought through etsy, 1st dibs, and EBay and other auction sites. When in Japan, the Temple or Shrine markets are the place to search;

Tokyo Shrine Sales

Antique markets are held in Tokyo on the grounds of famous temples and shrines.

Some of the best in my experience are:

Setagaya Boro-ichi Market

Beginning with inexpensive recycled kimonos. Featuring up to 700 stalls, and held twice a year in January and December

Kasai Shrine Antique Fair

Catering specifically to antique collectors, and held on the first Saturday of every month

Takahata-fudo Temple Gozare-ichi Market

This market specialises in old antiques and traditional items. Over 80 vendors set up on the grounds of Takahata-fudoson Kongoji Temple in the suburbs of western Tokyo to show off valuable kimonos and more. held on the third Sunday of every month

Hanazono-jinja Shrine Antique Market

Around 30 merchants come to Hanazono-jinja Shrine in Shinjuku every Sunday to showcase a variety of antiques, including art scrolls, prints, furniture and kimonos.

Display & Conservation

Japanese traditionally use a special kimono free-standing rack for display, and in western collections they tend to be wall-hung, encased or not, to reveal the full patterns and folds of the garment.

Conservationists have drawn from centuries of Japanese ritual, folding the kimonos in the traditional style. There is a very precise way of folding and storing kimonos in Japan.

In contrast to conventional conservation methods, the Japanese actually welcome creases as a sign of proper folding. There are even specifications about which arm should be folded over the other.

Left over right means that the kimono’s owner is alive, and right over left means they are not.

In Summary

The highest end kimonos are unique, exceedingly valuable pieces of art, with prices continuing to increase from wealthy collector demand.

References

The Art of Japanese Kimono: A Lavish Visual Guide

Met exhibition frames the kimono as a global transmitter of style, beyond national costume

RARE ANTIQUE KIMONO

Japanese Kimono Questions

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