Vintage Kimono ~ Introduction

Vintage Kimono

Most precious kimono from old Japan.

A vintage kimono is one that is from a specific period of kimono design in Japanese history. Each period has distinct styles that reflect the trends and tastes relative to the textiles, designs and techniques used in creating the kimono and obi of the period. Textiles used include silk, wool and cotton. Textiles are distinct in the design of the weave and use of dye, embroidery, gold leaf, and lacquer. This means that each vintage kimono is a one of a kind piece of art. The vintage kimono has distinct character and a uniqueness that cannot be matched in contemporary kimono that are brand new. Each is a piece of history.

A kimono is considered antique if it was worn or made before 1945 (WWII), and tends to be made out of raw silk and spun by hand. Their supple texture is very different from that of contemporary pieces, because modern kimonos are usually made from processed silk, and while they are durable, they often lack this appealing texture.

Vintage kimonos are hand-made from the fabric bolt until the finished kimono and are dyed using stencil papers or are handpainted, then sewn together by hand. The craftsmanship seen in antique kimono is the ultimate demonstration of Japanese textile design of the period. The usual lifespan of silk is considered to be around 100 years, as it gradually becomes weak through oxidation and discoloration, while silk kimonos that have been carefully preserved can be in fairly good condition. Much careful attention needs to be paid to antique kimonos, especially those that are hand-painted or dyed with natural dye, since damage done by perspiration, water or humidity is extremely difficult to reverse.

Japan has a very rich textile history, a major focus of interest and artistic expression being the kimono. Meaning 'the thing worn', the term kimono was first adopted in the mid-19th century. Prior to that the garment was known as a kosode, which means 'small sleeve', a reference to the opening at the wrist. Originally worn by commoners, or as an undergarment by the aristocracy, from the 16th century the kosode, or kimono, had become the principal item of dress for all classes and both sexes. It is still today an enduring symbol of traditional Japanese culture.

'Kimono for Women', 1800-50, monochrome figured silk (rinzu) with tie-dye (shibori) and embroidery. Museum no. FE.101-1982

Kimono are simple, straight-seamed garments. They are worn wrapped left side over right and secured with a sash called an obi. The length of the garment can be altered for height by drawing up excess fabric under the obi, while other adjustments can be made to suit the wearer. By pulling back the collar, for example, the nape of a woman's neck can be more sensuously revealed. The wrap style allows for ease of movement, particularly in a culture where many activities are performed while seated on the floor. The kimono is also well-suited to Japan's climate. Unlined kimono are worn in the humid summers while in winter warmth is provided by lined kimono worn in many layers.

In kimono it is the pattern on the surface, rather than the cut of the garment, that is significant. Indications of social status, personal identity and cultural sensitivity are expressed through colour and decoration.

The choice of obi and accessories, such as combs and pins worn in the hair, are also important. Only the elite regularly wore luxurious kimono; the majority of people would only have donned silk garments on special occasions and were sometimes forbidden to do so all together.

The kimono worn by women, particularly the young, were the most richly decorated and it is generally these that survive in collections like that of the V&A. Such kimono were the designer clothes of their day.