Eye of the Beholder: The Kimono

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Not just a “thing to wear” as the name denotes in Japanese, the kimono tells you more about the wearer she might say about herself. It shows whether a woman were married or single, if she were a samurai wife or a shopkeeper’s widow. Color, pattern, stitching style and length of the sleeves were all indicators of the wearer’s place in Japanese culture.

There was little difference in the male and female kimonos until the 17th century, when peace and prosperity skipped hand in hand through the country, and the merchant class had new money. Strict rules of the Edo shogunate insisted on maintaining clear social delineations. The merchant class, or chonin, was restricted from buying their way to the top, so they showed their success through haute-kimono fashion. Textiles blossomed during this period, and designs that showed the wearer’s literary discernment sought to show what she couldn’t by other means.

Patterns were most often inspired by nature, which in turn held significance both as messages for the future and historical lore. Colors were attributed to values, both physical and moral. For example, blue was considered a repellent to snakes and insects because the dye came from the indigo plant, which was used to treat bites and stings. Red, in turn, was the most popular color, glamorous and alluring, u associated with youth and love. But as the safflower dye fades easily, so does love, and older women often dressed in kimonos of a darker red.

Specific scenes in nature were also metaphorical for the wearer. Paired ducks were a symbol of marital harmony while cranes, famed to live for a thousand years, represented fortune and longevity. Legend had it long ago in China that any fish able to leap down a waterfall and survive was converted into a dragon, and the Japanese found it an apt descriptor for achievement and often told it using the image of a carp in swirling water.

The kimono was disrobed of popularity in the 1920s. In the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, robberies were common. The kimono restricted movement, and those wearing them were unable to escape quickly from vandals. Ten years later, a huge fire destroyed the Shirokiya Department Store in Tokyo. Several women were too ashamed to jump into nets for safety because they wear not wearing underwear. In the end, tragedy struck and shame forced the kimono out of fashion.

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