Every garment has clues as to the date of its origin.
I thought I would write today about how to date a kimono.
For those of us who collect vintage items, it’s important to know what to expect from our kimono, especially as vendors’ descriptions are not always very full, or sometimes even correct, so it pays to learn a few of the signposts on offer.
Vendors might describe an item by decade if you’re lucky, or by period, and the main ones are:
- Meiji 1868-1912
- Taisho 1912-1926
- Showa 1926-1989
- Heisei (‘modern’) 1989 – present
If a kimono has no date on it, start by assuming that it’s modern.
What to expect from Meiji kimono
In the Meiji era, kimono were quite subdued in colour and pattern. Few daily-wear items remain and so the kimono on sale tend to be the higher-end items such as furisode, tomesode and uchikake.
The uchikake of the era (left) was not – as today – worn solely for weddings, and is dramatically lighter in weight (some 1,000g as opposed to the 5,000g seen in modern uchikake). They are generally made from obi-style brocade fabrics with all-over designs, and colours include silvery-grey, greeny-gold and similar subdued shades. The hems on these uchikake are far less padded than on formal wedding kimono today.
The Meiji furisode is usually a thin, plain silk with applied yuzen dyeing at the hem, and on the hems of the sleeves. This is sometimes commissioned work from a famous artist. When a woman married, the bottoms of the sleeves would be cut off, leaving a tomesode garment, like this navy one.
Meiji items are now collector’s items – expensive and rare – and the silk is fragile.
What to expect from Taisho kimono
The Taisho era was very influenced by (and influenced in its turn) the Art Nouveau movement in the west. Consequently, large numbers of ready-to-wear kimono were produced in loud colours and patterns, aimed at the fashionable ‘modern girl’ consumer. These are often described as ‘Taisho Roman’. Designs include gigantic peonies, playing cards, shellboxes, hibiscus and many abstract patterns. Heian-era designs such as yabane (left) and ryusui were also revived.
Changes in silk production at this time created a plethora of a new silk – meisen – which is a reeled silk made from damaged cocoons that had formerly only been used for tsumugi (hand-woven slubbed silk). This dramatically ramped up the production of usable silk, bringing silk within the price range of those who had formerly only worn bast fibres. Meisen kimono were cheap, tough and attractive, and millions of them were produced in the Taisho and Showa eras.
Taisho kimono of all kinds often have red linings (though it’s not ubiquitous), and the doura is often made of incredibly thin silk that you can see right through. Sleeves tend to be quite long – 24 inches wouldn’t be unusual even in daily-wear kimono. Colours are generally strong, to go with the large patterns, and popular colours included purple, deep raspberry pink, deep flesh pink, rusty-red and strong peacock blue.
Taisho tomesodes may show a ‘mirror pattern’ disposition where the pattern swoops from high at the front edges to low at the back seam, in contrast with modern tomesode (see below), whose design sweeps from left to right around the back of the garment. The decoration on Taisho items is usually entirely yuzen, with no applied work at all. In contrast, modern tomesode often feature applied surihaku, gold thread couching and silk embroidery – sometimes all three.
Taisho haoris are usually long – between 36 and 43 inches – and often have long sleeves to match those of the kimono. Patterns tend to be loud and busy, with giant peonies, hibiscus etc running amok, and linings are often a bright patterned cotton, printed silk or loud shibori in shades such as scarlet, yellow and purple. Colours include purple, deep flesh pink and jade.
Jubans (right) are usually brightly coloured, often with large-scale shibori, or may be all-over scarlet.
What to expect from Showa kimono
The Showa era was a long reign (of the emperor Hirohito) and is therefore usually divided into three parts: early, middle and late.
The early Showa period is very similar to the Taisho period. Large designs proliferated, a great deal of meisen was produced, along with early omeshi, and sleeves were long. Many dailywear kimono were striped, checked, hatched or covered in giant crosses and many people still wore practical kasuri garments – hand-woven cotton, usually in shades of blue, with subdued ikat-type designs of hatching, diamonds, lozenges etc. Linings on dailywear kimono were usually thin silk or cotton, or sometimes rawsilk for the hakkake.
Haoris are like those of the Taisho era, with an abundance of meisen.
Juban are like those of the Taisho era, though there are fewer all-red ones.
The war years (1937-1945) saw dramatic changes as Japan began to turn over fabric production to the war effort. Women were encouraged to shorten their sleeves to ‘Genroku’ style (right) – a shorter, deeply curved sleeve that was prevalent in the Edo period. By the war’s end, most women were in western garments or mompe and hippari (field clothing) and many millions of kimono were lost in air-raids, or cut up and used as currency (a hangover of the days when silk was used as a trade good or as tribute payment).
In the 1950s, Japan’s economy began to recover and women began to wear kimono again. This is the heyday of omeshi silk. A thick, tough crepe, omeshi was used throughout the 1950s and 1960s to produce ‘townwear’ kimono – high-end dailywear kimono suitable for going around town, eating in restaurants, the workplace, and many other situations and roles that were comparatively new for Japanese women, who had formerly been more confined to the home.
Because omeshi is thick and tough, it supports the use of urushi – lacquered threads – very well, and many omeshi kimono of this era are liberally scattered with urushi in gold, silver and other colours such as pink, blue and jade. The omeshi of this era is generally tougher and less pliable than pre-war Omeshi. Popular colourways include pink, grey, black and red – colours also seen in western clothing and furnishing fabrics of the time.
The production of meisen continued throughout the 50s – many designs are florals, in the pink/red/cream/black/grey colourway, but production ended by the early 1960s and no more of this silk was ever produced.
Haoris of the mid-Showa period tend to be shorter than before – between 23 and 36 inches and many are meisen.
Juban are often plain silks or white rinzu with pink shibori. The trend for brightly coloured underwear was dying out.
Mid-Showa obis are softer than modern ones, but designs are similar – perhaps more subdued in colour – and the stiffness is impossible to gauge from photographs alone.
The late Showa period roughly dates from around 1970-1989 (the death of Hirohito). Kimono from this era are notably more formal in feel than earlier kimono, as by this time, few women wore kimono on a daily basis, but only for special occasions such as tea ceremony, ikebana class, and life markers such as graduation, 21st birthday and marriage. Pastel colours were favoured and many kimono from this era are in ladylike shades of pale pink, pale peach, pale blue and eau-de-nil.
1970s kimonos, in my experience, tend to be heavy and formal-feeling in comparison with older items. The rinzu, in particular, is much tougher than old rinzu, and is often stiffened with size to create a dirt-shedding surface. Linings are usually thin reeled silk or synthetic (often polyester) for the doura and silk crepe for the hakkake. The latter is often dip-dyed in an ombre fashion – this is a classic characteristic of quality kimono of this era.
Another common fabric from these two decades is hitokoshi chirimen – a tightly woven, heavy, matt silk crepe that makes a wonderfully smooth background for applied work such as yuzen, gold-thread couching or roketsu-zome (batik). It’s mainly seen on quality items such as tomesode and houmongi, and some townwear, while furisode tend to come in the more ‘girly’ rinzu weave.
It was in the 1970s that the tsukesage and iromuji really came to the fore, as these can easily be dressed up or down with a change of obi and obi-age, thus giving them a long shelf life for a woman who can afford only a few kimono. Most tsukesage and iromuji from this era are in pastel colours, but there are also some brights such as orange or lime green. Dark colours such as this black tsukesage are very unusual.
Haori from the 1970s onwards often have abstract designs, while juban are almost universally white or pale pink, with white collars.
Modern kimono differ little from late Showa, but they tend to fall into two categories – ready-to-wear casual yukatas and highly formal furisode, tomesode and houmongi worn for family events such as weddings.
The yukata – which on Ebay may have come from a closing-down sale – differ from vintage yukata is being more flimsy. The collar is usually two-layer rather than four-layer and there is rarely a shoulder lining or back lining, which helped to strengthen an area that traditionally wore out when people assumed a kneeling position. Most Japanese people today sit in chairs, so this area on a kimono does not wear out as it did in the past. Bright colours are fashionable, along with the traditional blue and white.
Modern furisode tend to be gaudier than their older counterparts, especially if they are bridal furisode – screaming combinations of pink, shocking blue, bright red etc are often seen. Synthetics are not uncommon, and the same high-end yuzen techniques may be used on them as on traditional silk kimono. Some of the weaves do not have names, but equate to what in the west we would call ‘satin’. The design may be all over the garment, or may thin out or disappear towards the middle (the area covered by the obi) but it usually covers the hems, back, front and both sleeves, in marked contrast to Meiji-era furisode.
Modern tomesode and houmongi are extremely ladylike, with matt silk backgrounds and a subdued use of colour, usually yuzen, often coupled with applied gold threadwork, urushi threads, gold-thread couching and surihaku gold painting. The design on tomesodes sweeps downwards from left to right, sometimes petering out before it reaches the right-hand side.
Modern uchikake are extremely gorgeous, with rich brocaded fabrics, heavily padded hems and extensive use of gold, silver, embroidery and lustre. They are very heavy – some 5000g – and make very good wall display items.