Antique Export Kimono–A chat about Art History & Remakes

So I’ve been absent. Sorry about that, my fucking computer fucking broke. There I was, just drawing on it because it was a beautiful, sexy, fucking expensive HP Zbook X2 G4 Dreamcolor edition with a Wacom EMR screen. And suddenly, on my second monitor, the grid of death appeared. And it spread. And I fucking died inside. “Becky, what is the grid of death?” I’m glad you asked! The fucking graphics processor crapped out, and since it’s a laptop that’s soldered to the logic board. So it was time to ship NVIDIA a box of my actual human excrement buy a new computer, which I just really didn’t want to do. I’m a hardware expert and I think I like(d) computers–once upon a time at least–but I fucking loved my little ecosystem that I had built and there was just no fixing it.

Enter the Asus ROG Flow Z13, which my family bought me for my birthday. It’s going to take some getting used to, but I like it so far. Anyway, that’s where I’ve been. Screaming into the void about broken computers and shit. Party hard.

Today I have a little bit of a change in pace for you, which I hope will be a little bit of a treat. Let’s talk about the vast and strange world of non-traditional kimono–because you’re looking at one. And it didn’t fool me, I bought it on purpose. So, what is a non-traditional kimono? Well, I picked this word because there are several terms that are used to describe things that are not wafuku (traditional Japanese garments) and they all mean something a little different.

There is a market of “kimono” that are made in Japan that basically look like a kimono, but actually are made entirely differently. Their history is actually pretty cool if you’re familiar with a history of textiles to begin with. In the modern context, we think of things like this when we hear “tourist” kimono or “export” kimono:

The fun part: especially the one on the right with the dragon, there is every likelihood that these were purchased in Japan. They’re made and marketed towards tourists because they have that cute kimono “feel” without being anywhere near as complicated to learn how to wear. They’re not trying to fool anyone, they’re decadence for the sake of decadence. You’ll also hear them called “souvenir kimono.”

And then there’s just straight up fakes, and they look a lot like this:


They are trying to fool you.

How do you tell a “real” kimono from a “fake” kimono? Use your eyes have a look at this basic kimono pattern:

Pictured: Swiped that shit right from Wikipedia. What. I’m not making any money on this.

Every line you see is a seam. With the exception of the lining–if that seam is missing on your kimono, your kimono is either not a traditional kimono or it’s a different kind–haori, michiyuki, juban, ect. They can be constructed differently. Is it missing the back seam? It’s not a traditional kimono. Kimono are sewn from one large bolt called “tanmono.” Tanmono have a standard width, and therefore they are not wide enough to cover the whole back of an adult, typically. The only exception to the back seam rule of which I am aware is for a baby kimono.

But shoving fake kimono aside, let’s talk about something that is actually really fucking cool. Let’s talk about kimono made for export. I’m not talking about gift shop “kimono” bathrobes, I’m talking about artistic and decadent garments made with the same techniques that traditional kimono might be that were made to be exported for aristocracy in the 1900s. Yes, that’s a fucking thing, and those things are fucking jaw-dropping sometimes. Behold:

I think you get the idea. They’re not made of cheap satin polyester, and they most certainly weren’t quickly grabbed at the airport on the way home.

Now mine isn’t as old as some of these examples. The first few images that look and feel like repurposed uchikake (outermost wedding ensemble) are from right around the turn of the century, between 1900 and 1910, putting them rather solidly in the Meiji Era. These were made for high society, ball gowns, house coats, all kinds of shit for European aristocracy. Just as western techniques and dyes were being introduced into Japan, so too were techniques, themes and textiles being shared from Japan. Do you want to find real love in this world? Find the artisans sharing and comparing materials. Go look at Rene Lalique’s Art Nouveau combs–a literal love letter to Japan. Find the cloisonne, the Etruscan revival filigree in kanzashi as old as the Meiji Era.

As someone who works with her hands quite a lot myself, I know what love is in this world. It’s two craftshumans sitting down near a project and sharing their experience and ideas. There’s always a trick, a new thing, a way to hold it, a mixture. There’s always something coming and going, and always a way to make it truly your own. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world coming up, but in those moments, for the artisans, they were sharing. Doing what they do.

Moving on. Many of the more thickly embroidered pieces and yuzen (resist dyed) pieces can be found on the market today as “flapper” robes/kimono, and they are what they were: popular and made in and around the 1920’s. That’s mine. This is most certainly a 20’s example.

What made me buy this how weirdly close it is to being traditionally constructed. It’s missing the back seam:

Pictured: NOPE

But it has okumi panels, which a huuuuuge number of export kimono–whatever their purpose–do not have. Behold:

Pictured: Nani the fuck?

It also has five kamon–which suggests it’s a highly formal garment. I’ve seen reversible haori style yuzen export kimono (sorry, I can’t find a good picture of this that isn’t actively for sale, and I’m trying not to link to stores) made in this fashion. It’s easy to explain on those pieces because one of the most iconic Japanese kimono images that’s really out there is the men’s formal haori, with their five kamon on the outside and wildly decorated linings.

To be honest, if the seller of this piece hadn’t included a very good shot of the back, I would have assumed that this was a furisode (kimono for unmarried women with very long sleeves) that had its wings clipped. I’m not typically in the export kimono market, but that yuzen work is actually pretty impressive and it’s got some staaaaaiiins. It’s my business to buy distressed shit:

Probably liquid damage. The hem is ever so slightly padded, as you can see, but the “kimono” itself is very short measuring at only 53in/135cm from the shoulder to the hem. It comes down to about my ankle–no ohashori here, folks. The padding area where the lining meets the shell has some wear. It’s not shattering, and the silk is actually strong and in good shape throughout the body. I think these little holes just happened from normal wear.

I’m thinking about whether to try to recover that or if I should just replace the lining. My God Light™ and camera reveal to me that there is some fading on the black body of the shell. It’s actually nowhere near as significant to the naked eye. I will address it anyway. Stains are stains. I’ve got an armory for that, let’s fuck some shit up.

Dude look at those fucking momiji (maple leaves). I could eat them. I might.

Oh, that’s right, I’m going to restore it…uh…and when I’ve done that, I’m going to turn it into something else entirely because I’m a -checks notes- actual crazy person.

So, that back panel is suuuuper wide. It’s wider than two kimono panels sewn together would typically be, in fact. So. Uh. I’m gonna install a back seam. I’m going to do it in a completely nondestructive way, I’m not going to cut this thing because I’m a crazy person and not fucking evil. I’m simply going to iron in a 1mm-2mm crease down the back of the garment and sew it shut. And then, when I’ve finished cleaning her up and doing the needful, I’m going to install ties on it. You’re looking at what’s about to be the world’s most extra fucking douchugi.

The fuck is that? Oh, this the fuck that is:

Pictured: LOL look at my old rickety-ass homemade iko.

I think that if I can’t fix some of those stains it’ll be a great opportunity to test out some of my new embroidery skills. -Shotgun chkchk-

The sound of the shotgun chk-chk means it’s about time to wrap this up. I hope this was fun. Join me next time when who the fuck knows really. My dog just had surgery and she’s like really cute but holy fuck is she needy. Say hi, Scrunchie:

Get a bulldog, they said. It’ll be great, they said. Ugh. Look at that stupid fucking face. I love her. I would sell the neighbor kid’s organs for her. I might do it just for fun.


2 thoughts on “Antique Export Kimono–A chat about Art History & Remakes

  1. Hi Becky, thanks for all your blogs.I was especially interested in this one cus it’s made for the Western market. One thing caught my attention: the length of only 135 cm. The reason: I just got an urushi one of the same length which totally surprised me. Never saw such short kimono, and this one is unlikely made for the Western market. Any ideas why mine is so short? PS: posted the same question in the Global Kimono group but got no real answer.


    1. Hey, Wil! I’m so delighted to see you here!

      My best guess is that it was just made for someone particularly short. It’s possible that it was hemmed at some point, but more likely it was made for a teenager or just a particularly short lady. My husband’s auntie is would actually fit this kimono quite well.

      One of the most fun and most infuriating things about these works of art is that they were before anything else just clothes. And all throughout their history we see weird requests, alterations, sizing requests. I wonder if someone requested it to be made because they intentionally wanted to wear it over a western dress, perhaps in the Taisho era?


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