Kimono: Decoration, Symbols & Motifs

Kimono, Japan, 1850-1900. Museum no. T.389-1910, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kimono, Japan, 1850-1900. Museum no. T.389-1910, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The patterns that adorn kimono are very significant, for it is through choice of colour and, most importantly, decorative motifs that the wearer's gender, age, status, wealth, and taste are articulated.

At the beginning of the Edo period there were no substantial differences between the kimono worn by men and women, but distinctions became more pronounced in the course of the 17th century. The patterns on women's kimono became larger and bolder. Younger women's kimono were particularly lavishly decorated and brightly coloured, while more subtle patterning and subdued colours were considered appropriate for an older woman. The length of the sleeve also varied. Young women wore their sleeves long, a fashion that became particularly pronounced from the mid-Edo period onwards, but shortened them once they married. Men wore even shorter sleeves, while the patterns and colouring on their garments was generally quite restrained.

At the beginning of the 17th century the surface of the kimono was divided into irregular pattern areas. Over time such compartmentalisation gave way to an approach which considered the garment as a whole, and in which technique and motif, pattern and ground were fully integrated. The disposition of the pattern on the surface of the garment also changed over time. Nature, particularly seasonal references, provided a major source of designs, together with allusions to classical literature. The increased market for luxury kimono led to a broadening of the visual repertoire to include aspects of popular culture and visual puns. The range of patterns widened yet further during the late 19th century when western motifs were introduced.

With the taste for dynamic, unified motifs, the clean, straight lines of the T-shaped garment served as a blank canvas, or scroll, for the kimono designer. It is important to remember, however, that kimono are 3-dimensional objects that move with the wearer. The simplicity of structure also belies the fact that donning a kimono, often in a number of layers, with an obi and other accessories, creates a rich and often visually complex effect.

Symbolism

Kimono, Japan, early 19th - mid 20th century. Museum no. T.18-1963, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kimono, Japan, early 19th - mid 20th century. Museum no. T.18-1963, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The images used on kimono often have complex levels of meaning, and many have specific auspicious significance which derives from religious or popular beliefs. The crane for example, is one of the most popular birds depicted on kimono. Believed to live for a thousand years and to inhabit the land of the immortals it is a symbol of longevity and good fortune.

The use of specific motifs can allude to the virtues or attributes of the wearer (or those they might aspire to), reflect particular emotions, or relate to the season or occasion. Such symbolism was used especially on kimono worn for celebratory events such as weddings and festivals, when it served to bestow good fortune on the wearer, wrapping them in divine benevolence and protection. This use of auspicious motifs in dress reveals the Japanese belief in the literal, as well as the figurative, power of images.

Colours too have strong metaphorical and cultural connotations. Dyes are seen to embody the spirit of the plants from which they are extracted. Any medicinal property is also believed to be transferred to the coloured cloth. Blue, for example, derives from indigo (ai), which is used to treat bites and stings, so wearing blue fabric serves as a repellent to snakes and insects. Colours were given a cosmological dimension with the introduction to Japan in the 6th century of the Chinese concept of the five elements. Fire, water, earth, wood and metal are associated with particular directions, seasons, virtues and colours. Thus black corresponds to water, north, winter and wisdom. Colours also have strong poetic significance. Purple, for example, is a metaphor for undying love, the imagery deriving from the fact that gromwell (murasaki), the plant used to create the dye, has very long roots. Perhaps the most popular colour for kimono is red, derived from safflower (benibana). Red connotes youthful glamour and allure, and is thus suitable for the garments of young women. It is also a symbol of passionate but, as beni-red easily fades, transient love.

Natural motifs

The natural world provides the richest source for kimono motifs. Numerous flowers such as peonies, wisteria, bush clover and hollyhocks appear on garments. Many of them, for example cherry blossom, chrysanthemums and maple leaves, have a seasonal significance.

Pine, bamboo and plum are known collectively as the Three Friends of Winter (shōchikubai), and are symbols of longevity, perseverance and renewal. The pine tree is an evergreen and lives for many years, bamboo bends in the wind but never breaks, and the plum is the first tree to blossom each year. The plum is particularly favoured for winter kimono, for its use suggests that spring cannot be far away.

Birds, animals, butterflies and dragonflies also appear on kimono, along with other motifs drawn from the natural world such as water, snow and clouds. On some kimono whole landscapes of mountains and streams are depicted. The numerous different ways in which such popular natural motifs are used on garments is testament to the skill of kimono designers, and of dyers and embroiderers.

Poems & stories

Elements of the natural world that appear on kimono usually have strong poetic associations, while more complex landscape scenes often refer to particular stories drawn either from classical literature or popular myths.While carrying an auspicious meaning, they also serve to demonstrate the literary discernment and cultural sensitivities of the wearer.Although such stories invariably involved people, it is relatively unusual to find human figures depicted on kimono. Instead there are objects which suggest their presence or recent departure, a pair of dropped fans, for example, alluding to lovers disturbed.

From the early 20th century increasingly graphic imagery was used on kimono. On garments for young boys in particular, symbols of Japan's modern and progressive present - cars, trains, aeroplanes and skyscrapers - became as popular as stories of the past. In the 1930s such motifs became increasingly nationalistic and militaristic.

The Wolsey Angels Appeal

We urgently need your help to raise the £5,000,000 it will cost for the V&A to acquire four Renaissance angels cast for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey and later in the possession of Henry VIII.

Help us buy The Wolsey Angels

Shop online

V&A Pattern: Kimono

V&A Pattern: Kimono

Beautiful and practical, the books are visual summaries of the most sumptuous parts of the V&A collections' Royal Academy MagazineThis attractive …

Buy now

Event - The Classical World and Classical Revivals

Tue 13 January 2015 10:30

10 WEEK COURSE: The civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome have provided a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration for European art, design and architecture from the 15th-century right up to the present day. This course celebrates the opening of the V&A’s outstanding new galleries – Europe 1600-1800 – by exploring the key elements of Classicism, and their re-interpretation and revival in later times.

Book online