The red uchikake with silver and white embroidery is a modern day version of the traditional uchikake, while still exhibiting many features of older garments from the Edo period.
Figure 1: Uchikake
An uchikake marks an important time in a young Japanese woman’s life. This uchikake would have been worn over a furisode for a young woman’s wedding. While she would have been wearing an obi over her furisode, she would not have worn an obi over this uchikake. The uchikake is worn like a coat over a furisode, and therefore an obi is never tied over the uchikake. The most extravagant uchikakes can cost thousands of dollars. While some people purchase a new high-quality uchikake for their wedding most people rent or borrow one, or purchase one that is not of the highest quality. Because an uchikake is not something that can be worn for other occasions, many people do not think that it is worth the cost.
The extremely high cost of these luxurious garments may be the reason that this uchikake in the Nowes Ark Collection is not of the highest quality. While it is still an extremely beautiful garment, it has obviously been worn before due to some fraying and dark spots around the bottom of the garment. The embroidery does not line up perfectly on the seams, and it also has been embroidered by a machine rather than by hand. While uchikakes can be decorated in varying levels of extravagance, they are all made of the same basic shape and size.
The uchikake is a relatively recent garment worn for weddings, as opposed to the more classic white shiromuku. According to Norio Yamanaka on page 54 of The Book of Kimono, “Until the Edo period the uchikake … was a garment worn by ladies of warrior or noble families on ceremonial occasions.” Since the Edo period the uchikake has become a widely recognized Japanese bridal garment.
Body of the Garment
Uchikake are sewn together in long panels. This garment has two front panels and two back panels, each about 72" long. The front panels are 16" wide and the back pieces are 12" wide, leading to a full circumference of approximately 56". Each sleeve was created by sewing together two additional panels. This garment also has a matching neckpiece, a date eri, added on as well.
An uchikake is almost always lined with red, and this garment in the Nowes Ark Collection is no exception. It is lined with red silk.
The padded roll that goes around the bottom edge of the garment is characteristic of an uchikake. The padded roll, made of cotton filling, does not just skim the ground, but creates a train that begins about 5 1/2" above the padded roll. The padded roll is 2 1/2" in diameter. The lining is brought to the outside of the garment where it covers the padded roll and is hemmed. The padding is important, according to Norio Yamanaka who writes on page 54 of The Book of Kimono that “The cotton filling weighs down the hemline and serves to give this kimono an elegant and regal air.” The train and the padded roll is visible in Image 2 below. Liza Dalby in Kimono: Fashioning Culture agrees on page 92 where she says that the aristocratic ladies of the Edo period who spent most of their days inside and wearing elegant attire, “knew that a trailing hem held a more pleasing shape and was easier to walk in if weighted with a thick roll of cotton.”
Figure 2: Padded Roll on Hem
Sleeve lengths of uchikake vary over time. The sleeves of this specific uchikake measure 40" long by 12 1/2" wide. The extreme length of the sleeves also means that this is a garment for a very formal occasion such as a wedding. This is because the length of the sleeves directly correlates to the formality of the garment. Sleeves express deep significance in kimono’s scheme of meaning. “Gender and formality distinctions are expressed through sleeves... social responsibility varies in inverse proportion to the depth of one’s kimono sleeve – the more responsibility (adult males), the shorter the sleeve” according to Liza Dalby on page 196 of Kimono: Fashioning Culture.
An unmarried woman may have ordinary-length sleeves on her less formal garments, but once she marries she will never wear a long swinging sleeve kimono again. On page 204 of Kimono: Fashioning Culture, Liza Dalby explains that “In a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony, the bride will enter the ceremony in a purely white furisode; wearing a scarlet uchikake over the top, and then changes into a multicolored furisode … and finally into a black adult tomesode.” The ceremonial metamorphosis from Miss to Mrs. is indicated her change in clothing, representing its importance for the Japanese people.
This surface of this uchikake is a beautiful bright red silk brocade over which silver and white threads have been machine-embroidered. While uchikakes can either be embellished before or after the panels are sewn together, this one was embroidered before, evident because the patterns do not line up exactly on the seams, as seen in Image 3 below. Note in particular how the tail feathers do not align across the seam line. In this image the tail feathers of the crane do not match up exactly making it obvious this was embroidered before the panels were sewn together. It is also apparent that the embroidered elements were machine-made. More expensive ones would be embroidered by hand and all seams would match perfectly.
Figure 3: Detail of Embroidery
The embroidered designs on this specific garment represent elements of nature such as cranes and trees. The crane is one of the most popular birds depicted in Japanese clothing. “Believed to live for a thousand years and to inhabit the land of the immortals it is a symbol of longevity and good fortune” (“Kimono”). Nature elements in general are common and important elements of furisodes.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has published extensive information about Japanese garments on its website. In particular, "Kimono: Decoration, Symbols & Motifs" at http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/k/kimono-decoration-symbols-motifs/ discusses how elements of the natural world are used. Pine, bamboo and plum for example are symbols of longevity, perseverance and renewal. The V&A website states: “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.”
While it is unclear what specific type of tree is represented on this garment, the embroidery definitely reflects a sense of longevity and renewal through its natural motifs. These symbols are commonly used on an uchikake because longevity is a quality most people hope to take with them into a marriage. As the V&A website notes, “Such symbolism was used especially on kimono worn for celebratory events such as weddings…when it served to bestow good fortune on the wearer, wrapping them in divine benevolence and protection.”
Another aspect of this uchikake which ties it back to more traditional garments from the Edo period is the principle of tsukesage. As Norio Yamanaka indicates on page 51 of The Book of Kimono, this principle dictates that all elements on a kimono should be facing upwards. On this uchikake the trees and birds are all pointing upwards, observing this principle. Figure 3 above shows a bird alighting on a branch with its tail feathers in the air which is a realistic depiction.
The brocade background for the silver and white embroidery is woven with a red-on-red pattern representing the Japanese character for double happiness. This symbol is common in Japanese weddings. Just as the crane, trees, and other natural elements that are common decorations on bridal attire, this symbol is intended to literally wrap the bride up in good fortune while she makes the transition into the next stage of her life.
The bright red color of this uchikake is auspicious and connotes youthful glamor and desirability. Therefore it is appropriate for the garment of a young woman on her wedding day. As the V&A website states, “Perhaps the most popular colour for kimono is red, derived from safflower (benibana … It is also a symbol of passionate but, as beni-red easily fades, transient love.”
The young unmarried Japanese woman is ideally innocent, reserved, obedient, and cheerful, according to Liza Dalby in on page 195 of Kimono: Fashioning Culture. Ceremonial furisodes worn by unmarried women stand out due to their bright color and embellishments; after a woman is married she no longer wears furisodes that are made in bright red colors.
Youthfulness is also indicated by how an unmarried woman wears her kimono, especially at the collar and front overlap. On page 198 of Kimono: Fashioning Culture, Dalby states that “Napes are the primary erotic focus of the female body in Japan, fully the equivalent of breasts in the West.” She also notes that a young woman should wear her collar demurely close to her neck, and “set back no more than the width of an upright fist.” A date eri, or detachable collar, further delineates the neckline. The date eri on this uchikake is made from the red silk brocade that forms the basis of the garment. It has no embellishments on it. Another way that the wearer of this furisode would demonstrate her demureness is by the way she wraps it around her body. In both cases, “the left side of the gown crosses over the right, forming a V highlighted by the overlapped white collar of the under-kimono” according to Liza Dalby on that same page. A young unmarried woman would have the V-neckline shape be relatively wide and towards the throat, as compared to an older married woman who would have a lower V-neckline shape representing her age and sophistication.
The uchikake in the Nowes Ark collection is beautiful. It is made from red silk woven with the double happiness character and is embellished with symbols related to longevity. Just as a wedding gown in western culture is normally only worn on the wedding day, the uchikake can be worn for some other ceremonial occasions, but it is very rare. The moment that a young girl gets to don her uchikake is a very special moment, even if the garment has been worn before or if the embroidery doesn’t line up perfectly, it is still meaningful.
© Isabella Kinkelaar, 2014. Drama 475.001, Spring 2014 Semester. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.