Notes & photos from an event at Asia House, London
In February 2013 I was lucky enough to attend a talk and demonstration at Asia House by Suzanne Perrin of Japan Interlink and Japanese costume specialist Mamiko Sato Damji. Here are the photos I took, and some of the main points from their fascinating presentation.
From intricate Indian bridal saris to western couture wedding gowns, most cultures can boast intricate and splendid wedding clothing, but for symbolism, extraordinary fabrics and sheer opulence Japanese wedding costumes are hard to beat!
Suzanne Perrin started by explaining that traditional Japanese clothing is characterised by complex - and often luxurious - fabrics used to create garments which are very simple in their design. The kimono is, in essence, a basic T-shape, cut from a single bolt of cloth (a standard 36cm/14" wide) with minimal shaping or tailoring.
The traditional Japanese wedding costumes of montsuki (for the groom) and shiromuku (for the bride)
The groom's montsuki ensemble is less complex than the bride's clothing, and is worn whatever style of kimono the bride chooses to wear.
The groom's formal attire is called montsuki and comprises kimono, hakama and haori
As with western weddings, the man gets a bit left out of the limelight clothing-wise (perhaps it's only in India where the groom has a chance to shine as much as the bride?). The montsuki is the formal outfit derived from samurai-era military clothing, and is worn not only for formal occasions such as weddings and funerals, but also (without the jacket) for participating in martial arts and traditional arts such as the tea ceremony. It is made up of a black kimono (plus of course the obligatory white under-kimono), grey and white striped hakama (a kind of voluminous pleated divided skirt) and topped with a black haori over-jacket or coat that fastens over the stomach with a curious white pom-pom decoration.
From the distance the fabrics may look plain, however they are often of an elaborate and complicated weave with a pattern that is revealed or concealed depending on how it catches the light. The kimono and the haori jacket are embroidered (or sometimes resist-dyed) with the mon (crest) of the groom's family (one of these is visible on the groom's shoulder in the picture of the bride and groom together, above).
Typically worn by brides being married in a Shinto wedding ceremony, the shiromuku is an all-white ensemble of kimono and heavily embroidered uchikake over-robe with a scarlet-red lining and padded hem. This combination of kimono and heavy over-kimono has developed from a mix of historical styles - the kimono from the Samurai-class fashions of the Edo period (early 17th to mid 19th centuries), and the outer uchikake robe from the outer gowns worn in medieval Japan.
The dominant use of the colour white is considered to be 'Shinto', however white is traditionally associated with both purity and death in Japan, and its association with marriage seems to have occurred only in the past century or so, influenced by white wedding dresses from the West.
The bride's shiromuku ensemble is the usual choice for a Shinto wedding ceremony
This uchikake is made from a heavy figured rinzu silk satin. The silk is then elaborately embroidered with peony and chrysanthemum flowers, pine branches and - in the centre of the back of the garment - a white crane (its black embroidered eye lies to the centre of the mound created by the obi sash beneath, and is the one non-white embellishment on the kimono).
The bride's shiromuku ensemble from the back
Note the elegant dip in the collars of the kimonos at the rear, exposing a glimpse of the nape of the neck - traditionally an erogenous zone to the Japanese.
The bride holds a ceremonial fan in a ceremonial manner - right hand clasping it as it lies across the left palm. The two tassels on the collar of the kimonos are attached to a narrow box tucked into the folds of the kimono neckline. This is a symbolic reminder of the daggers once carried by ladies of the samurai class (partly to defend themselves, but in particular to facilitate an honourable suicide rather than be mistreated by an enemy). On the other side, also tucked into the neckline, is a small wallet or folder for papers and precious things.
The ceremonial fan and the twin tassels of the dagger case - now purely symbolic
Far stranger to western eyes is the oversize white hood that covers the bride's head preceding and during the Shinto wedding ceremony. This extraordinary covering is called wataboshi and is the equivalent of the western bridal veil - a symbol of the bride's innocence, and to protect her beauty until she is married.
The tsunokakushi hood, worn before and during the Shinto wedding ceremony
Once the ceremony is complete, the hood is removed, revealing an elaborate hairstyle covered at the front by a white ceremonial headband called tsunokakushi, the hider or concealer of horns. Yes, Japanese women are considered to have 'horns of jealousy' - which obviously they need to conceal in order to find a husband! (this must surely have a connection with the vengeful female hannya devil spirit of Japanese Noh dramas, who is always portrayed as having horns).
The white make-up symbolises innocence and purity, plus - as the speaker pointed out - it's flattering, hiding blemishes and making the woman look younger!
The tsunokakushi band, which is revealed after the ceremony when the hood is removed
The very elaborate bridal hairstyle (these days normally a wig, of course) dates from the Edo period (early 17th to mid 19th centuries). It's a very generic style - twisted and heavily oiled in a prescribed manner according to exact rules. It would be extremely strange to wear the hair in a different way with the shiromuku bridal ensemble, and in particular loose flowing hair would be unthinkable!
The hairstyle/wig is decorated with lacquered combs and delicate metal kanzashi hair ornaments that tremble and sway prettily when the bride moves.
The elaborate shiromuku bridal hairstyle adorned with combs and kanzashi hair ornaments
The white kimono would not normally be seen without the uchikake robe over it. However, during the demonstration the uchikake robe was removed so it could be seen fully.
The white kimono, with the uchikake robe removed. Note the obi sash that creates the mound on the back of the uchikake
The white kimono, obi sash and obi cord
Comprising juban undergarments, the under-kimono, the kimono and the uchikake robe, the complete ensemble is four substantial layers and adds many kilos to the typically slender Japanese bride. The considerable weight and the thickness of the fabrics must be difficult to bear on a hot summer's day!
Much of the elegance of kimonos comes from the fact that they are very constricting. Only small movements are possible, and the stiff obi sash belt ensures a straight back and excellent posture. It is impossible to stride in a kimono, nor can you sag or slouch when sitting or standing.
It probably won't come as a surprise to find that these amazing garments are fabulously expensive! A silk uchikake costs approximately £6000 to hire for a wedding, and £12,000-£15,000 to buy new. A non-silk uchikake costs only a little less as although there is a saving with the base fabric, the embroidery is still costly. A polyester uchikake may cost around £3000-£5000 to rent, and £6000-10,000 to buy.
Then, of course, there is the kimono and obi sash, the undergarments, the wig and accessories, and the headdress and hood. The services of a dresser will also be required, as this is not an ensemble that one can put on alone. Even if everything is hired, the total cost for the complete bridal wedding ensemble will be around £12,000.
As in the West, it is the bride's parents who foot the bill for the wedding. Pity the parents of many daughters!
The all-white shiromuku is not the only option for the Japanese bride and in fact the wedding uchikake robe can be any colour (although white, orange/gold and red are the most usual and popular choices).
In addition to Shinto weddings, western-style wedding ceremonies (modelled on Christian church services) are increasingly fashionable, and western-style wedding dresses are often worn. However, Japanese brides will usually make several appearances in different outfits during the wedding celebrations, and a traditional kimono is almost always one of these.
A popular choice for the reception outfit is the iro-uchikake (literally 'coloured uchikake'), which is identical in form to the white shiromuku-uchikake, but is brilliantly coloured and usually embellished with embroidery and sometimes hand painting.
The groom wears montsuki and the bride wears iro-uchikake
The back of the heavily embroidered iro-uchikake is just as splendid as the front
This gorgeous orange-gold iro-uchikake is heavily embroidered with traditional Japanese motifs such as the chrysanthemum, paulownia and aoi leaf crests, waves and cranes. The hexagonal shapes symbolise turtles, and the combination of turtles and cranes forms a kind of Japanese yin-yang - the cranes flying up to the heavens, while the turtle dives down to the depths - and therefore symbolises harmony.