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In this guest article for Urban Times, Pamela Ravasio, founder of Shirahime, the ethical fashion blog, writes about traditional Japanese kimonos and yukatas and how they have historically been a great example of slow fashion. At Bid for Better, Urban Times’ sustainable fashion charity event, Pamela will be showcasing some beautiful vintage kimonos as well as styling guests in the pieces.

Japanese Kimonos and yukatas – lightweight single-layered summer Kimonos normally made from cotton or linen – are in many ways a textbook case for sustainable fashion consumption. Or at least they were in the past. And while there are now, ready-made yukatas and cheap polyester Kimonos, the essence of these garments hasn’t changed much.

Full length Kimono by Tamayo Semejima (Image courtesy of Tamayo Semejima)

In the past, in households with children, it was usual for the mothers to sew their children’s yukatas. Not only did that save money, but the fabric used stemmed from a worn out yukata of the parents. Yukatas that were passed down from elder to younger siblings sooner or later started to show signs of wear, tear, and repeated repair. Once they were too shabby to wear outside, they became nightwear. The old cotton of long-worn yukatas is soft and supple – ideal for sleeping in.

After being used for a time as nightwear, and becoming even more worn, old yukatas would be turned into diapers. The softness of the worn-out cotton made it an ideal diaper material, and it was the custom, when a baby was born, for households in the neighbourhood and relatives to take old yukatas apart and donate the material. These were the days before disposal nappies. A diaper made from old yukata material would frequently go on to serve as a floor cloth, although it would not last long in this final incarnation. But rather than just throwing the floor rag, the fabric still had one final use: it ended its life starting the wood fires needed to cook and heat badly insulated thin walled wooden houses.

Yukata’s are the low key, casual version of Kimonos, and as such their fabric is fairly plain. Compared to its high-end sibling, little time is spent on its design and making. The story changes completely for Kimonos. They are ‘couture gone mainstream’, and a showcase of slow fashion from a slightly different angle. In their most exclusive version they may cost the equivalent of a large middle class car, and even good second hand versions cost the equivalent of a new designer garment in the West.

The most expensive pieces are hand woven, hand dyed, hand embroidered and hand sewn. Geishas had, and still have, dedicated Kimono storage houses with sometimes several hundred of them neatly folded and wrapped, some of which may well be considered antiques rather than vintage. They are handed on to the next generation – be it daughter or Maiko – who in turn will hand it on again once the social norms with regards to her age and status don’t allow them to wear specific patterns and colours any more. Kimono artists like Itchiku Kubota, sometimes spend a year on a single Kimono.

Itchiku Kubota – San (Siberian Sun set) (Image: Itchiku Kubota Museum)

The techniques of making Kimonos are progressively being lost as they are tedious, complex and expensive. Yet more recently, fashion and couture designers, such as Sara Arai are rediscovering their uniqueness. Within their collections they are beginning to focus on dye, print and weaving techniques that have been developed well over 1000 years ago specifically for Kimonos.

Nowadays recycled Kimono shops are brimming with textile pearls, if not to say diamonds, which are worthless to their former owners. Western fashion is of course the norm in Japan, so what to do with these piles of Kimonos left behind by previous generations? One possibility is to sell them to Kimono vintage stores, or alternatively give them away.

Kimono fabric normally is of outstanding quality, usually heavy silk, more rarely light-weight wool or linen. The fact that a Kimono’s fabric is used unaltered in full lengths (40cm width x 12meteres length) as it comes off the loom, makes it an easy to use resource for designers. And unsurprisingly, a few savvy businesses have recognised what treasure rests right underneath their noses and have started to sell this ‘surplus‘ to the West via online platforms such as e-bay.

Whether it means turning a Kimono into a long coat, or a knee long dress – the variations are endless. At Bid for Better, Shirahime will auction off a small selection of original vintage Kimonos and Kimono jackets (Haoris). A slide show with information on the the history of Kimono’s – from country textiles to court fashion – and how contemporary Kimono designs and fashion applications will be available. All Kimonos and Haoris can be tried on and a photographer will be at hand to take souvenir pictures.

A stunning red-and-gold Nagyoa-Obi (Kimono belt) will be available for bidding during the  auction. Additionally, 2 stunning Haori featuring traditional Japanese Sumi-E (ink wash) paintings by artist Tamayo Semejima will be available to admire.

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