I went to a fascinating talk at Asia House the other night called Kekkon: Japanese Wedding Costumes (‘kekkon’ (結婚) means ‘marriage’). The event was part of a series of events exploring the themes of love and marriage in an Asian context through theatre, literature, discussion, dance and music.
The main speaker at the event was Suzanne Perrin, Cultural Director at Japan Interlink London and tour leader at Top Tour Europe. She was supported by Japanese costume specialist Mamiko Sato Damji of KIMONO de GO (Mamiko is a specialist in kitsuke (着つけ) – the art of dressing someone in a kimono). There were also two lovely models, showing how the outfits are worn.
Suzanne introduced some typical outfits worn at Japanese weddings, explaining a little about the fabrics and traditions associated with the outfits. Wedding customs in Japan are becoming increasingly influenced by the West, but many couple still choose to have a traditional style wedding at a Shinto shrine, and wear traditional costumes. Often, this is mixed up with Western traditions, and a bride will end up wearing a number of different outfits, from a traditional kimono, to a white Western wedding dress, and even finishing the evening with a colourful cocktail dress.
So, let’s take a look at some of the outfits that are worn…
First, let’s look at what the guests would wear. If you are an unmarried woman attending a formal event, you would usually wear a furisode (振袖), which is a kind of kimono with long flowing sleeves (all the better to trap your man with!). However, if you are a married woman, such as the mother of the bride or groom, you would wear a tomesode (留袖), which is a kimono with shorter sleeves, like the one Mamiko is wearing in the picture below.
A tomesode includes the family crest (see the small circles at the top?) and a pattern on just the bottom part of the kimono. There is usually a counterbalance between the kimono and the obi (帯) (the sash worn around the middle) – for example, if the garment is woven, the obi is dyed, and vice versa. The obi Mamiko is wearing in the picture above was brand new just last year, and cost about £3,800. Yes, that’s just the obi – a 14 foot long woven piece of fabric. The obi can be tied in a variety of ways. Mamiko’s is tied in the ‘taiko drum’ style, which is usual for married ladies. They wouldn’t usually have them tied in large bows, but a younger woman would.
Let’s look at what the bride wears…
As I mentioned above, the bride usually has a lot of costume changes throughout the wedding. Not all brides will wear everything I describe below, but a lot do. The word for a wedding gown, or wedding kimono, is uchikake (打掛). Uchikake come in all sorts of different colours, and there is no one particular colour which is standard, unlike our white Western wedding gowns. Here are three very different uchikake:
These uchikake are all made in different ways, using various combinations of weaving, embroidery, appliqué, dying and couching, and all carry different patterns and symbols. Red, orange and gold are popular colours for wedding costumes, especially red, which is auspicious in some parts of Asia, but actually any colour is acceptable – even black (although usually with some colour too). The patterns on the fabrics often represent good luck, fortune and fertility, and seasonal references are common. In the picture above, you’ll see the red uchikake on the left has white cranes on it. Cranes mate for life, and so this is a particularly suitable symbol for a wedding gown.
The centre uchikake includes a ‘hanaguruma’ (flower cart) design, featuring flowers from all of the seasons.
The uchikake on the right is unusual as it is entirely woven – the design is all woven into the gown, with no additional embroidery on top. This design also contains flowers from the four seasons, as well as the shochikubai, or ‘Three friends of Winter’ (松竹梅) – pine, bamboo and plum.
However, despite all these beautifully decorated and highly coloured fabric designs, the first outfit we saw our model bride wearing was pure white. Many brides start out in a white outfit called a shiromuku (白無垢), which is a tradition that only came to Japan in the 20th century, as a nod to the Western influence which was spreading through Japan.
Even though the bride’s kimono is white, it is still intricately decorated and unique. This particular garment includes images of cranes across the back.
Traditionally in Japan, weddings were arranged by contract and the bride and groom may not have even seen each other before the wedding day. The bride’s hood (wataboshi / 綿帽子) is similar to the veil worn in the west, in that the bride is hidden until the point in the ceremony when she is unveiled to her groom.
When the hood is removed, a traditional Edo period oiled hairstyle (usually a wig, these days) is revealed, along with various hair ornaments (kanzashi / 簪) and a sort of headband called a tsunokakushi (角隠し), which is said to hide the bride’s horns of jealousy and symbolise her resolve to become an obedient wife.
The wedding costume doesn’t usually include any jewellery like necklaces and bracelets. Instead, the focus is on hair accessories and a couple of hand-held accessories, such as a folding fan and a dagger case (which doesn’t usually contain a dagger these days).
The next outfit modelled by the bride was a colourful uchikake. It wouldn’t be unusual for a woman to actually wear both of these outfits during one wedding ceremony.
This red and gold uchikake is truly beautiful, and I can only imagine how special one must feel dressed in such an outfit. With this outfit, the tsunokakushi has been removed, and the hair accessories changed.
This uchikake also features the shochikubai pattern, as well as various flowers, cranes, and hexagonal images. Originally uchikake would have all been hand-made, but these days machines are used. However, uchikake are not mass-produced, and it’s not usually possible to buy more than one of the same gown unless you specifically request it.
Uchikake are usually ‘one size fits all’, and so it’s quite possible that a gown will be handed down through generations of a family. It is more common to hire a wedding outfit than to buy one though, simply because of the cost involved. The bride’s parents are responsible for paying for her outfit, and it doesn’t come cheap. Hiring a silk uchikake could cost around £6,000, and the whole outfit could cost around £10,000 to £12,000, plus you would need to pay the dresser’s fee. Non-silk uchikake are cheaper, but can still cost £3,000 to £5,000 to hire. As with anything in life, you pay for quality, and a good uchikake has to hang well. Weddings are an expensive business, but I suppose the idea is that you’re only supposed to do them once, so you make the most of it!
There are many layers of undergarments beneath the colourful gown which the bride wears, and she is thoroughly wrapped up and secure. No pins, buttons or zips are used in the outfit, and everything is tied on with cords called kumihimo (組紐). Much like wearing a Victorian dress with a corset, the bride is forced into the correct posture by her tight clothes – there’s no room for slouching!
The groom doesn’t have to worry himself with as many outfit changes as the bride, although some grooms do change into a three-piece suit or tuxedo for the wedding reception. The man’s outfit is much more simple, and in fact this outfit is worn for all kinds of formal occasions, not just weddings. His outfit is called a montsuki haori hakama (紋付羽織袴), and it consists of a formal kimono with hakama (which are like a divided skirt), and a haori (which is like a loose jacket).
The outfit can be worn by both married and unmarried men, and features the family crest. This style of outfit stems from the military culture of the 17th to 19th century in Japan, and makes me think of samurai warriors.
Also on display at Asia House were a couple of outfits designed by Naohiro Matsuo who specialises in using kimono material and making it into a modern western style couture outfits. I’d love to be able to afford outfits like this, and to have the occasions to wear them!
Having once been to a wedding in Japan, it was really interesting to learn more about the costumes and traditions associated with Japanese weddings. It’s a complicated business, and one that’s evolving with modern culture as more and more Western influences are merged with Japanese traditions.
Most people aren’t lucky enough to have the chance to attend a wedding in Japan, and even attending can be very expensive (guests are expected to give monetary gifts, and if you choose to dress traditionally there are many costs associated with hiring an outfit and dresser, if you’re a woman). But if you’re in Japan as a tourist and visiting shrines, keep your eyes open, because you can often run into wedding parties. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest disturbing them, but they usually draw quite a crowd and don’t mind if you take a photo or two, especially from a distance.
Seeing all of these beautiful outfits has got me thinking about what I would wear if were to get married. I’ve never thought of myself as being someone who would wear a traditional Western wedding dress, and have always quite fancied having a dress designed which incorporates kimono fabric (maybe I should keep Naohiro Matsuo’s business card safe!). I guess in the end it would depend on many factors, including where and to whom I was getting married! How about you – what would you/did you wear for your wedding?
Thank you to Asia House for a superb evening. The overall mission of Asia House is to create ways for people to understand more about the cultures of the pan-Asia region. You can find out more about Asia House here: www.asiahouse.org.