Almost anyone who has a relative who fought in World War II or who has traveled to Japan has a kimono stored somewhere in the house. These long, flowing Japanese robes, often elaborately painted or embroidered, are prized memorabilia. Some lucky shoppers find these elegant robes in the most unexpected places and then set out to find creative uses for them.
But other than wearing them to a costume party or in a play, what can one do with these vintage and antique robes?
Nancy Adams found her treasure while on a sailing trip around Maine in the summer of 1979. When the boat she and her late husband, Cal Hadden, were on ran aground, Nancy and a friend set out to shop in the charming town of Camden. While they were browsing through an antique store, a long T-shaped silk robe caught her eye. The ivory-colored garment bore a dramatic design that featured phoenixes, chrysanthemums and pomegranates in corals, reds and teal, the bold hues in her Uptown home.
“I’d never seen anything like it!” she says. “The shop owner told me the kimono was probably for a wedding because of the elaborate needlework, and it was made in 1942, the year of my birth. I had to have it.”
Adams decided to use it as a wall-hanging in her Chinese red foyer. Before doing that, she took it Felice Lowe Saer of A. L. Lowe Custom Framing to create a special hanger, padded for extra protection around the neck and shoulders. Saer also designed the hanger so the kimono could be displayed from either side, thus reducing light damage.
Adams later took the kimono to textile conservator Bryce Reveley of Gentle Arts, who told her the robe was not a wedding dress but rather was probably worn by a male actor in a Kabuki play during a time when women were not allowed to act on stage. Reveley could not pinpoint the age of the kimono.
Adams, a gifted needlework artist, was so captivated by the gown that she created a needlepoint canvas bearing the kimono’s bright coral-and-teal phoenix. It now graces the entire back of the Queen Anne sofa in her living room.
Not all kimonos are as opulent or as well-preserved as Adams’ is, and their uses can differ.
Textile artist Karen Gadbois has been collecting less formal kimonos since her college days as a textile student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She often purchased frayed kimonos once worn by housewives. One merchant she located sold bags of kimonos by the pound.
Many kimonos were decorated with flowers and nature scenes and told a clear narrative. These were worn mostly by Japanese women. Kimonos worn by men often featured bold geometric patterns with strong graphic designs.
Symbolism abounds. In the case of Adams’ gown, the phoenix represents the imperial household, fire, the sun, obedience, fidelity. The chrysanthemums depict longevity and might be part of the crest of an imperial family. The pomegranates represent fertility, abundance and a blessed future.
Likewise, kimonos might feature colorful patterns brought about by special techniques.
“Japanese are creative in their dyeing techniques,” says Gadbois. “The Shibori technique is a sophisticated form of tie-dyeing that results in a beautiful pattern of little dots. The ikat technique forms different gradations of colors. These ancient forms of craftsmanship fascinate me.”
Gadbois loved the sturdiness of the fabrics. By unfolding the kimonos and using the pieces that were not frayed, she began making throw pillows, wall-hangings, curtains and scarves. Today she sells her kimono-inspired textiles at private shows three or four times a year.
Kimonos, the traditional garb of Japan, date back to the fifth century but became more intricate and popularized during the Heian Period (794-1192). Today kimonos are worn mostly by women during special occasions such as weddings, funerals and tea ceremonies. They can be found in vintage, antique and thrift stores; online; at estate sales; and, if you’re really lucky, in your mama’s attic.
Fabric from kimonos, whether robust cotton or delicate silk, requires special care. Reveley recommends that kimonos be displayed in a plexiglass shadow box or covered with a single pane of plexiglass. Hangers should be thick, padded and slightly angled downward to take the pressure off the shoulders and neckline. Avoid direct sunlight and bright artificial lights. Dust and insects are especially harmful. Never wash these garments; take them to a textile conservator or cleaning professional for proper care.
“Be careful when handling these fabrics, and avoid leaving body oils from fingers on the fabric,” she says. “Never put a kimono near a heat vent or fireplace. It will cook the kimono.”
Remember: These antique and vintage textiles are worth using and admiring. “I encourage others to use their kimonos in the most imaginative ways possible,” Gadbois says. “There’s nothing worse than a beautiful piece of fabric sitting alone in a box in the drawer.”