The kimono is much more than a garment. “It is a canvas,” says Anna Jackson, keeper of the Asian department of London’s V&A. “It’s all about the materials and the surface. The decoration and colour indicated your status, age, the occasion – even the season.” Art-like though they were, these beautifully patterned and illustrated robes were the standard form of dress for both sexes and all ages in Japan from the late 16th century until the second world war, when western influences flooded into the country. The very name kimono means “the thing worn”, and its ubiquitousness is reflected in prices that start at as little as £200 for vintage pieces, but go up to several thousand for rarer examples.
Formal tsujigahana (ceremonial) kimonos could take up to a year to make, adorned with traditional motifs, such as cranes, cherry blossom, wisteria and butterflies, using intricate handwork – silk weaving, embroidery, appliqué and hand painting. “They were very well looked after,” says Scottish dealer Ceri Oldham, who runs the website Wafuku, “so you can find one that’s a century old but still pristine.” These treasures range from £400 to £4,000, and Oldham currently has two exquisite early-20th-century wedding kimonos in hand-painted silk, priced at £3,678 each – one depicting gosho guruma (imperial carriages) alongside motifs in super-vibrant shades and touches of gold lacquer; the other showing a bridge over a stream with red plum blossom and embroidered elements.
“I love the fabrics and the way wedding kimonos are made,” says Michael Costiff, whose World Archive vintage store is part of Dover Street Market, “but I sell more mid-20th-century kimonos – with graphic, sometimes Jackson Pollock-esque prints.” Yasuko Kido’s clients also veer towards more modern designs that often display western influences, such as art-deco geometry. “Collectors find the variety in 20th-century kimonos more interesting than traditional wedding kimonos, which can be quite similar,” says the Grays Antique Centre dealer, who cites a c1920 navy and white cotton kimono (£850), with a delicate wisteria pattern created using the shibori dyeing technique, as a highlight of her current stock.
“As Japan became more westernised, kimonos started to feature motifs like planes, boats and skyscrapers, with incredible artwork,” says Brighton-based specialist Fuji Maeda, who runs the website Fuji Kimono. “Before the second world war these day-to-day items became quite militaristic and are now rare and collectable. I have a ‘propaganda’ obi [sash] that is worth about £850, but I don’t really want to sell it.” Her other rarities include several 1930s shunga kimonos with motifs from classic erotic art, often on blue silk; a men’s under‑kimono is £2,800, while a short haori jacket lining is £1,500.
“Haori jackets were traditionally worn over a kimono in winter; they are much easier to wear than a long wedding kimono,” says Oldham. “Kimonos from the 1920s and 30s work well as house robes or evening coats, but haoris look great with today’s relaxed jeans and trousers, whether tailored or sporty in cut.” And another area of current interest is boro – patchworks of old, indigo-dyed, handwoven hemp and cotton that were worn by farmers and often repaired, reworked and passed down. They are valued for their workmanship and history, says Maeda, who has one for £1,500.
“The kimono illustrates the history of Japan,” says collector, property developer and philanthropist David Khalili, who owns over 380 pieces. “Mine are mostly from the early 1700s to the mid-20th century and they all have beauty, passion and humanity. I have been collecting since 1970 and have given some 100 exhibitions around the world, so I’m a household name with all the dealers; if they find something that would add value to any of our collections, they offer it to me.”
But for new buyers, there are plenty of accessible ways in. “I love the bold and artistic meisen designs, the first ready-to-wear kimonos that were popular in the 1920s and 30s,” says collector Elizabeth Bridges, who has just retired as an HR director at the Royal Opera House. “I keep them to look at and be inspired by, and sometimes I alter haori jackets’ sleeves and wear them over eveningwear; the luxurious fabrics look good over a black dress.” A meisen ikat c1930-50 kimono printed with waves and seagulls is £450 from Yasuko Kido, while a meisen haori in a striking geometric print is £165 from Fuji Kimono.
The highest prices, perhaps surprisingly, are for designer interpretations of the kimono; on 1stdibs a sumptuous yellow affair from 2003 by Tom Ford for Gucci (with motifs like those being used by designer du jour Alessandro Michele for the same brand) is £5,964, while in 2013 a 1997 Alexander McQueen for Givenchy kimono-inspired gown and jumpsuit fetched £26,000 at Kerry Taylor Auctions. As for the original articles, interest has doubled in the past 10 years, says Maeda, and with prices on the up, now could be the time to buy. But the kimono is all about beauty rather than investment, says Khalili: “Find your passion, educate yourself – and leave money out of it all together.”