Her kimono stood out from her neck, and her back and shoulders were like a white fan spread under it.

(Yasunari Kawabata)

The traditional Japanese wedding ceremony is often regarded as flamboyant and exorbitantly costly. Expenses cover not only the use of the shrine, reception venue and gifts to guests, but more emphatically, the bridal costume. In some extravagant weddings, the bride changes her attire two to three times, from the traditional kimono to the Western gown during the wedding party. In the 13th century, the Bushi warrior selected a bride who would enter into his family, and this tradition was called yomeiri (bride enters). The wedding ceremony was considered the most eventful milestone among the aristocratic clans, and hence, was arranged with utmost delicacy, propriety and reverence to ancient practices.

Like in Western weddings, the Japanese white wedding dress is the traditional symbol for purity and innocence. The Japanese bride is covered entirely in white from head to toe by the ancient costume shiromuku. It includes the white hood wataboshi or tsunokakushi, the latter more often worn during the reception. White tabi socks complete the overall snowlike ensemble. The pure absence of color and pattern signifies the bride’s willingness to blend with the “colors” of the groom’s family. After the formal ceremony is held in a shrine, the bride usually changes to the iro-uchikake, which is the overgarment robe in bright colors and intricately patterned details.

In ancient Japan, the woven silk brocade uchikake was worn exclusively by brides of samurai families. Several references to the uchikake’s history are traced back to the Kamakura (1185–1333) and Muromachi (1336–1573) periods. The garment was traditionally worn from May to September, and from the end of the Muromachi period, was included in the winter attire. In the Edo period, the joro (highest grade ladies-in-waiting) and churo (middle grade ladies-in-waiting) also wore the uchikake. The Edo style revealed white, black, and red satin colors, and fully embroidered, multicolored threads with gold. The uchikake robe is tailored generally one size longer than the height of the kimono so that it could trail along the floor. It is immensely heavy due to the padded hems called fuki, and the overly embroidered silk; hence, Japanese brides usually walk very slowly while wearing it. The fuki is extremely thick to prevent the hem from clinging to the feet. Unlike the day kimono, uchikake is not tied with an obi belt; thus, the elaborate design covers the entire robe. Over the years, the uchikake has become an elegant piece of formal clothing not just in weddings, but also in stage performances, such as Kabuki and Noh, as the attire of high-ranking geisha, and in other auspicious occasions. In modern days, the composition of motifs and color harmony has gradually evolved into an eclectic fusion of conventional and modernistic styles.

Patterns, motifs and colors used on the uchikake represent multifarious symbols in Japanese aesthetics. Among the popular floral motifs are the bellflower (kikyo), indicating unchanging love, honesty and obedience; cherry blossom (Sakura), symbolizing fragility, new beginnings, and transience; and the peony (botan), known for good fortune, nobility, and ageless beauty. There are also the iris (kakitsubata), signifying protection from evil spirits; wisteria (fuji), depicting love and honor as found in many Japanese family crests; chrysanthemum (kiku), symbolizing regal beauty, rejuvenation and longevity, as identified with the Imperial Seal of Japan, and many others.

Birds and animal motifs are also widely used in uchikake. Cranes (tsuru) have always been believed to live long, and therefore, symbolize longevity and good fortune. Turtles (kame) also denote long life, and when combined with cranes, the pattern is referred to as tsurukame. Peacocks (kujaku) are associated with love and kindness. Other motifs of nature and their symbols include the mountain for sanctity, river for continuity and the future, and the moon for worship and power.

The most widely used geometrical patterns include the seigaiha, made up of overlapping circles like ocean waves, symbolizing the ebb and flow of life; shippo, a design of repeating circles, representing the treasures from the Buddhist Sutras; hexagon, identified with Samurai armor designs, indicating longevity and good fortune; and the diamond pattern hishi, depicting strength and good health.

The vintage uchikake illustrated here come from the precious collection of fashion director and fashion adviser Setsuko Wakatsuki1, one of Japan’s noted collectors of uchikake and kimono. She has been sharing the supreme elegance of uchikake for over twenty years across Japan and overseas. Her company Robe de Kimono caters to rental and customized couture of uchikake and kimono. Wakatsuki’s attraction towards uchikake arose from the fabric’s lustrous impression of traditional natural beauty overflowing in a microcosm of deep aesthetics, as well as the superior craftsmanship of the artisans. The vision illuminates like a painting and captures the epitome of Japanese culture. One captivating uchikake is titled Picture Scroll of One Hundred Flowers, produced in 1990 by Kowa Inc., a wedding costume manufacturing company in Kyoto. The robe is woven in Sagara embroidery, a particular French knot technique of pulling threads from under the fabric to form knotted balls, and then arranged in patterns. This technique requires extremely superior skills, and takes almost over twenty years to master. The color gradation is achieved with the yakihaku technique of processing silver foil for color alteration and aogai mother-of-pearl. One’s eyes travel through the meadow of bush warblers, plums, roses, peonies, hydrangeas, bellflowers, iris, and maple leaves—all representing the four seasons and their respective symbols. The detailed pattern composition is absolutely magical.

Another uchikake employing the Sagara embroidery technique is a brilliant green-based robe covered with phoenixes, Chinese flowers, and auspicious treasures. The garment is said to be sewn in Japan after being hand-embroidered for over five years by Chinese artisans. Immersed in the rich gallery of flowers are symbolic patterns, such as the tortoise shell kikko, shippo, and pine diamonds called matsukawabishi.

Famous Japanese designers, such as Kansai Yamamoto and Hanae Mori, have also designed exquisite uchikake. Yamamoto’s Uchikake Kansai, designed in the 1980s, is a melodic world of flying cranes hovering among cheerful cherry blossoms. Without using too many colors, Yamamoto focuses on shades of vermillion and scarlet to emanate profound passion and fragrance. Hanae Mori was one of the iconic founders of the Japanese fashion industry. Her uchikake design beams with gold butterflies and seasonal flowers, woven with the yaekasane eight-layered technique. The chrysanthemum, symbol of longevity, is specifically highlighted in this robe.

While wearing an uchikake today may seem tremendously ostentatious or glittery, one can simply value the classic beauty and meticulous labor harnessed into it to achieve a momentous work of art. The kimono accentuates the slim margin between the skin and the body by the flowing sleeves and back-bent collar, and the uchikake serves as the wisdom and spirit of Japanese culture’s traditional elements wrapped around its fabric. The uchikake is a joyful gift of colors and wishes that can be treasured for eternity.

1 The exhibit Wearing Art. Setsuko Wakatsuki's 'Uchikake' collection was held from Friday, June 4, 2021-Sunday, June 27, 2021 at the Pola Museum Annex, Tokyo, Japan.