Every culture has its own marriage traditions and few are more elaborate or complex than those of Japan. Kekkon: Japanese Wedding Costumes was the final instalment in Asia House’s Love and Marriage Series.
As Japanese costume specialists Suzanne Perrin and Mamiko Sato explained, the wedding gown is “the most beautiful gown a woman will wear in her life”. Despite the expense, brides prefer to purchase new and unique items, rather than buying their wedding clothes second hand.
A bride’s costume typically consists of several under-layers topped with a kimono and held in place with an obi belt. The most striking item in a bride’s ensemble is the uchikake – an intricately woven and often embroidered gown worn over the top of the kimono and obi.
The design of the uchikake dates from the late 1500’s; it is typically a voluminous, open fronted gown that trails along the floor. It is usually made from satin-silk and the most popular colours include red, orange and gold, although any colour can be worn. The influence of the Western ‘white wedding’ means that some modern Japanese brides now choose white uchikake.
Wedding costumes are alive with symbolism. As many as five or six uchikake are worn on the wedding day. Before and during the wedding ceremony, the bride’s uchikake sleeves are long, representing her unmarried status. She will also wear a large white hood called a shiromuku, the Japanese equivalent to the veil, which hides her face and hair. After the ceremony, the bride will change into an uchikake with short sleeves and remove her shiromuku to show her new married status.
Uchikake are embroidered with auspicious symbols to bring good fortune to the newly-weds. Cranes are often used as the species mate for life and therefore represent fidelity. The uchikake of our Asia House bride had a red lining – another symbol for good luck.
Many samurai traits are still evident in wedding costumes and the groom’s outfit comes from traditional samurai dress. The groom also wears a kimono, which is tied with a narrow sash, a hakama skirt and a haori jacket. The outfit is usually in black, with accents of grey, white and blue.
The samurai influence can also be seen in the bride’s attire; she carries a small case that once would have contained a dagger – a reminder of more lawless times when a woman might be called upon to defend herself.
The bride’s sculptural hairstyle dates from the Edo period of 1603 to 1868, when Tokyo (formerly named Edo) became the new centre of power in Japan. In a style now most commonly associated with Geisha, fashionable Edo ladies had their hair oiled and elaborately arranged with expensive hair ornaments. Modern brides use a wig to achieve this look today.
With no pins, buttons or zips, each garment has to be carefully tied on and arranged by a professional dresser. The resulting layers can be hot, tight and heavy and, with a single item costing upwards of £6000, wedding bills swiftly mount up.
Bearing all this time, discomfort and expense in mind, it might surprising that the majority of Japanese couples still opt for traditional wedding costumes. Yet as Suzanne and Mamiko explained, it is this attachment to tradition that is keeping the extraordinary skills of Japanese crafts-people alive. A beautiful uchikake or obi represents hours of skilled labour and without the lucrative wedding business, such expertise would simply die out.
(Photographs courtesy of Asia House)
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