[Kimono Style] Meisen Kimono: Stylish Trends Rich in History in Saitama

I put on one of my meisen kimono to go visit the Saitama Prefectural History and Folklore Museum. It was time for the museum meisen kimono exhibition.

Located in Omiya Park, the museum is lovely in the fall. It is also next to the famous Hikawa Shrinewhich is also worth a visit.

Meiji era ‘Jeans’

The history of meisen and its production, as well as its position in the history of clothing are very interesting. At the beginning of the 20e century, Japan exported all of its best silk to the United States and some to Europe. Silk accounted for a third of Japan’s total export earnings. It was therefore an important source of income.

meisen kimono
A typical magazine of the time.
meisen kimono
Sunflower patterns.

The silk left for domestic use was of poorer quality. But since the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan imported winding and weaving techniques from Europe. This made silk kimono production much less labor intensive and much cheaper than before.

Manufacturers have learned to produce a semi-mechanized type of kimono, suitable for everyday use. It started as home clothes. But as its popularity exploded, it became very fashionable.

For the time, the meisen kimono could be considered the “jeans” of the kimono world. And indeed it is estimated that at least 50% of Japanese women wore them.

Single Techniquees of Meisen Kimono

The Meisen kimono is a regional product of Kanto and the industry was very important to Saitama Prefecture. Chichibu (Saitama Prefecture) is said to be the first place where the technique was developed. But Isesaki in neighboring Gunma prefecture also claims to be the first.

It was also produced in Ashikaga (Tochigi Prefecture), Kiryu (Gunma Prefecture), and Hachioji (West Tokyo). The collection on display is among approximately 600 items donated to the museum by renowned meisen expert and collector, Kazue Kimura Kazue, who is a resident of Chichibu.

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The particularity of meisen production is that it is halfway between hand weaving, which uses tie-dye dyed yarns, and kimono which is stencil-dyed on white fabric. He uses a technique invented in Chichibu in 1908 called Hogushiori.

Originally the Hogushiori were the warp threads which were all laid out and then dyed with stencils. They had loose diagonal threads through them to hold them in place, as stencil dye threads are much more difficult than fabric dye.

After the warps are dyed, the Hogushiori threads are removed and the warps are placed on the loom to be woven with the weft. Whereas with hand weaving each yarn would have been tie dyed, this process is much faster and allows for the use of more colors and intricate patterns.

Unlike the woven kimono, which appears opposite from back to front, meisen fabric is the same back and front. This allows the other side of the fabric to be used if the front is dirty.

meisen kimono
meisen kimono
Meisen kimono loom.

To each his own style

The technique became very popular, and various girls’ schools used it for their school uniforms. For example, Gakushuin Girls’ School used Isesaki meisen, and Ochanomizu Girls’ School used Chichibu meisen.

Chichibu usually used tategasuri, the chains were stenciled dyed. But in the 1930s, Isesaki also began to stencil-dye wefts, in what is called heiyou gasuri, or a double ikat style. Isesaki was known for the exciting designs they produced.

In 1934 Ashikaga introduced han heiyou, where sections of the weft yarns were stenciled dyed. There were also yoko gasuri, where only the wefts were stenciled. And kawari ori, or Kapitan meisen, which was produced after 1945 in Hachioji and had patterned weaving in the ground as well as the meisen patterns.

Chichibu is also famous for the tamamushi style, which shines like an insect shell because the warps and wefts are in opposite colors.

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There are 90 kimonos in the show. They demonstrate the different types and also show the different styles that a woman may have worn at different stages of her life.

Posters and magazines are also on display. Meisen was advertised in different ways. And there was a lot of competition between manufacturers and department stores to produce the most interesting designs. Magazines from the WWII period show how to turn your meisen kimono into pants and padded headgear to protect you in dangerous situations.

meisen kimono
Neneco, to carry a baby.
meisen kimono

Post-war changes

After the war, the industry largely shifted to making futons and cushions as fewer people wore kimonos.

Different tools are on display, so it is possible to see how the fabric was made.

Meisen is still loved. It is popular in antique stores for its unique, bright, modern and cheerful appearance. Even yachts, tennis rackets and oil lamps are on the kimono.

The exhibition ends with pieces from two workshops that still produce meisen in Chichibu, with silk from silkworms harvested in Chichibu. They are arakei and Henmi workshops.

The link to the exhibition, which runs until December 4, click here. To learn more about the workshops, click here and here.

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Author: Sheila Cliffe

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