Crash Course: Bingata

My husband is in Okinawa (again) this week and normally, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. (Except to lament how long the weekends feel when you are single parenting! 🙂 ) I’ve made no secret of my …. ahem, lack of love for Okinawa, whose steamy climes I called home between 2009-2012. Yet as the immediate memories of our life there fade, I find myself growing nostalgic for the subtropics. (I must get my head examined.)

While I have been starting to prep my daughter’s kimono for the upcoming Shichigosan ceremony (more on that at the end of the month, I hope!), it’s bingata that has been on my mind. This colorful fabric from the Ryukyu Islands is first mentioned in the 15th century and was originally the privilege of Okinawan royalty and the island’s warrior class. When envoys from the Chinese court or the shogun in Edo (present day Tokyo) would come to call at Okinawa’s Shuri Castle, they were often entertained by performers wearing bingata cloth. Even today, the dancers at Shuri Castle still sport these colorful outfits.

Performer at Shuri Castle in traditional bingata kimono
Performer at Shuri Castle in traditional bingata kimono

While mainland kimono colors can be muted, bingata is bold. Vivid reds, blues, and yellows predominate and typical Okinawan motifs (like hibiscus or seashells) share the space with more typical mainland flowers, birds, or designs. It is said that upper class Okinawan women actually hid the stencil patterns they used for their personal kimono so no one else could copy it.

Samples of bingata (Photo credit: Shuri Ryusen)
Samples of bingata (Photo credit: Shuri Ryusen)

The cloth itself is painted first with the stencil pattern, using dyes created from local ingredients. Then those designs are covered with an impermeable substance and the surrounding cloth is dyed according to the wearer’s preference. It can take up to three days for three artists to paint the designs on a kimono and then dye the larger selections of cloth. If you’re in Okinawa, you can actually try your own hand at making a small piece of bingata at Shuri Ryusen in Naha.

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