The Mukashi no Sewing Language of Flowers

Bibliotheca April 2023 – Florals: These are the Florals in My Clothes

This obi is absurdly useful; I can wear it with so many of my kimono!

Welcome back to Mukashi no Sewing! This month’s theme for the Bay Area Kei Bibliotheca blog circle is “Florals.” Flowers as carriers of meaning have been tremendously important in Japan throughout history, as well as in the Victorian Era. So I thought it might be fun to survey what flowers have managed to sneak into my wardrobe and examine what they meant historically as well as their meaning to me! Fun fact – the language of flowers is known as hanakotoba (花言葉) in Japanese; literally “flower words.” The Victorians knew it as “floriography.”

I’m quite fond of this obi; it goes well with everything!

Camellia – Tsubaki – 椿: The camellia in Japan generally represented either love, or a noble death. Because the flowers “behead” themselves as they die, they were an inauspicious flower to give to someone experiencing an illness. The white camellias on my obi mean “waiting.” To the Victorians, camellias were a symbol of either “perfected beauty” or of longing for someone. I never thought much about camellias until I picked this obi up, honestly, but I find them to be very elegant!

This cute “kimono poncho” (basically a modern styled dochugi) was made by Yukiko of KimonoYukiko and it’s just perfect for spring!

Cherry Blossom – Sakura – 桜: Both the Victorians and Japanese agreed that the short-lived cherry blossom represented transience and fleeting beauty! My favorite short story in Japanese by Kajii Motojiro, “Under the Cherry Trees,” makes them a little bit more sinister. 🙂 I absolutely love sakura although this is actually my only piece of clothing featuring this flower! The reason is that, traditionally, one does not wear clothing featuring a flower that’s currently in bloom so as not to compete with it. This makes the period in which I can wear cherry blossoms very short – just as the weather is warming up, but before the flowers bloom – maybe just a couple of weeks here in the Pacific Northwest. I have to admit that I’d love to have some of BtSSB’s sakura-themed lolita dresses, though… ❤

You’ll be seeing more of this yukata in the near future!

Chrysanthemum – Kiku – 菊: The Victorians associated the chrysanthemum with “hidden truths revealed,” while in Japan they are the crest of the Imperial family! Interestingly, however, they are also associated with truth, and white ones are often used in funeral bouquets. I feel like chrysanthemums automatically make clothes just a little classier because of the Imperial association – this yukata feels a little more formal, as much as that’s possible, than my other one that has Totoro and fireworks on it! It’s a very historical design without dipping into being old-fashioned, and it’s also my birth month flower. 😀

The more things on a hat, the better!

Lily – Yuri – 百合: Don’t mess up the color of lily if you’re putting them in a Japanese bouquet! White ones are for purity and chastity, orange for hatred and revenge, and tiger lilies are for wealth! Lilies can also represent romantic relationships between women. The Victorians associated them with the Virgin Mary and perfection/purity — but yellow lilies meant falsehood so there’s definitely something going on with the warmer colors of lilies! 😀 I’ve always associated them with funerals, maybe because they feature in a lot of Gothic poetry and literature such as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Sleeper? I find them to be the perfect elegiac accompaniment to wearing lots of black velvet!

Like…90% sure these are peonies. Sometimes the flowers on kimono get a little abstract!

Peony – Botan – 牡丹: I absolutely love peonies, they were my wedding flower and I adore their big fluffy blooms! In hanakotoba they’re associated with honor, bravery, and good fortune which is basically everything I need in a flower. 😀 The Victorians also read peonies as standing for prosperity, as well as happy marriages.

Also featuring more kiku! ❤

Plum Blossom – Ume – 梅: Having trouble telling a plum from a cherry blossom? You’re not alone! 😀 The easiest way to tell the difference on kimono, at least, is cherry blossoms have a notch at the end of their pointed petals, while plum blossoms are rounded with no notch. In real life you can also look at the way the flowers emerge from the branch – and you can also smell them! Ume have a beautiful fragrance while sakura tend to have little to none. They’re actually also a kind of sour apricot, if you want to get technical. Which I always do.

“In hanakotoba, plum blossoms mean loyalty and elegance. Plum trees (sometimes called Japanese apricots) blossom in the late spring and early winter. Since they sometimes even bloom during harsh, cold weather, they’re seen as a symbol of hope and a sign of winter’s end.” (Petal Republic) They’re part of the three friends of winter (shochikubai) along with pine and bamboo, and as such symbolize blooming in the coldest season. Plum didn’t appear to be particularly common in Victorian times, but wild plum could mean “independence.” I love plum blossom motifs because they’re appropriate for winter unlike most flowers, and because of their association with beauty in adversity. ❤


Rose – Bara – 薔薇: Roses, in all their myriad colors, were a mainstay of Victorian expressions of love just like they are today! They’re the same in Japan – although you want to avoid yellow roses if you can since they indicated infidelity to the Victorians and jealousy in hanakotoba! They can also represent romantic love between men. Blue roses are the hallmark of Gothic lolita brand Moi Meme Moitie, and represent mystery or the unobtainable since they are unable to be produced naturally. Roses were my late grandmother’s favorite flower (and scent), but I’ve never been the biggest fan strangely enough. I do like MMM’s blue rose motif, though, and I have a few pieces of jewelry with preserved roses in them that I love for my gothic coordinates! I recently purchased an obi covered in lush pink roses along with cranes (my favorite!), so maybe I’m starting to come around on them after all. 🙂

The only haori I own that’s actually the proper size… *wistful sigh*

Spider Lily/Amaryllis – Higanbana – 彼岸花: Red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are strongly associated with death in Japan. “They are associated with final goodbyes, and legend has it that these flowers grow wherever people part ways for good. In old Buddhist writings, the red spider lily is said to guide the dead through samsara, the cycle of rebirth.” (Culture Trip) I actually couldn’t turn up any evidence of their use in Victorian floriography! These mysterious and mournful flowers are a favorite of mine, and I would love to have a whole kimono featuring them to go with my haori! They’re the perfect choice for October around here (even though they’re a summer flower – which fits with the spooky summer vibes of Obon in Japan).

There’s a whole debate over whether motifs should be worn when they’re appropriate in Japan, or when they’re appropriate for where you personally are living. I don’t want to claim to be an expert on this subject! However, I’ve read a lot of books on kitsuke and tea ceremony (seasonality is really important to tea), and the consensus seems to be that the intent of seasonality is to reflect where you actually happen to be at the time. An exception that I’ve found in particularly formal tea manuals is that if you were holding a tea ceremony with visiting high-ranked Japanese guests it might well be more appropriate to match the motifs to the season and weather in Japan instead. (This comes up a lot for Southern Hemisphere folks – it’s less of an issue for me since my local patterns are darned close to those in northern Japan.)

This dress is too much in the best possible way!

Strawberry Blossom – Ichika – 苺花: Look, I wrote an entire post about strawberries, you can just go re-read that. 😀

It still counts if I added the flower on my own! 😀

Wisteria – Fuji – 藤: The Victorians read wisteria as meaning “I cling to you” because of its clinging vines! In hanakotoba they can mean “welcome” or “steadfast,” but they’re more commonly associated with nobility because commoners were forbidden from wearing purple historically – and because of the Fujiwara family that helped rule Japan for so long. And of course, because of the beautiful Murasaki in The Tale of Genji! I find their profusion of trailing flowers to be breathtakingly beautiful, and would really like to have an arbor of them in my garden one day. Failing that, I hope I can at least visit the wisteria garden in Kitakyushu at some point!

Bonus Round – flowers I like, but don’t have represented in my wardrobe currently.

I’m a simple woman. If it’s purple I’m probably into it. 😀

Iris – Hanashōbu – 花菖蒲: The Victorians used irises to communicate faith, trust, and wisdom. I’m into irises for their Japanese meaning of victory, though, which is based on the fact that the word for victory is also shōbu (勝負) – just with different kanji. It can also be read as “duel” or “warlike spirit” – again, using different characters for each. At the end of Iaidō taikai matches, the judges will shout “shōbu owari” – “the match is concluded!” And on Children’s Day (May 5) it’s customary to bathe with iris leaves as a wish for strength and victory. I think a haori with irises on it would be perfect to wear to events – let me know if you see one out in the wild! 🙂

I would LOVE to have a kimono with orchids on it!

Orchid/Ran/蘭: I’ve bid on kimono with orchids on them several times and always lost…but I’ll keep trying! I have three orchids in my house and absolutely love their year-round blooms and exotic colors. Orchids were considered exotic historically in Japan and to the Victorians, as well, and thus represented refinement and exquisite beauty. In Chinese art, orchids were one of the “Four Gentlemen” (plum blossom for winter, orchid for spring, bamboo for summer, and chrysanthemum for autumn), and were associated with seasonal painting since at least the Song dynasty. And of course, orchid (lan/兰, in Chinese) is part of the name of two of my favorite characters; Lan Wangji from Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, and Lan Jue from A League of Gentleman! 🙂 I’m very fond of this flower so hopefully I can find something lovely featuring it soon!

I’m generally into pink flowers! 😀

Peach Blossom/Momo/桃花: Wait, another late winter/early spring pink blossom?! I know, I know! Cherry blossoms are oval/teardrop shaped with a notch, peach blossoms have a similar shape with no notch, and plum are rounded, though. “To the Victorians, peach blossoms stood for charm and generosity. Giving the gift of peach blossoms may mean that the giver feels like they’re held captive by someone’s charm. Historically, peach trees also symbolize longevity, happiness, and vitality, with ties to their early bloom season and lush fruits.” (Petal Republic)

Meanwhile “…in Japan, peach flowers are associated with girls day in March. These flowers are much more plentiful and more vibrant than the sakura blossoms. They have a cute image which fits perfectly with girls day. Throughout Japanese history, peach blossoms have been considered lucky and a symbol of being invincible.” (Wandering Tanuki) In China the blossoms are associated with romance, and peach wood is considered to be a powerful ward against evil energies and ghosts. Honestly it’s entirely possible that I have peach blossoms on some of my clothes and I just haven’t looked closely enough to distinguish them from plum or cherry! I’d definitely like to have something covered in peach blossoms for early spring wear, though.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit more about the different ways in which flowers have been used to convey meaning! If so, please do subscribe below to get a notification each week about my latest post, and I look forward to seeing you next week here on Mukashi no Sewing! ❤

Check out what other members of Bibliotheca had to say about this month’s topic!
The Bay Area Kei blog covers – gasp! – NON-print floral options for your wardrobe.
Crimson Reflections does a deep dive on violets and pansies in lolita.
frillSquid discusses cherry blossoms, one of my favorite flowers!
Kelp makes a disappointing dessert, also from cherry blossoms.
Lovelylaceandlies proves that all lolitas can agree about florals!
Cupcakes and Unicorns has a crisis about finding the perfect floral print.

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5 thoughts on “The Mukashi no Sewing Language of Flowers

  1. Thank-you for your article on the language of flowers. It is very complete and worth saving as reference material. What is your favorite representation of flowers on the clothing you shared in your article? I’m rather fond of the chrysanthemums.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I *really* like those too because of the red centers! The dye on them is exquisite! I also really love the plum blossoms and chrysanthemums on my red furisode because of the riot of colors. 🌈


  2. I truly enjoyed your post on the language of flowers. It’s fascinating to see the comparison between Eastern and Western floral interpretations. I find the Camellia and Spider Lilly interpretations to be the most unique. It’s as though the flowers tell their own stories (if that makes sense). You’re so fortunate to have such a beautiful collection of clothing, too. Did you reconstruct those as well?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhh thank you so much for your kind words! ☺️ I totally agree, the stories the flowers tell lends a whole extra dimension to garments!

      Most of my kimono and haori are secondhand from Japanese stores or auction sites, and have not needed anything more than a little spot cleaning or seam mending. The gorgeous red furisode with plum and chrysanthemums on it was a gift from a dear friend and is actually in the queue for restoration – you can’t see in the picture, but the lining needs a lot of TLC! So…sneak preview of an upcoming project! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

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