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What Are Kanzashi?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Kanzashi are a type of hair ornament traditional to Japan. They originated during the Heian period of classical Japanese history of about 710 to 1185 CE, when it is believed Japanese women began to develop their elaborate traditional hairstyles. Today, kanzashi hair ornaments continue to be worn as part of the traditional bridal costume. They may still be worn on a daily basis by geisha and apprentice geisha, or maiko, and may be arranged in the hair according to the woman's level of training and professional status. They often consist of dangling silk flowers made with a traditional silk-folding technique known as tsunami, but they are often coupled with elaborate combs, jeweled hairpins, and other decorative touches.

The silk flowers used to make kanzashi are typically produced by painstakingly folding small squares of silk. A pair of tweezers or other small implement is generally necessary for this precision work. The flowers are usually made one petal at a time, and the petals are usually attached to a piece of stiff paper or other backing material. They are then typically attached to bira bira, or long metal hair ornament, that allows the silk flowers to dangle and sway. The flowers may also be attached to combs, hair sticks, or other ornaments.

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Bells, jewels, and precious metals may be added to kanzashi to enhance their appearance. The gemstones used are traditionally tortoiseshell, pearl, jade, or coral. Gold or silver may be added to some ornaments.

These hair ornaments remain popular among geisha and maiko. The type and position of the kanzashi worn typically indicates the geisha's or maiko's level of training and experience. Maiko are generally known for wearing more intricate or ostentatious types of kanzashi.

Different types of kanzashi flowers are traditionally worn in the hair at different times of year, or in celebration of specific holidays and festivals. These ornaments are usually designed to evoke different seasons, by incorporating the sorts of plants and colors typically found in nature during that time of the year. There are generally different designs considered appropriate to each of the 12 months. Kanzashi for the month of April, for instance, typically incorporate cherry blossoms and butterflies into their designs, since these two things are usually prevalent in Japan during the month of April. A similar ornament intended for November, however, may incorporate autumnal colors such as russet or yellow, and the silk is generally folded into the shape of ginko, maple, or other autumnal leaves.

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