This post is part of the Fashion History Series. It presents a brief history of the kimono and how to wear it changed over the centuries.
- What is a kimono?
- When did kimonos become fashionable?
- Yamato era (300-550 AD) and before
- Asuka (550-710) and Nara (710-792 AD) eras
- Heian era (792-1192)
- Kamakura (1185–1333), Muromachi (1333/36–1568) and Momoyama (1568–1600) eras
- Edo era (1600–1868)
- Meiji era (1868-1912)
- How to wear a kimono?
- How to tie an obi belt?
- The kimono trend in fashion
- Wrapping up
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What is a kimono?
A kimono is a traditional Japanese ankle length clothes in the form of a T with very long voluminous sleeves closed with an up to 12 ft (3.66 m) obi belt. Kimono means thing to wear. Historically, the decoration of a kimono showed the wearer’s family crest. Today, kimonos for women feature a colorful design and are worn for formal occasions like weddings.
The Yukata meaning bathing clothes is an informal version of the kimono used as bathrobe and loungewear. In contrast to the formal wear, it is made from printed cotton or synthetic fabric and has no inner lining. Young Japanese like to wear the yukata during the firework viewing festivals and other summer events.
When did kimonos become fashionable?
The development in spinning, wearing and dying techniques, political situations, trade, epidemies and weather affected the quality and details of the garment over time.
Yamato era (300-550 AD) and before
During the Jomon era before 300 AD, both genders wore kimonos made from hemp fabric and used a simple belt and sewn on bands tied in a bow at the front as closure. In the Yamato era, Chinese immigrants introduced the art of raising silkworms, killing and unwrapping the silk yarn to weave them into very thin fine fabrics. The yarn was white as produced by the worms. During this episode, the attire consisted of a lower and upper piece with tight sleeves.
Asuka (550-710 AD) and Nara (710-792 AD) eras
Sewing and dying techniques for silk evolved during the Asuka and Nara eras. In the former period, women clothing started to have embellished trims in the front, at the sleeves and hem. In the latter, women garments became even more decorative and slight to moderate decorations became also fashionable for men. The outfits encompassed upper and lower pieces, jackets, a front and back skirt. As time progressed, the attire become more voluminous and sleeves increased in length. In both eras, courtiers made formal and court clothes as well as uniforms. The colors indicated the rank. The garment became the traditional clothing around late 700 AD.
Heian era (792-1192 AD)
In the Heian era, kimonos reflected the four seasons with artful decoration. At court, women wore 12 to 20 layers at a time, which is called juni-hito meaning 12 layers. The layering also ensured thermal comfort in winter. Different versions were worn depending on season, status and professional activities (court personnel, hunting, warrior, bathing). Court nobles wore loosely draped linen yukatas after bathing. Note that the Imperial family still uses attire inspired by the Heian era for formal and traditional events (see photo below).
Kamakura (1185–1333), Muromachi (1333/36–1568) and Momoyama (1568–1600) eras
Late in the 12th century, clothing became less decadent and the exaggerated multilayering ended. Women’s robes had large-scale dyed patterns. Pattern-dyed designs were to express originality, especially in men. In the war suffering land, pieces from different robes were patched together.
The photo below features a young wealthy man of the Nanbokuchō era (1336–1392). Obviously, floral motifs were appropriate for men in the early 14th century.
During the Muromachi era, the kosode, which before served as private intimate wear became acceptable as outerwear.
Edo era (1615–1868)
As time progressed, designs became bolder brighter colorwise and fabrics became more lavish, especially for women. Beautiful flowers were favorite motifs. Landscapes and poems (see photo below) were used for the military elite to decorate the goshodoki (palace court style) that they wore when visiting a military leader(e.g. Shogun, daimyō).
Main customers were samurai who used luxury clothing to indicate their top societal status. Women of the merchant class wore more subdued than those of the samurai class. Wealthy women prefered red, which was expensive and also associated with youth and passion. Red dye was made from safflower. Indian fabrics imported by Dutch merchants were popular as well. Some clothing was also imported from France and Britain. These European as well as Indian garments were considered exotic and indicated the wealth of the wearer. However, these exotic pieces were worn as undergarments.
By the Edo era, the kimono evolved into a unisex outerwear called Kosode.
Meiji era (1868-1912)
In the Meiji era, the Japanese government encouraged to wear western clothes and abandon wearing kimonos. Obviously, this traditional attire restricts the movement and is a hindrance when working with machinery in the developing industry. Thus, since the late 19th century, the term kimono serves in Japan to distinguish native attire from Western clothing.
How to wear a kimono?
Traditionally, this attire is accessorized with an obi belt and supporting items that prevent the obi to wrinkle.
Typically, an under-kimono called nagajuban is used as an undergarment. A kimono outfit also includes white cotton socks (called tabi) and zori sandals. Men wear trousers (known as hakama) under their kimonos. The outerwear that goes with the attire is the Michiyuki coat.
How to tie an obi belt?
In contrast to the Western culture, (wo)men close the garment in the same way. Both genders wrap the left over the right front. However, the way how to tie the obi belt differs. Men just tie the belt, while women apply a triple belting technique. It involves tying an obi belt and another belt around the obi belt to create the beautiful bow at the back. Alternatively, women can don a simple knot known as Nagoya knot.
Create a loop, cross over the ends in the back, pull both ends to the front and pull one end through the loop you have created. This completes the first knot. Cross over the ends. Next pull the middle point of one side of the belt through the gap until tight to get a neat loop.
The kimono trend in fashion
Today, wearing kimonos is a perennial trend in women fashion. The hip to thigh length pieces are to be worn over pants or a skirt. It may substitute a blouse when closed or a jacket when worn open. Sometimes it is worn closed with a t-shirt underneath as a layering piece. The ankle length version is worn as a lightweight cover-up instead of a coat or jacket.
Like the sumptuary laws in Europe assigned certain clothing to tell the social status, professional, age and material status of the wearer, kimonos used to give away the age, family and status of the wearer. Loose flowing, floor length sleeves and short sleeves, for instance, indicated unmarried and married women, respectively. Guess, why! The cut, color and decorations differed by season and occasion. Today traditional Japanese brides wear white kimonos.
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Dalby, Liza (1993). Kimono: Fashioning Culture (1st ed.). Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 9780099428992
Döbler, Hannsferdinand, 1972. Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.
Liddell, Jill (1989). The Story of the Kimono. E.P. Dutton. p. 28. ISBN 978-0525245742.
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