The history of the Japanese Kimono

The history of the Japanese Kimono

Roughly translated, ‘Kimono’ means clothing and this item of clothing is something that is synonymous with traditional Japanese culture.

The kimono is a sleeved, T shaped robe, usually crafted from silk. It has long sleeves and is tied around the waist with a decorative belt called an obi. The kimono can be worn by men and women and different styles are reserved for different occasions, ceremonies and celebrations. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic nature of the kimono – this is a garment that can be worn and styled in a number of ways to can convey identity. For example, a certain style of kimono obi is only to be worn by unmarried women and so forth.

But what is the rich heritage behind this traditional form of dress and how has it evolved into the garment we are all familiar with today?

The origin

The first form of kimono is thought to date back as far as the Heian period which ended in 1192. At this time, the garment was simply a mixture of fabrics sewn together to create a long ‘coverall’ that would fit all body shapes. By the Edo period (1603-1868), the garment had evolved somewhat into a unisex form of dress called a kosode – the most notable change being the smaller armholes.

The kosode was worn by everyone regardless of age, gender or class. It became a cultural signature of Japan but as the years progressed it became necessary to add certain markers and motifs to the kosode in order to identify status and position. It still took until the end of the Edo period before the kimono was actually given the name but before this, different styles and identifying traits were already being worked into it to symbolise social and economic status.

What does the kimono represent?

Generally speaking, the kimono is said to represent longevity and good fortune. It was a key symbol of Japanese culture before it changed and is, therefore, a reassuring and symbolic garment that unifies citizens. More specifically, certain motifs can be embroidered onto the kimono to signify personality traits or virtues of the wearer. Different colours can be worn during different seasons and certain patterns and styles are reserved for events such as weddings and festivals.

One of the most recognisable prints to use on the kimono is the cherry blossom print. This is a dainty and feminine design used to symbolise the beauty of women. As such, you can expect to see this print on females only and particularly for leisure activities during the summer. It wouldn’t be deemed as an appropriate pattern to wear during the colder months (when dark colours such as red and black should be worn) or in a professional or work-related capacity.

How has the kimono changed?

From its humble beginnings, the kimono has evolved in many ways. New versions of the garment came with an outer and inner layer and being crafted from silk made them very expensive for most people. Over the years, newer forms of kimono crafted from a variety of different fabrics – such as linen and polyester – have become more accessible to make this an everyday garment for the everyday person. The newer forms are also more practical to move and work in. However, the fact that the kimono is a garment that is notoriously hard to mass produce still means that it costs quite a lot and is generally a high-quality item.

What’s the difference between a kimono and yukata?

The two garments have a number of similarities but are subtly different. A yukata is generally considered to be a more casual kimono, crafted from lighter fabric and recommended for the warmer months. It isn’t formal and is even considered loungewear or certainly attire that is best reserved for a lazy, informal day. The yukata is popular with younger people who favour their relaxed style and bold prints.

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