The History of the Kimono

Originally, the term “kimono” means “a thing to wear” in Japanese, and has come to denote any full-length robe. However, in recent years, “kimono” has come to mean a traditional dress and national costume of Japan.

Historically, the Chinese were a significant and persistent influence on its neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea, from the writing style to the food to clothing. During the Kofun period (300 – 538 A.D.), the Chinese envoys introduced the prototypes of what would become kimono to Japan. The Imperial Japanese court soon adopted the clothing styles of the Chinese.

During the Heian period (794 – 1185), several centuries later, these styles of dresses had been modified. Straight cuts of fabrics were sewn together to make a garment that would conform to every type of body shape. The first ancestors of kimono were often worn with the Chinese-style hakama, which is a type of long skirt that comes with or without a division, similar to trousers. By then, the clothing had featured elements which are similar to the modern-day kimono, such as the lapped-front robes worn by both men and women.

Later on, it became fashionable to wear the kimono-style garment without the hakama, so the wearer had to find a new way to keep the rode closed. And so the sash or belt, called obi, was created.

By the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), the kimono had become everyday clothing, although members of the Japanese royal court continued to wear layers in their clothing. There also came the color combinations of the kimono. These colors typically depend on gender, seasons, or sometimes family ties or political connections.

By the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the making of the kimono had become a specialized craft, and people had considered the kimono as works of art, literally. Some kimonos had fantastic colors and elaborate designs that they could cost more than an average house. Some families would keep their own kimonos as heirloom items, which they could pass down to the following generations.

When the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) came, Japan opened to Western trade. This played a direct influence on the evolving clothing styles in the country. The more comfortable Western clothes slowly replaced the kimono as everyday wear. The yukata, the lighter and casual version of kimono, remained as everyday wear, especially during the summer. Following Emperor Meiji’s order, police officers, teachers, army, and railroad workers adopted Western-style uniforms within their job roles.

The Tokyo Women’s & Children’s Wear Manufacturers’ Association promoted Western clothing as everyday wear.

From 1920 to 1930, the sailor outfit replaced the kimono and the undivided hakama as school uniforms for girls. It has been a standard ever since — it has even imparted a significant influence on Japanese culture.

Nowadays, the vast majority of Japanese people wear Western-style clothing as everyday wear. They would usually reserve wearing kimonos for formal events (such as weddings) or festivals. During summer events, the easy-to-wear yukata is the standard wear. The elderly, who have grown up wearing it, are still likely to wear the kimono as their everyday clothing.

The kimono may have earned a reputation as being too difficult, unwieldy, and uncomfortable to wear. However, it has evolved through several modifications and is still worn as a fashionable outfit in Japan. At least, when compared to the Heian-era kimono, modern kimono has fewer layers of fabric, making it much easier to wear.

Explore the rich history of the kimono and its cultural significance. Delve into the craftsmanship of traditional and modern kimono making in ‘What Techniques Are Used in the Creation of Traditional and Modern Kimonos?

Know your kimono

It’s helpful to know the proper kimono etiquette, especially if it is your first time to wear it. Here are some of the embarrassing mistakes people make when wearing the kimono (and the traditional accessories).

1) Wearing the kimono right over left

According to Japanese custom, the kimono is always wrapped with the left side of the robe over the right side. Only the deceased have their kimono right over left. So if you’re wearing the kimono that way, it’s considered bad luck. You’ll appear like the walking dead!

2) Wearing colorful tabi

Tabi are traditional socks worn with sandals such as geta and zori. Kimonos are always worn with white tabi only, especially for formal occasions, such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. Wearing tabi of other colors may seem quite strange for such events.

3) Wearing the obi bow at the front

The bow of an obi is always tied at the back. In the olden days, prostitutes usually wore their obi bows at the front.

4) Married women wearing furisode

A furisode is a type of kimono which is distinguished by its long sleeves that hang down past the knees. It typically comes in bright and eye-catching colors and designs.

The furisode is worn only by young unmarried women. Married women and women over 30 tend to go for kimono with shorter sleeves and far more conservative designs and subdued colors.

5) Wearing a decorative musubi

Musubi refers to the knot in the obi. There are several decorative varieties of musubi knots that feature flowers, images believed to bring luck (such as cranes), or other bold patterns. Such fancy musubi are only suitable for young women in parties and other informal events.

Knots with far simple designs and subdued colors are more appropriate for formal events such as tea ceremony. If you wear a fancy musubi at a tea ceremony, you are likely to become a target of gossip. You might also be interested to learn about the traditional clothing of Bhutan. You can find out more about them in our article, What Makes Bhutan’s Gho and Kira Timeless in the Modern Era?

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