Thing To Wear: The History of the Kimono

11/24/2022 | Waheeda Harris

To the citizens of Japan, the graceful folds of this wrapped silk garment hold significantly more meaning than just any wardrobe item. Although the literal translation is “thing to wear,” the kimono remains a beloved part of Japanese heritage and an icon within clothing design. 

As one of Japan’s most recognizable symbols, the kimono has been a treasured heirloom to be passed down within Japanese families and with an envied design often copied by western fashion designers. In the 1920s, Parisian couturiers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet put their interpretations of a kimono on the runway, while in recent years, Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano were once again inspired by this beloved Japanese garment. 

 

Experiencing the Kimono’s Beauty

During my first visit to Kyoto, I arrived in the Higashiyama area to see the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This Buddhist temple is one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto and a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of 17 in the city. Founded in the early Heian period, the historic wood temple was built without the use of any nails. 

As I walk up the hill to this noted temple, I’m sidetracked by a smaller temple where two young women clad in red and yellow kimonos are quietly whispering to one another. I’ve arrived at Kyoto’s most colorful of its 3,000 temples, the Yasaka Koshindo Temple, adorned with numerous fabric balls showcasing the entire palette of the rainbow. 

The faithful come to write their wishes on the kukurizaru, a fabric talisman representing a good faith monkey. It’s believed if you give up one of your vices, you’ll find love. As these two women have auspiciously placed their kukurizaru, they’re happily snapping selfies of themselves in their kimonos, hoping love will arrive. 

 

 

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is an elegant sight and after many photos, I walk to a shopping area featuring several vintage shops, including one where two women emerge each clad in boldly-colored kimonos, immediately stopping on the sidewalk to snap images of each other in front of the boutique and then with the picturesque temple and neighborhood as their backdrop. 

I walk into the small shop they’ve just left and the shop owner greets me with a gentle bow and a hello, explaining to me they sell pristine vintage kimonos and all the accessories. If I want, I can rent a kimono for a few hours, like the two women I had seen outside her shop. They were on a friend’s outing to wander the historic district, imagining themselves in the past and sharing the treasured experience of being dressed in kimonos together.

 

A Kimono’s Many Layers

A traditional kimono can consist of up to 10 pieces and in the past was disassembled by hand to be cleaned. For contemporary wearers, there are a minimum of five pieces that constitute a kimono. The nagajuban, a T-shaped robe in white, is worn as the first layer. Then there is the datejime, an under sash to tie around the nagajuban, then the outer silk layer of the kimono itself, then the obi, a wide silk sash is tied around the body to secure the layers. Finally tabi, non-elastic socks are adorned before the zori, a pair of flat sandals, complete the outfit. 

During the Heian period (794-1192), kimonos transformed from upper and lower garments to a one-piece garment due to the development of a new kimono-making technique called the straight-line-cut method. This pattern enabled the creator to easily sew the garments without concern for the shape of the wearer’s body and allowed for layers to be worn to adjust for the seasons, more for winter and less in summer. 

Kimonos soon took on deeper meanings than just a daily-worn garment: color combinations reflected the season and specific political classes. During the Kamakura Period (1192-1338) and the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), men and women wore brightly-colored kimonos, with warriors dressing in bright shades to represent and honor their leaders. 

The influential Edo Period (1603-1868) saw Japan divided into feudal domains, each with a samurai who were identified by the color and pattern of their uniform, which included a kamishimo made from linen and worn over a kimono and a hakama, a split skirt worn underneath. Designing and constructing kimonos developed into an art form, resulting in kimonos becoming treasured family heirlooms, handed down from one generation to the next.

 

For samurai women during this period, wearing a kimono was an elaborate affair dictated by a dress code governed by the seasons, events and time of day, with their clothing reflecting colors and patterns associated with these categories, taking on nature’s colors within the layers of the kimono. The celebrities of the time period were Kabuki actors and courtesans, whose choice of kimono colors and patterns would be emulated by their fans, using more affordable techniques and fabrics to mimic them. 

In the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan was heavily influenced by outside cultures, with the government encouraging their citizens to adopt western-style clothing. Government officials and military personnel were required under law to wear western clothing during all official functions. The Geisha, who had been early adopters of western clothing, returned to showcasing the kimono again in the early 20th century, taking the historic garment and rebranding themselves as the ‘old Japan.’ 

 

Markers of Special Occasions

Japanese now choose not to wear kimonos daily, preferring to wear a kimono to mark key moments in life and special occasions such as weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies or festivals. Starting prices for a  custom-made kimono can be between $1,000 to $3,000 (USD) but easily go as high as $50,000 depending on dyes, fabric and pattern technique.  

Since the 1990s, a younger generation has developed a growing interest in the kimono, a welcome connection to their history. It’s a popular choice to wear a kimono to summer festivals or to ‘kimono jack’ events where people gather in public to show off their kimonos. For the more discreet, a group of friends will gather, like a book club in someone’s home, wearing their kimonos and discussing their garments.

There are three commonly-worn types of kimono—yukata, komon and homongi. The yukata is a summer kimono, an unlined garment made from cotton. Originally worn as a bathrobe, it’s now a preferable option for the summer and while traditionally indigo or white, modern options embrace the entire color spectrum. 

Worn by men and women, the yukata is wrapped to the right side of the wearer and paired with an obi, a stiff belt created to keep a kimono closed. It’s often seen on the streets in onsen resort towns of Atami, Kinosaki and Kusatsu and has become the most popular option, especially among women, as an easy-to-wear choice. 

The common kimono features a small pattern, which was popular in pre-war Japan and is made with slubbed silk, cotton, linen or hemp. These kimonos are the most common style, worn with an obi and zori. Homongi kimono, known as a semi-ceremonial kimono, is traditionally made from silk, and has a pattern that runs from the shoulder, often chosen for formal parties or to attend a wedding.

 

Family Heirlooms

Visiting the small town of Hagi, well-known for its tea ceremony ceramics, I had the opportunity to meet a local family. After a memorable dinner, I was asked if I would be interested in seeing the family’s kimonos. 

The mother of the household showed me three kimonos she had inherited from her mother. As she had two sons and no daughters, she was keeping them for her future daughter-in-law or granddaughter. Lovingly she displayed each of the patterned silk pieces for me to see. She smiled at my delight in seeing her family’s textile history and asked me if I would like to try one on.

I was pleasantly surprised but unsure—would it fit? Was it appropriate? Her smile and gestures towards the family kimono told me she was happy for me to try it on and when I said yes, she quickly ushered me to the center of the room, placing the items around me. I stood in my t-shirt and leggings as she proceeded to dress me in a winter kimono, the multiple layers carefully placed on me in a sequence she knew well. I watched as each layer covered the knots and ties beneath it to secure everything in place, as she told me about wearing the kimono for past family events. 

As she circled me, tucking, tightening and wrapping the layers, I even got to put on the special socks and sandals. And as I finally was dressed, I felt an unbreakable bond to this woman I had only met a few hours ago, who now standing proudly as I looked at myself in the mirror. I was wearing the finery which had been one of her family’s most treasured items for three generations, and felt a joy for being welcomed by her to intimately learn about her family and the kimono.