A Concise History of the Japanese Kimono

The Kimono with it’s T-shape, fluttering sleeves, and draped smooth lines embodies the essence of traditional Japan. But how and when did the identification of the Kimono as Japan's national costume occur? And how did the Kimono transform from an everyday garment to an icon of Japanese culture? In this blog post we’ll provide a brief history of the Kimono in an attempt to find answers to the above questions.

The Japanese word ‘Kimono’ can be roughly translated as ‘a thing to wear’ and although Japanese people have been wearing t-shaped robes for centuries, the naming of these robes as ‘kimono’ is actually a fairly recent development. Prior to the modern era the traditionally worn t-shaped robes were generally referred to as ‘kosode’ and often bore little resemblance to the brightly coloured modern Kimono dress. In Fact, the Kimono as a garment has undergone almost constant reinvention with each new Japanese era bringing about a whole new style of dress and associated etiquette. Other factors which have influenced the style of Kimono include the climate, the life and customs of the imperial court as well as advances within the textile and weaving industries. Additionally, certain laws enacted to enforce adherence to social hierarchies, for example those forbidding members of lower social casts from wearing lavish fabrics or certain colours, lead to explosive developments within the textile and dyeing industry as craftspeople were forced to adapt to new conditions.

Below is a brief historical outline describing the development of Japanese traditional clothing or Kimono

Jamon Period (before 300AD)

During this period clothes were made primarily of woven hemp textiles and loosely fastened on the body. There was no distinction between male and female clothing.

Yamato Period (300-550 A.D.)

The clothing during this period consisted of two parts, an upper and a lower piece. The upper piece may have had slightly fitted sleeves. Again, the male and female clothing was not differentiated but was essentially the same for both sexes. It was during the Yamato period that the silkworm was introduced to Japan by way of China. This allowed for the first Japanese made silk garments to be created. As the dying skills and technologies had not yet been developed, silk clothing worn during this time would have been white or off-white in colour.

Asuka Period (550-710 A.D.)

During the Asuka and Nara periods sewing and textile dyeing techniques developed rapidly. The garments of the time reflected these developments in the form of longer and more flowing shapes and the division of clothing into three distinct categories.The three categories were for: formal clothing, court clothing and military uniforms. The categorisation of clothing in this way allowed for a quicker identification of social rank with each rank being assigned a specific colour.

Asuka period clothing

Nara Period (710-792 A.D.)

During the Nara period sewing, weaving and textile dyeing techniques were further developed and refined. This lead to Kimono becoming more elaborate in terms of both the colouring and patterns as well as in regard to the overall shape. Kimono clothing began to consist of many layers including upper and lower garments, a back and front skirt as well as various styles of jackets. During this period some differentiation between the clothing for men and women also began to appear with women’s robes typically having longer sleeves.

Nara Period Clothing

Heian Period (792-1192 A.D.)

During the Heian period the, by now, well developed textile industry created further refined styles of Kimono dress. These often represented artistic interpretations of the four seasons, with each season being reflected through specific colours and styles of dress.

Heian Period Junihitoe

During this period Kimono clothing became stiffer and more voluminous. For women who lived at court this often meant wearing up to 12 layers. Each of these layers represented specific seasonal or culturally important elements. Kimono clothing at this time was also used to symbolically express certain virtues as they related to spiritually or culturally significant events.During the Heian period certain Kimono outfits suitable for specific tasks or functions were also developed. This meant that, for example, the Kimono outfit worn by a warrior visiting court was quite different from those worn by the people who lived at court full time.

Muromachi Period (1192-1573 A.D.)

During this period the aristocratic power of the Heian court began to decay and the Samurai rose to power. In order to reflect the more active lifestyle of the Samurai, Kimono clothing became much looser and less layered in order to facilitate ease of movement.

Muromachi Period (1192-1573 A.D.)

Edo Period (1601-1867 A.D.)

The Edo period saw the rise of the merchant class within Japan and with it the demise of the Samurai. Commerce and industry developed rapidly, new techniques for weaving and dyeing textiles were developed and Kimono became multi-coloured robes worn in a single layer. The discovery of resist dyeing techniques meant that many colours could be used to dye a single cloth and complex colours and patterns for Kimono became popular. The obi belt which had been worn tied at the front began to be tied at the back during the time with elaborate knots being used to create unusual shapes and volume

Late Edo Period Clothing

Modern Kimono Fashion (1850 - Current)

During the late 1800’s massive changes took place within Japan. Increased contact with the Western world saw Japan transform from a relatively secluded collection of separate domains into a collectively unified nation state. This unification called for a new national identity, the search for which influenced everything from politics to attire. Whilst Japanese men were emboldened to adopt Western styles of clothing, women were cast as bearers of Japanese tradition and thus encouraged to wear Kimono.Prior to the modern era, the Japanese Kimono had functioned as somewhat of a unisex garment, worn by both men and women alike. It was only during the re-shaping of the Japanese national identity throughout the modern era that the Kimono became intrinsically linked to the female form.During this time the Kimono also became less about signifying social status and more about showcasing a national identity. Whereas Japanese people had previously identified themselves within various social strata, be it that of a farmer, an aristocrat, a samurai or a merchant, the Kimono now became a tool for identifying with the newly found national identity of Japan as a whole.The entanglement of the Kimono with that of Japan's national identity allowed it to become highly commodified during the early part of the 19th century. Mass produced versions of the Kimono robe were exported to the west where a newfound fascination with Japan in the form of the aptly named ‘japonism’ began to infiltrate popular culture. Note: The commodification of the Kimono as an exotic representation of essential ‘japaneseness’ is highly interesting and something we will cover in a separate blog post. 

Modern Kimono Produced for the Western Market

Modern Kimono Produced for the Western Market

In conclusion, this brief history of the Kimono might illustrate that rather than being a static element entrenched within highly rigid societal conditions, the Kimono is infact a fluid concept, constantly evolving to reflect the zeitgeist of its age.

Modern Archive xx

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Modern Archive is an online space for textile lovers. We're especially obsessed with everything to do with Japanese Kimonos, Ai-zome and Shibori. We write about things that we like in our kimono magazine and occasionally host pop-up events. Find us on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. Send us an email to hellomodernarchive@gmail (or blow us a kiss).

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