In this blog post we’ll discuss Japanese Kimono culture. You’ll find a brief history of the Kimono as well as some practical tips about how to choose a suitable Kimono for any occasion. We’ll also offer some information about the different types of kimono and whether or not its okay for foreigners to wear Japanese Kimono.
Couple Wearing Traditional Kimono
A Brief History Of The Kimono
If we were to translate the word Kimono it would simply mean ‘a thing to wear’. As such, Japanese people have been wearing Kimono for Millenia. Infact, a samurai’s clothing would have been called ‘kimono’ as would the happi coat of a store keeper. It’s actually a fairly modern development that the word Kimono has come to embody the brightly coloured flowing silk robes we now associate with it. Historically Kimono have always had a simple T shaped form and were sewn by hand from bolts of specially woven fabrics. The colours, embroidery and specific shape of a Kimono reveal much about the identity of the wearer, be it to communicate marital status, family ties or social rank. Because Kimono are made from incredibly expensive fabrics that are difficult to wash, yukata, a cotton t-shaped robe (less formal and easier to wash) has become popular in Japan. The wearing of traditional Japanese clothing, called wafuku, which includes the Kimono has begun to gain new popularity in modern day Japan. Young people mix wafuku and western style clothing, called yofuku, to create unique expressions of their individuality which connect the past and present.
Young People Wearing a Mix of Traditional Japanese and Western Clothing
Why do Japanese People Wear Kimono?
As kimono simple means ‘a thing to wear’, it would be easy to conclude that Japanese people have worn kimono simply because this term encompasses what we would call clothing. However, there is a long and detailed historical context within which to understand the cultural importance of kimono within Japan. Because clothing has always been used to communicate certain information about its wearer within Japanese culture, the kimono itself is a tool, through which detailed information can be communicated. For example, historically only people who had attained the highest social rank or those who were born into aristocratic families were allowed to wear purple coloured kimono. Similarly, black kimono were reserved for people of lower rank. A young woman wearing a brightly coloured furisode with long fluttering sleeves communicates her status as unmarried and carefree whilst an older women wearing a darker coloured kimono with shortened sleeves and minimal decoration announces her status as that of a married woman. The shape and style of kimono has also been intrinsically linked to technological and artistic developments within the Japanese textile industry. The length and width of fabric needed to produce one kimono was a common language amongst Japanese merchants, in-fact, the bolt of fabric needed to produce one yakuta or kimono, called a ‘Tan’, was listed as a public commodity next to flour and salt during the 1950s and 1960s. The practicality of less formal styles of kimono should also be mentioned. The robes can be layered for warmth, allow airflow during the summer and are universally sized to fit with only a belt being needed to hold the outfit closed and secure. Once the fabric has been produced no great sewing or tailoring skills are required to construct the garment, in-fact, most Japanese people would have been easily able to sew a complete kimono from scratch, its simple T-shape making it straightforward and uncomplicated to construct.
Silk Threading Being Dyed For Kimono Cloth Production
What are the Different Types of Kimono?
Furisode, literally translates as ‘swinging sleeves’ and indeed, this style of Kimono is characterised by its long ‘swinging’ sleeves. Furisode are brightly coloured, elaborately decorated and worn only by young, unmarried women. The length of the sleeve varies with some Furisode sleeves being so long that they trail on the ground. Furisode are sometimes referred to as being the ‘debutante’ dress of Japan as young women wear this style of Kimono to celebrate their seijinshiki (coming of age)
A Young Woman Wearing Furisode Kimono
Hikizuri meaning “dragging along” is a type of traditional Kimono worn only by Geisha and nihonbuyou (traditional Japanese dancers). Prior to the Meij era hikizuri were worn by wealthy women of high social rank and status. This style of Kimono is longer than a regular Kimono meaning that the hem literally ‘drags’ on the ground. Hikizuri are also sewn slightly differently to regular Kimono with the collar sewn further back and the sleeves set unevenly into the body. This allows the collar to be pulled down further without upsetting the lines of the robe.
Hikizuri Kimono Worn by Geisha
Junihitoe roughly translated as ‘12 layered robe’ are an extremely formal and highly complex Kimono worn only by Japanese ladies of the court. The weight of this Kimono may have been as much as 20kg with a total number of 12 overlapping silk robes making up a complete outfit. Junihitoe are the most expensive style of Japanese clothing and today they can only be seen in Museums. Members of the imperial household still occasionally wear Junihitoe for highly formal occasions.
Jūnihitoe (十二単) Kimono
Uchikake are a highly formal Kimono worn by a bride or during a stage performance. Uchikake are elaborately decorated with embroideries, often stiched in fine gold or silver thread. The robe is generally coloured a brilliant red and is designed to be worn open over the top of a regular Kimono in the style of a coat. Uchikake are designed to drag on the floor and the hem of the robe is often stuffed and padded to accentuate the way it falls.
A Yakuta is an unlined summer Kimono made from cotton or polyester. Because Yukata are less formal than other styles of Kimono they have become very popular amongst both men and women. Yakuta were traditionally worn whilst visiting hot springs or for summer activities such as walking or watching fireworks festivals.
Couple Wearing Yukata for a Summer Walk
Tomesode is a formal Kimono worn by married women. It is considered as the equivalent to Western black tie dress and is generally recognised by its plain black colour which features hand painted or embroidered details on the hem and sleeves. The sleeve length of Tomesode is also generally shorten that other Kimono styles. Tomesode have one family crest visible near the collar.
Tsukesage is a less formal version of the Houmongi Kimono style. Tsukesage have less patterns and a more modest overall pattern covering. Tsukesage is considered an appropriate choice for parties or non-formal events. Tsukesage is not considered appropriate attire for ceremonial occasions
Mofuku is a formal mourning Kimono worn by both men and women. Mofuku is plain black and traditionally worn over the top of white undergarment robes with white Tabi. Historical Mofuku would have been plain white as this was the colour of morning but modern interpretations see the garment coloured in black. Mofuku Kimono generally feature five Kamon or family crests, these are located on the collar, back and sleeve hems. Mofuku is generally only worn by the family of the deceased.
Irotomesode are a plain coloured Kimono with patterns only below the waist. Irotomesode can be worn by both married and unmarried women and is considered a semi-formal robe. Irotomesode is considered an appropriate attire for wedding guests or for wearing to other semi-formal occasions. Irotomesode have 1-3 visible family crests or Kamon. Irotomesode are generally coloured in light shades and may be worn with elaborately woven obi.
Hōmongi literally translates as ‘visiting wear’ and and is characterised by flowing patterns which spread across the shoulders and onto the sleeves. Hōmongi is considered a ‘second class’ formal Kimono and is worn by both married and unmarried women. Tsukesage and hōmongii look very similar but hōmongi is considered the more formal Kimono style. Hōmongi showcase a style of Kimono decoration called ‘eba’ in which the patterns cover the entire kimono regardless of where the sleeves or collar join the body of the robe. This means that the pattern is like a painting showing an entire scene and because of this hōmongi are sought after as display kimonos. Hōmongi were traditionally grouped into four separate categories to mark the four seasons. If the hōmongi carries a family crest it becomes more formal and may not be suitable attire for attending semi-formal events.
Komon translates as ‘fine pattern’ or ‘small prints’ and is a more casual style of Kimono recognisable by its repeating all-over pattern. Komon can be worn by both married and unmarried women and are considered suitable Kimono for walking in town, causal parties or shopping. The larger the size of the print the younger the wearer should be with smaller prints being more suited for older women. A komon Kimono can be dressed up by adding a more formal Obi sash. A komon Kimono does not have a family crest or ‘Kamon’.
Iromuji roughly translates as ‘plain color’ and is a discrete style of Kimono. Iromuji have a single color with the color often being subdued and more subtle than other styles of Kimono. Iromuji is considered to be a suitable choice for tea ceremonies as its low-key and elegant style is thought to compliment the discerned and sophisticated tea ceremony aesthetic. Iromuji is also considered a suitable choice for weddings or events where the bride or guest of honour is intended to take the center stage. Iromuji can be made more formal by adding a different styles of Obi. Iromuji can have anywhere between 1- 5 family crests with the most common number of crests being 1
Michiyuki are a Kimono ‘overcoat’ worn over the top of Kimono. Michiyuki is designed to protect the more expensive Kimono robes from rain and snow while also adding a layer of warmth, useful during the autumn and winter months. Michiyuki is worn only by women and is always worn closed. The jacket usually has a press stud closure which which it can be easily opened and closed. The neckline of the michiyuki is cut low in order to ‘show off’ the collar of the Kimono worn underneath. Michiyuki are usually dyed in plain colors and don’t have any family crests or ‘Kamon’.
Michiyuki Kimono Jackets
Haori is a type of unisex Kimono overcoat. Haori were traditionally only worn by men but more modern ways of wearing Kimono have seen the haori jacket become a normal clothing item for women as well. Men’s haori are usually black or brown whilst the haori jackets for women often feature brightly coloured prints, hand-painted details or silk embroideries. During the Edo period it was forbidden for common folk to display any signs of wealth, this lead to people lining their plain black or brown haori jackets with extravagantly woven and embroidered silks as a way of circumnavigating the ban.
Womens Haori Jackets
Compared to women’s Kimono, men are fairly simple with the sleeve length and robe shape generally similar regardless of the wearers age. Mens Kimono are usually more subdued colour wise with the most used colors being black, brown or darker shades of blue. The fabrics used for men's Kimono are often matte and have less visible weaving patterns than those used for women's Kimono. The most formal Kimono for men, same as for those of the women, has five family crests. The least formal mens Kimono has no crests at all.
Mens Kimono Outfits
Mens Kimono robes are always worn with Hakama. Hakama are actually cut in the shape of a skirt but the wide front pleats and loose shape gives them the appearance of being trousers. Hakama are fastened at the waist with the assistance of ribbons. Depending on the fabrics and patterns used Hakama can range from very formal to more casual. Although Hakama were traditionally only worn by men it’s now common for women to dress in Hakama with the style being a popular choice for graduation ceremonies.
Hanten is a short winter coat worn by both men and women. This style of coat became popular during the Edo period and was a popular choice for for common people. The jacket is thickly padded for warmth, generally has a black collar and often displays the family crest or ‘kamon’.
Happi are simple overcoats with straight cut sleeves. Happi are usually made from cotton or linen and often dyed with Indigo. Worn by both men and women, this style of Kimono was traditionally worn to festivals with symbols on the back of the coat showing which group the wearer was aligned with. Happi were also worn by firefighters and house servants and later on shopkeepers.
Indigo Dyed Happi Coats
Can Foreigners Wear Japanese Kimono?
Yes, overall Japanese people embrace foreigners wearing Kimono. This is due to a number of factors. This first point to consider is that Japanese people do not generally suffer from the same anxiety concerning a misappropriation of their culture as do, for example, minority groups in the USA. Case in point, the Kimono is implicitly understood as being ‘Japanese’, therefore it would be difficult for anyone of non-Japanese heritage to unfairly take credit for its design.Another point to consider is that the kimono has been mass produced and marketed for consumption in the western market by many Japanese companies, since the early 1900s. The commodification and sale of certain intrinsically ‘Japanese’ products, such as the kimono, was seen as a way in which lucrative international business opportunities could be forged as well as helping to enhance the cultural recognisability of Japan on the global stage. This in turn helped to fuel the burgeoning tourism industry within Japan, something that the Japanese government has been highly supportive of.
European Women Wearing Japanese Kimono - Early to Mid 19th Century
Additionally many Japanese companies are specialised in the sale and hire of Kimono to tourists. Foreigners who are curious about trying kimono and wish to learn more about the clothing are actively encouraged to do so. Japanese people are also fiercely proud of their culture and many see it as a compliment when foreigners wish to wear traditional Japanese clothing.In summary, generally it is accepted and even encouraged for foreigners to wear Kimono. Kimono should of course, always been worn in a respectful way, and the garments deep culture ties and fascinating history should be kept in mind.What about you? If you have any suggestions or comments in regards to this topic please leave them in the comments box below.
We also wrote a seperate blog article on the topic of whether foreigners can wear kimono here