Your Guide to Key Differences between Kimono vs Yukata

kimono vs yukata - your guide to key differences
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We’ve just listed a new Yukata (of which we admittedly don’t have that many), and while doing so we realised that there may be some questions about what the difference between a kimono vs yukata actually is. From the first look, I’ll admit that they do look pretty similar and if I hadn’t been doing this for a little while, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either so it seemed like it might be worth an explanation!Both kimono and yukata have been around for a long time (have we previously established that I’m a master of stating the obvious?) and are ubiquitous with Japanese culture and tradition, how often do we see an image of a kimono-clad Geisha as our view of traditional Japan?

Hand-coloured image of 5 Japanese Geisha

Kimono and its origins

Kimono is the most basic term for traditional Japanese dress and it literally means ‘thing to wear’. It’s derived from ‘Ki’ which means ‘wear’ and ‘mono’ which means “thing” and interestingly the word kimono only became tied to the garment we know as a kimono now in the late 19th century to distinguish traditional clothing from western-style clothing (before then it just referred to all types of ‘things to wear’). There is a long history in regards to kimonos, but at this stage lets skim the surface and say that they arrived from China as an under-garment somewhere between 300-500AD and were adopted as a common form of dress in the late 1300s due to the ease of wearability and comfort. They started to become more decorative in the 1600s, as an expression of taste and style and unlike western fashion where we’re used to accessorising ourselves (think hats, gloves, jewellery, pins) a decorative kimono was all that the wearer needed in order to show social rank and standing or even occupation and age.

kimono from the nara period and geisha in kimono from 1870

Kimono from the Nara period (AD 710-794) via Salz Tokyo and a woman wearing a kimono in ca. 1870

Variations of Kimono

Kimono vary a lot in decoration, sleeve length and fabric and these days are considered a very formal garment, wearing one every day would be similar to wearing a formal suit or dress for us. There are still various types of kimonos, for example, a komon kimono is a more casual style, often with a repeating pattern and less ornate painting or embroidery. A furisode, meaning ‘swinging sleeves’, used to be worn only by young, unmarried women as a sign that they were eligible for marriage (see what I mean about a kimono showing age/social rank etc?) and have very long sleeves and are highly decorative. Men's kimonos mostly come in a more muted palette (brown, dark blue, black or grey) and will sometimes have a family crest printed, or in the case of more expensive kimonos, embroidered the back. A lot of the men's kimonos that we’ve come across have a plain silk outer shell and a much more ornate lining. They have various scenes (often hand-painted) of animals, people and landscapes and are a delight to turn inside out and wear on the reverse side. Sometimes the paintings are quite funny, we had a great one not so long ago that showed a whole load of men mooning the wearer, I wish we had taken a picture before it was snapped up!

a furisode kimono and a komon kimono

A furisode kimono and a komon kimono

Yukata and its origin

A yukata vs kimono is a much more casual robe and looks very similar to a kimono. The main difference is that yukata are mostly made from cotton and are (almost) always unlined. Yukata date back over 100 years. They were originally used by nobility to get to and from their baths before actual bath towels made an appearance in Japan. Yukata means bathing clothes, derived from “yu” meaning bath and “katabira” meaning under clothing. Yukata are generally a much cheaper garment than a kimono, I’m guessing that if you want to use your robe as a towel replacement you’re not going to want to spend thousands on a beautifully hand-painted silk kimono which will be ruined by contact with water.

women wearing a yukata in onsen town of kinosaki

Woman wearing a Yukata in the Onsen town of Kinosaki

Yukata are often printed with quite bold patterns and most of the ones that we’ve come across have been blue and white although today they come in a wide range of colours and patterns. They used to be dyed with naturally fermented indigo. Indigo dye is a natural plant dye produced by fermenting the leaves from the indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria is the most commonly used variety, in water. The fermented leaves are then drained and the now greenish water is mixed with a strong base solution such as lye. This solution is then beaten in order to allow the indigo to oxidise, producing the deep blue we know and love. The indigo water is then allowed to sit overnight to allow the indigo paste to form at the bottom of the vat. The excess water is drained away and the indigo paste is strained for impurities. Once the paste has been produced it can be stored for up to 2 years. An indigo vat is a living thing, requiring care and attention (you’ve gotta love ferments) but more on that another time, it’s super interesting! 

naturally fermented indigo production. Wool being dyed in vats

Cotton being dyed in vats full of naturally fermented indigo

Indigo has now been synthesised, but before this happened, indigo was an important and very valuable trading commodity and has been known as blue gold in the past. Indigo, along with Yukata, grew in importance in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) because the ruling class banned all commoners from wearing silks or brightly coloured clothing. Due to this, cotton production increased but cotton was much more difficult to dye than silk. The industrious commoners, who still wanted to wear some colour, quickly figured out that indigo was one of the few allowed colours that was also capable of strongly dyeing cotton and hemp.

Edo period shogun wearing a kimono vs a peasant wearing indigo dyed clothing

Clothing worn by a Shogun in the Edo period vs a peasant 

Printing the patterns onto yukata is an absolutely mesmerizing process , below is a video illustrating the process, and although I highly doubt that the cottons are still printed like this (so labour intensive!) you can see why vintage yukata are so valuable.

Video depicting the traditional process for printing yukata 

Kimono vs Yukata

To break down the difference between kimono vs yukata, simply put, a yukata is a cotton, unlined summer robe which can also be used as a dressing gown or a bathrobe. A kimono is a more opulent and formal (normally) silk or brocade robe which may be highly decorative. Kimono can be worn all year round by men and women and are often decorated according to the seasons. In summer you will find unlined kimono which are generally lighter and breezier and in winter you’ll find heavily lined, padded kimono. 

Silk kimono vs cotton yukata 

Yukata are generally only worn in summer, which makes sense since they are pretty much bathrobes. As they are normally unlined, they would be unsuitable to wear in the cold Japanese winters. When worn as a complete outfit, kimono will often also have a double collar. This is due to the juban (thin silk robe) which is only worn under kimono. The juban is worn with its collar slightly higher up the neck than the kimono, meaning a double collar effect is seem. Juban aren’t worn with yukata, although some people have been known to attach ruffles to their yukata collars for fun, although these look very different to the double collar of the kimono and juban combo.

kimono vs yukata picture showing the difference between the collars

Kimono vs Yukata - double collar on the kimono, single collar on the yukata

Another interesting thing to note when looking at the difference of kimono vs yukata is the choice of socks. Traditionally, kimono would never, ever be worn without socks, which means that if you see someone going without socks chances are high that they are wearing a yukata. Yukata are less expensive since they are often made out of cotton, so people see them as a less formal robe which is fun to experiment with. They are worn in bright colours, with more patterns and with interesting accessories that you might not find in a kimono.

kimono vs yukata. kimono wearing socks, yukata barefeet

Kimono being worn with socks vs yukata being worn without 

In general for Kimono vs Yukata

As a general rule for both kimono and yukata, young people will wear garments in bright colours with bold prints. The older you become the more mature the colours and patterns are. A child might wear a kimono or yukata with a multi-coloured, bright, patterned print, while a young women could wear a floral print and traditional, older women would keep to wearing darker, muted colours with geometric patterns. In general, men will often wear only the darker palettes, although some young boys garments are super fun and colourful. Due to their general inexpensiveness and fun prints and patterns, yukata have had a surge in popularity since the late 1990s. They are often worn to outdoor festivals and firework displays. If you ever stay at a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese Inn, kind of like a bed and breakfast) chances are high that you will have a yukata in your room to wear down to dinner or to take with you while onsen (hot pool) hopping.

3 different generations wearing different kimono

Three different generations of women wearing kimono and yukata 

We hope we’ve managed to answer the question of what the difference between kimono vs yukata is! DM us on Instagram (see below for link) with any question you might have. 

 Modern Archive xx

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