Traditionally associated with Japanese tradition, renewed interest in the kimono has given the garment a new lease on life with museums and design houses shining a modern spotlight on the silk statement piece.
Drawing influence from the textiles and silhouettes of the traditional garb, contemporary designers across the globe are paying homage to the kimono, adapting and transforming the Japanese garment with contemporary approaches.
“The kimono mind,” a term coined in 1965 by the architect-historian Bernard Rudofsky, has become an abiding metaphor for Western fashion designs liberating women’s bodies from previous constraints of old-world Japan.
History of the Kimono
Nara Period: 710–794
In the Nara period, Japan was heavily influenced by the Tang Dynasty of China and its clothing customs. At that time, Japanese women started to wear the tarikubi robe, an early ancestor to the modern kimono. The Japanese kimono of this period consisted of two parts; the upper layer, a patterned jacket with long sleeves and the lower layer, a skirt that draped over the waist.
Heian Period: 794 – 1185
This period saw fashion flourish in Japan, generating a new aesthetic culture with technological achievements that empowered the creation of a new kimono-making technique called the “straight-line-cut method.” This method afforded the kimono the ability to adjust to any body size or type. Suitable for all four seasons, kimonos could be worn in thicker layers to provide warmth in the cold winter months and in a single layer in the hot months of summer.
As time progressed and layering came into fashion, Japanese women began wearing kimonos of different colors, motifs, symbols, and color combinations together, reflecting the wearer’s social status, political class, personality traits, and virtues.
There are many ways to explain the both cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal of the kimono, one of the most persuasive being its all-inclusive and versatile attributes. Cut from a single piece of cloth, the T-shaped kimono can accommodate all ages, genders, and sizes, and can be worn as an overcoat, cover-up, blouse, or robe. An ability to communicate the kind of “data” one might find on a Google search today, kimono designs were a window into the roles members of society played.
Different materials, colors, and patterns indicated one’s gender, age, marital status, rank, socioeconomic level, and occupation.
Similar in use to the American housewife’s housecoat of the 1950s and 60s, historically, high-status Japanese women who wore traditional kimonos were largely confined to their homes and were rarely seen in public.
During this period, only members of the upper class could wear the jūni-hitoe, or ‘a twelve-layered robe, made of expensive colors and imported silk (pictured above). The innermost layer of the robe, called kosode, served as an undergarment. “Commoners” during this period, who were forbidden to wear colored kimonos with bright designs, wore simple kosode-style garments.
Ironically, however, female members of the lower and middle classes enjoyed more freedom of choice in their dress and the ability to come and go as they pleased.
Kamakura Period: 1185–1333
When the samurai class rose to power, a new eclipse of the Emperor’s court marked a new era as the new ruling class was no longer interested in this courtly culture. During this period, the Japanese dress aesthetic changed, moving from the extravagant clothing of the Heian period into a much simpler form. Samurai women were still inspired by the courtly formal wear of the Heian period, however, but adapted it as a way of displaying their education and refinement.
In tea ceremonies and gatherings, ladies of the upper-class, such as the Shogun’s wives, would wear a white kosode with five layers of brocade to communicate their power and status. Towards the end of the period, fully-cut red trousers called hakama began to be worn by upper-class women. Lower-class women were not permitted to wear the hakama pants of upper-class women.
Muromachi Period: 1336–1573
It was during this period that the wide-sleeved layers were slowly abandoned. Several versions of kosode, known as the katsugu and uchikake styles, were created at this time as well. By far, however, the most notable change to women’s fashion in this period was the abandonment of hakama pants for women. Instead, a narrow, decorated sash known as obi was invented.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period: 1568–1603
Japanese dress began to take a more elegant form during this period. With the kimono treated like a canvas, artisans and craftsmen unraveled new skills of weaving and decoration, without having to import the fabric from China. And by the early Edo period, new techniques of silk-making and embroidery had emerged, allowing the merchant class to feed the burgeoning fashion industry.
The Edo Period: 1603–1868
A time of unprecedented peace, political stability, economic growth, and urban expansion, people of the Edo era were wearing simple and sophisticated kimonos. Style, motif, fabric, technique, and color explained the identity of the wearer even more than ever during this period.
The kimono, which was tailored and handmade with less expensive natural fibers, was also reused and recycled until it was worn out. Thus, it was during this period that sustainability was born, making the kimono of the 1600s one of the first “green fashion garments.”
The ruling samurai class was an important consumer of luxury kimonos, and at first, these styles were only available to the wealthy class of women. However, it was not the aristocrats that were responsible for creating Japanese fashion in this period. It was instead, the merchant class’s increased demand for styles that reflected their growing confidence and newly found affluence that played an enormous role in the fashion of the Edo period.
In Edo, the Japanese kimono among the common people was characterized by asymmetry and large patterns. In contrast, the kosode worn by samurai ladies gave way to small-scale patterns.
While women of the lower classes wore their kimonos until they became rags, women from the wealthier class were able to store and preserve theirs and commission new ones. Thus, as the kimono became more and more valuable, parents began to hand them down as family heirlooms.
Kimono is connected to a world of pleasure, entertainment, and drama that existed in Japan from the seventeenth century through to the late nineteenth century, and Yoshiwara, the pleasure district, became the hub of the popular culture that flourished in Edo.
One of the great events of Yoshiwara was the parade of women wearing their new kimonos. Like the modern influencers of today, famous courtesans were fashion icons and trendsetters, whose styles were admired and copied by ordinary women.
During the Edo period, Japan enforced a strict isolationist policy known as the closed country policy. The Netherlands were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan, so they brought fabric to Japan which was incorporated into the Japanese kimono. The Dutch commissioned makers in Japan to create robes specifically for the European market.
But in the mid 19th century, Japan was forced to open its ports to foreign powers, leading to the export of Japanese goods including kimonos to the West.
Meiji Era: 1868–1912
In the Meiji Period, Japan underwent a period of intense modernization, which included the importation of textile and sewing machinery, as well as retail, marketing concepts, and Western influence.
Like the Japanese woman herself, the kimono has transitioned from its cloistered, closeted existence to one of inclusive appeal and global influence. In 1957, Cristobal Balenciaga’s sack silhouettes were all the rage.
The third wave of Japanism in fashion, represented by the works of Western designers like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano for Maison Margiela, joined pioneering Japanese designers including Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, and Yohji Yamamoto in the evolution of the kimono.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London presented a retrospective dedicated to the Kimono, the exhibition turned a spotlight on this emblematic garment from Japanese fashion beginning with the Edo era (1600-1868) to its introduction into western fashion and the contemporary interpretations anchored in pop culture.
Once the trade development of Japan with the West opened, Japanese fashion adjusted to western standards. When major ports in Japan began to open, a shift from kimonos to a more westernized style of dressing and the decline of men in Japanese kimonos began. Materials from the western trade such as wool, and the method of painting with synthetic dyes, became new components of the kimono. Elite women in Japanese society began to demand more expensive and exclusive garments from the west.
The Japanese kimono started to influence European fashion dramatically beginning in the early 1900s. And Japanese dressmakers started producing kimonos with new bold designs, known as “kimono for foreigners.”
Because the Japanese realized that women in Europe wouldn’t know how to tie an obi, they provided the garment with a sash in the same fabric. They also added extra panels into the kimono that could be worn as a petticoat.
As western clothing became the everyday dress for Japanese women, kimono fell out of favor, becoming a garment used only for special life events like weddings.
After WWII, the Japanese had all but stopped wearing kimono, as people tried to rebuild their lives. Opting for western-style garments, kimonos turned into a codified costume. People would wear a kimono for events that marked the different stages of life such as weddings.
In the allied occupation that followed the Second World War, Japanese culture became increasingly Americanized. Fashion design houses, inspired by the shape of the Japanese kimono, including Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo, Christian Dior, and Alexander McQueen recognized the timelessness of the kimono. This gave the kimono a rise in western pop culture, as performers like Freddie Mercury and Madonna gave the garment renewed global attention, earning the kimono a fascinating place in fashion history.
Modern Era: 21st Century
In 2008, denim kimonos were the stars of Tokyo’s fashion week when designers like Jotaro Saito reimagined classic Japanese tailoring with a twist.
In 2016, Nikkei Asia charted the emergence of more accessible, affordable kimonos that women can wear like shirts, skirts, and other western wear. Fashion house Maison Margiela took cues from kimonos for its men’s collection by incorporating antique obi into its looks.
During New York Fashion Week in Manhattan in 2016, models adorned in silk kimonos paraded down a concrete, industrial runway. Some were solid, clean, and bold, while others were covered in elaborate floral or animal embroidery.
Designer Bertrand Guyon created a kimono for the Schiaparelli haute-couture spring/summer 2017 season. The piece was made from a flower-petal molded silk organza gauze, embellished with striped silk twill. Elsa Schiaparelli, the house’s founder, often wore kimonos at home.
Hiromi Asai preserved Japanese kimono craftsmanship and introduced the garments as high fashion beyond the bounds of tradition. To Asai, the kimono is fashion fit for the runway.
Understanding the contours of the garment’s historical significance as a nexus between Japan and the West’s fashion cultures is important, which is why Asai’s mission to protect the kimono’s legacy of craftsmanship was so important.
Most recently, in 2022, Kimono Style: The John C. Weber Collection, an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, traced the transformation of the kimono from the late Edo period through the early 20th century.
This highly immersive exhibit follows the evolution of the garment and traces its relation to the West. Kimono Style features kimonos from a more formal time in Japan when society was highly codified.
Role of Kimono Today
Though kimonos are indelibly linked with Japanese tradition, they have become a cult fashion item in 21st-century America and Europe, and on runways throughout the world. The garment’s delicate patterns, vibrant colors, and striking silhouettes appeal to a fashion-conscious social media generation.
In Japan, the upsurge in kimono rental shops suggests a resurgence in this classic garment’s popularity on the streets of Kyoto. Normally reserved for formal celebrations such as weddings, a booming breed of young designers is offering a fresh take on traditional styles and patterns.
Kimono has always had a dynamic part in Japanese dress history. Not only does it fully embody traditional cultural values, but it also reflects the Japanese sense of beauty.