Kimono ( literally “something worn,” i.e., “clothes”) is the traditional garment of Japan. Originally the word kimono was used for all types of clothing, but it came to refer specifically to the full-length garment that is still worn by women, men, and children.
Kimono are T-shaped, straight-lined robes that fall to the ankle, with collars and full-length sleeves. The sleeves are commonly very wide at the wrist, perhaps a half meter. Traditionally, on special occasions unmarried women wear kimono with extremely long sleeves that extend almost to the floor. The robe is wrapped around the body, always with the left side over the right, and secured by a wide belt tied in the back, called an obi. Kimono are generally worn with traditional footwear, particularly geta (wood-platform footwear held on by a thong), and zori (a type of thong sandal, often made of straw), and split-toe socks called tabi. Beneath the outer kimono, another shorter kimono is worn as underwear, called a nagajuban.
Early Japanese textiles
Dyeing and weaving began in Japan during the Yayoi period. Sculptures (haniwa) left on or around burial mounds of the Tumulus period (250-552 C.E.) show both men and women wearing upper garments loose in the front and with close-cut sleeves; men wore pants and women, skirts. Japanese chronicles contain a record that in 188 the Chinese King Doman presented the Japanese Emperor Chuai with a gift of silkworm eggs, and that his son Yuzu later brought 25,000 subjects from 127 Chinese provinces to live in Japan. The Chinese Han chronicles, The History of the Three Kingdoms, reports that in the years 238 and 243 C.E., a Japanese empress presented gifts of brocades to the King of Wei. Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, c. 720) talks about the sun goddess Amaterasu weaving garments for the gods.
The oldest existing Japanese textiles are from the Asuka period (552 – 645 C.E.). Prince Shotoku Taishi (574-622 C.E.), introduced Buddhism into Japan and fostered an influx of culture and technology from China. A Bureau of the Palace Wardrobe was established in the Ministry of Central Affairs in 701, together with an office of the Guild of the Needle in the Ministry of the Treasury. There was also a Palace Dyeing Office in the Imperial Household Ministry and an Office of the Guild of Needleworkers and the Guild of Weavers. In 711 these offices sent experts to outlying provinces of Japan to teach local craftsmen how to make silk, brocade, and twill.
Handmade textiles were graded according to the thickness and quality of the thread. Material with designs woven by means of twill or plaited weaves was called aya; nichiki (brocade) was any material with a design woven of several colors. The Nihongi (c. 720) contains descriptions of the dedication of pieces of cloth to deities at Shinto shrines. The gifts were kept as sacred treasures, fashioned into garments for the priests, or used to decorate shrines or mount sacred pictures.
During the Asuka (550-710) and Nara (710-794) periods methods of sewing developed further, and clothing became longer and wider. There were three types of courtier’s clothes; formal clothes, court clothes, and uniforms, the colors varying with rank. Clothing during the Asuka period consisted of multiple pieces including upper and lower garments, a front skirt, a back skirt, and a jacket. Techniques for dyeing silk were also developed during this period.
Heian – Muromachi periods
The modern kimono began to take shape during Japan’s Heian period (794–1192), and the basic shape of both men’s and women’s kimono has remained essentially unchanged. In the Heian Period relations with China were suspended, allowing the development of a uniquely Japanese artistic style. The Chinese fashion of rich brocaded ceremonial robes changed to heavy layers of kimono, offering a glimpse of many shades of color at the neck, sleeve, and hemline. For ceremonial occasions the ladies of the court wore the juni-hitoe (“twelve layers,” although as many as twenty layers were sometimes used). A simple, unlined gown called the hita was worn over an undergarment, followed by a set of lined robes of various colors and combinations, called sugimi. Over that was a gown called an uchiginu, and a coat called an uwagi. On very formal occasions a very long train (mo) and a jacket might also be added. The ”Tale of Genji”, written around the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, an Japanese noblewoman, gives a description of the clothes worn by women at the Imperial court, and of the textiles seen in the temples at that time. Over two hundred rules governed things like the combination of kimono colors, how the colors of the outside and the lining should be harmonized, and the colors which were appropriate for each season of the year. Certain kimono colors associated with November to February, ume-gasane (“shades of the plum blossom”), were white on the outside and red on the inside. For March and April there was a combination called “shades of wisteria,” with lavender outside and a blue lining. Winter and spring had an outer garment of yellow and orange.
Court nobles of that time wore long trailing robes called sokutai, with large sleeves that were open at the end. Under this outer robe was an undergarment called the kosode, the forerunner of the modern kimono. Male aristocrats wore the noshi for formal occasions and the kariginu for everyday use; both were loose fitting and very large with long sleeves which hung to the knees. They might also wear hakama (long, baggy trousers). The earliest known kosode, found in the tomb of Fujiwara Motohira at a Buddhist temple, dates from the year 1157. It had narrow tubular sleeves and no front overlap. Today, the Imperial household still uses the costumes of the Heian period for the formal occasions of coronations and weddings.
During the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) the women of the samurai class adopted the simple white simple white kosode of the juni-hitoe as the principal outer garment. The sleeves were partially sewn up, and the kosodes were shortened by tying them with a sash across the chest. A handpainted scroll, the Kasuga Gongen reigenki emaki (c. 1309) shows upperclass women in elaborate kosodes. Towards the end of this period, women of the military class and the court also began to wear hakama. The Muromachi Era (1336 – 1573) saw the rise of a merchant class, and by the end of this period all social classes were wearing the kosode as their main outer garment except for formal ceremonies. For formal occasions a long outer robe, called an uchikake, which later evolved into a wedding dress, was used. During this period new textiles began to be imported from China, and the arrival of wool, velvet, and cotton fabrics on Spanish ships led to the development of new weaving techniques.
The basic design elements and decorative techniques still seen on modern kimonos began to appear during the Momoyama period (1573-1614), when wealthy landowners and warriors rose to positions of power and created a market for anything new and novel. The kosode was still worn in public, but the wives of the daimyo wore more elaborate clothing.
During the late Edo period (1603 – 1867) the process of yuzen dyeing allowed more complex images to be applied to the kimono. Possibly named for Miyazuki Yuzensai, a Kyoto painter, the process used rice-paste resist to prevent dyes from bleeding into each other. A design was drawn on cloth with juice squeezed from spiderwort plant, then the cloth was attached to the kimono and the outlines of the drawing were starched with rice paste. After treatment with a base coat of soybean juice to enhance absorption of the dye, colors were brushed onto the shaded and floral design areas. The cloth was then steamed for 40 minutes at a high temperature to fix the dye. The obi also became more important during this period, developing from a narrow band of cloth to a long, wide band tied in a bow. This change may have been inspired by the flamboyant costumes of a popular kabuki actor, Uemura Kichiya.
Realizing the growing importance of the merchant class, the shoguns enacted sumptuary laws to regulate expenditure on the extravagantly produced kosode, and to maintain dress as a sign of social status. The government enacted controls on what clothes could be worn by particular ranks and classes of people; on what occasions particular garments could be worn; and what clothes could be worn by people of specific ages and genders. Some of the rules were:
- Peasants could not wear silk.
- Only the grandparents of a child could give that child a dress made of cotton.
- The light summer kimono could only be worn between May 15 and August 31. A lined garment was to be worn between April 1 and May 15. A padded garment was to be worn between September 9 and March 31.
- The Emperor should wear ceremonial robes with large sleeves and a hakama with twelve figures represented on it. Otherwise he could wear grey and yellow when there was a pattern, and green when there was no pattern.
- A retired Emperor should wear a robe of liquorice yellow, or silk dyed with a mixture of wood nut, called tsurubami.
- Ministers of state should wear garments of tea color with simple patterns.
- Lords and nobles of the court could wear clothes of compound colors. Officials from the fourth rank up wore tea-colored clothes; fifth rank officials wore an undergarment of red; sixth rank officials deep green; seventh rank deep blue, and the lowest rank light blue.
In 1868, the Meiji Restoration began, and large-scale industry, electric weaving looms and new chemical dyeing techniques transformed the textile industry in Japan. The introduction of the sewing machine encouraged the production of Western-style clothes, and in 1871 ordinary people were granted permission to wear them. During the Meiji period, a woman’s kimono ceased to be worn in the free-flowing style of the earlier days. The new fashion was to tuck the kimono at the waist to adjust the length of the kimono to the woman’s height. These tucks and folds were visible and became part of the art of tying the obi.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) women began working outside the home and wearing a different type of clothing, but the late Meiji period saw a reaction to dressing in Western fashions. In 1923, a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo and collapsed a majority of the buildings, causing the destruction and loss of many of the old kimonos. In the late 1920s the Japanese government curtailed the production of silk in order to support the buildup of the military. Kimono production increased after World War II, but by this time Western dress was popular, and kimonos were largely reserved for ceremonies and special occasions like weddings and festivals. For the last several decades, Japanese women have found Western dress more practical, comfortable and economical than traditional Japanese kimono and obi attire. The trousseau of fine heirloom obi is no longer a part of modern Japanese women’s lives.
Kimono are T-shaped, straight-lined robes that fall to the ankle, with collars and full-length sleeves. The sleeves are commonly very wide at the wrist, perhaps a half meter. Traditionally, all women’s kimono are one size; wearers tuck and fold the fabric to create the fit appropriate for their body. Kimono are made from a single bolt of kimono fabric. The bolts come in standard dimensions, woven on a loom aabout 14 inches wide, and all the fabric is used in the making of the kimono. All traditional kimono are sewn by hand, and the fabrics from which they are created are also frequently hand-made and hand-decorated with various techniques such as yuzen dye resist (drawn right on the kimono, so that the design is placed exactly where it will be when the kimono is worn). Repeating patterns that cover a large section of the kimono are traditionally done with the yuzen resist technique and a stencil.
In the past, a kimono would often be entirely taken apart for washing, and then re-sewn for wearing. Modern fabrics and cleaning methods have now made this unnecessary, but sometimes the kimono is still washed in the traditional way. Long, loose basting stitches are sometimes placed around the outside edges of the kimono for storage, to prevent bunching, folding, and wrinkling, and keep the kimono’s layers in alignment.
There are styles of kimono for various occasions, ranging from extremely formal to very casual. The level of formality of women’s kimono is determined mostly by the pattern and fabric, and also the color. Young women’s kimono have longer sleeves and tend to be more elaborate than similarly formal older women’s kimono. Men’s kimono are usually one basic shape and are mainly worn in subdued colors. Formality is also determined by the type and color of accessories, the fabric, and the number or absence of kamon (family crests). Silk is the most desirable, and most formal, fabric; cotton is more casual. Kimono made of modern fabrics such as polyester are also more casual than silk.
Since kimono are traditionally made from a single bolt of cloth, larger sizes are difficult to find and very expensive to have made, requiring special looms. Very tall or heavy people, such as sumo wrestlers, have kimono custom-made. Today, both men’s and women’s kimono are increasingly available in different sizes.
Kimono can be expensive. A woman’s kimono may easily exceed US $10,000; a complete kimono outfit, with kimono, undergarments, obi, ties, socks, sandals and accessories, can exceed US $20,000. A single obi may cost several thousand dollars. Most kimono owned by kimono hobbyists or by practitioners of traditional arts are far less expensive. Enterprising people make their own kimono and undergarments since they follow a standard pattern, or they recycle older kimono. Cheaper and machine-made fabrics substitute for the traditional hand-dyed silk. There is also a thriving business in second-hand kimono in Japan, and second-hand kimono can cost as little as 500 yen. Women’s obi, however, mostly remain an expensive item. Although simple patterned or plain colored obi can cost as little as 1500 yen, more elaborate ones may cost hundreds of dollars, and they are difficult for inexperienced people to make. Men’s obi, even those made from silk, tend to be much less expensive, because they are narrower and shorter than those worn by women.
Kimono are never wasted. Old kimono are recycled in various ways: they may be altered to make haori, hiyoku, or kimono for children; the fabric may be used to patch similar kimono; larger pieces of fabric may be used for making handbags and other similar kimono accessories; and smaller pieces can be used to make covers, bags or cases for various implements, especially items like fans and the sweet-picks used in tea ceremony. Kimono with damage below the waistline can also be worn under hakama to hide the damage. There were even those skilled in laboriously unpicking the silk thread from old kimono and reweaving it into a new textile in the width of a heku obi for men’s kimono, this recycling weaving method is called Saki-Ori.
Today, kimono are usually worn only on special occasions, and mostly by women. A few older women and even fewer men still wear kimono on a daily basis. Men wear kimono most often at weddings and for the tea ceremony. Women wear kimono for ceremonial occasions such as Adult Day, weddings, funerals, festivals, and their child’s first day at school. Children are dressed in kimono for festivals and for special offering ceremonies at temples when they are three, five, and seven years old. Kimono are also worn by both men and women in certain sports, such as kendo. Professional sumo wrestlers frequently wear kimono because they are required to wear traditional Japanese dress whenever appearing in public outside the ring.
There are many kimono hobbyists in Japan, who even give courses on how to put on and wear kimono. Classes cover such topics as the selection of patterns and fabrics appropriate for seasons and events, matching of the kimono undergarments and accessories to the kimono, layering the undergarments to convey subtle meanings, and selecting and tying obi. There are also clubs devoted to kimono culture, such as Kimono de Ginza.
Modern kimono are not the elaborate affairs they used to be. Kimono worn for festivals and other informal events can be only two layers, or one with a false under collar and a slip. These informal kimono are worn with a simple patterned or single-colored obi. Full formal kimono are most often only worn by brides, geisha, or hostesses, or for very formal events.
Most Japanese women would be unable to properly put on a traditional kimono unaided, since the typical woman’s outfit requires twelve or more separate pieces that must be worn, matched and secured in prescribed ways. Professional kimono dressers still help women put on kimono for special occasions. Kimono dressers must be licensed, and while they often work out of hair salons, many make house calls as well.
The choice of which type of kimono to wear is laden with symbolism and subtle social messages. The specific choice relates to the woman’s age and marital status, and the level of formality of the occasion. In descending order of formality:
- Kurotomesode : a black kimono patterned only below the waistline, kurotomesode are the most formal kimono for married women. They are often worn by the mothers of the bride and groom at a wedding. Kurotomesode usually have five kamon printed on the sleeves, chest and back of the kimono.
- Furisode : furisode literally translates as swinging sleeves; the sleeves of furisode average between 39 and 42 inches in length. Furisode are the most formal kimono for unmarried women. They are made of very fine quality silk with patterns that cover the entire garment, and are usually worn by unmarried female relatives of the bride at weddings and wedding receptions, and at coming-of-age ceremonies (Seijin Shiki). Many parents buy the Furisode for their daughters to celebrate this significant point in a young woman’s life. Wearing a Furisode is an advertisement that the single woman is available for marriage.
- Irotomesode : a single-color kimono, patterned only below the waistline. Irotomesode are slightly less formal than kurotomesode, and are worn by married women, usually close relatives of the bride and groom at a wedding. An irotomesode may have three or five kamon(family crests).
- Hōmongi : literally translates as visiting wear. Characterized by patterns that flow over the shoulders, seams and sleeves, hōmongi rank slightly higher than their close relative, the tsukesage. Hōmongi may be worn by both married and unmarried women; often friends of the bride will wear hōmongi at weddings and receptions. They may also be worn to formal parties, such as galas.
- Tsukesage : a tsukesage has more modest patterns that cover less area—mainly below the waist—than the more formal hōmongi. They may also be worn by married and unmarried women.
- Iromuji : single-colored kimono that may be worn by married and unmarried women. They are mainly worn to tea ceremonies. The dyed silk may be figured (rinzu, similar to jacquard), but has no differently-colored patterns.
- Komon : fine pattern in English. Kimono with a small, repeated pattern throughout the garment. Somewhat casual: may be worn around town, or dressed up with a nice obi for a restaurant. Both married and unmarried women may wear komon.
- Edo Komon : Edo komon is a type of komon characterized by tiny dots arranged in dense patterns that form larger designs. The Edo komon dyeing technique originated with the samurai class during the Edo period. A kimono with this type of pattern is of the same formality as an iromuji, and when decorated with kamon, may be worn as visiting wear (equivalent to a tsukesage or hōmongi).
- Yukata : informal unlined summer kimono usually made of cotton, linen, or hemp. Yukata are most often worn to outdoor festivals, by men and women of all ages. They are also worn at onsen (hot spring) resorts, where they are often provided for the guests in the resort’s own pattern.
The pattern of the kimono also determines in what season it should be worn. For example, a pattern with butterflies or cherry blossoms would be worn in spring or summer. A popular autumn motif is the russet leaf of the Japanese maple (momiji); for winter, designs may include bamboo, pine trees and plum (ume) blossoms.
In contrast to the woman’s garment, men’s kimono outfits are far simpler, typically consisting of a maximum of five pieces, not including socks and sandals.
A noticeable difference between men and women’s kimono is the sleeves. These are completely attached to the body of the kimono or have no more than one to three inches left unattached at the bottom; whereas women’s kimono have very deep sleeves and most of their depth is unattached from the body of the kimono. Men’s sleeves are less deep than women’s kimono sleeves because an obi has to fit round the waist beneath them, whereas on a woman’s kimono, the long, unattached bottom of the sleeve can hang over the obi without getting in the way of it.
In the modern era, the principal distinctions between men’s kimono are in the fabric. The typical kimono has a subdued, dark color; black, dark blues and greens, and occasionally brown are common. Fabrics are usually matte. Some have a subtle pattern, and textured fabrics are common in more casual kimono. Casual kimono may be of slightly brighter colors, such as lighter purples, greens and blues. Sumo wrestlers have occasionally been known to wear vivid, bright colors such as fuchsia.
The most formal style of kimono is plain black with five kamon (family crests) on the chest, shoulders and back. Slightly less formal is the three-kamon kimono. These are usually paired with white undergarments and accessories. Almost any kimono outfit can be made more formal by adding hakama and haori.
Kimono Accessories and Related Garments
- Nagajuban A nagajuban is worn beneath the kimono. This is another kimono, usually shorter than the outer one, worn as underwear, complete with the long kimono sleeves, which are neatly fitted inside the outer kimono’s sleeves. Silk kimono are difficult to clean and often delicate, the nagajuban (sometimes just called a juban) helps keep the outer kimono clean by keeping it off the wearer’s skin. Only the collar edge of the nagajuban shows from beneath the outer kimono. Many nagajuban have removable collars, to allow them to be changed and easily washed, without washing the entire garment. Nagajuban are often as beautifully ornate and patterned as the outer kimono. They are considered ‘hidden smartness.’ Men’s kimono are usually subdued in pattern and color, but the man’s nagajuban allows him to discreetly wear a garment with very striking designs and colors. Men’s nagajuban sometimes have designs referring to samurai, such as samurai helmets, dragons, scenery (especially Mount Fuji scenes), auspicious animals, or text on them.
- Hadajuban A thin garment similar to an undershirt. It is worn under the nagajuban.
- Susoyoke A thin petticoat-like garment worn under the nagajuban. Sometimes the susoyoke and hadajuban are combined into a one-piece garment.
- Geta are wooden sandals worn by men and women with yukata. A slightly different style of geta is worn by geisha.
- Hakama is a divided or undivided skirt, rather like a very wide pair of pants, traditionally worn only by men but now worn also by women, and also worn in certain martial arts such as aikido. A hakama typically has pleats, a koshiita (a stiff or padded part in the lower back of the wearer), and himo (long lengths of fabric tied around the waist over the obi, described below). Hakama are worn in several budo arts such as aikido, kendo, iaido and naginata. Hakama are also worn by women at college graduation ceremonies. They can range from very formal to visiting wear, depending on pattern. While very formal women’s outfits do not include hakama, men’s usually do.
- Haori is a hip- or thigh-length kimono coat which adds formality. Haori were originally reserved for men, until fashions changed at the end of the Meiji period. They are now worn by both men and women, though women’s kimono jackets tend to be longer.
- Haori-himo is a tasseled, woven string fastener for the haori. The most formal color is white.
- Jūnihitoe is a twelve-layered-robe worn in ancient times by women at court. Today it is only worn during most formal occasions at court (imperial weddings, enthronement ceremony, etc.) or can be seen in museums.
- Hiyoku is a type of under-kimono, worn in previous times by women beneath the kimono. Today only worn on formal occasions (weddings, important social events).
- Kanzashi are hair ornaments worn in the coiffured hair style which often accompanies kimono. These may take the form of silk flowers, wooden combs, jade hairpins etc..
- Obi (sash)’ is a Japanese sash or belt used to wrap around a kimono or yukata. Obi are generally worn differently depending on the occasion, and they are usually more intricate for women.
- Obi-ita A thin, fabric covered board placed under the obi to keep its shape. Also called mae-ita.
- Datejime A thin, but stiff sash worn under the obi to keep its shape.
- Koshi himo Thin sashes tied to keep the kimono in place while getting dressed.
- Tabi are ankle-high, divided-toe socks usually worn with zori. They also come in a boot form.
- Waraji are straw rope sandals. Most often seen on monks.
- Zōri are cloth, leather or grass-woven sandals. Zori may be highly decorated with intricate stitching or with no decoration at all. They are worn by both men and women. Grass woven zori with white straps are the most formal for men. They are similar in design to flip-flops.
The type of kimono being worn determines the obi which will be used with it. The most formal obi are made of metallic or colored brocade or tapestry. Brocade, tapestry, and dyed silk obi are worn with the finest kimono, while obi made from raw silk, cotton or wool are used for everyday wear. Some obi have embroidered kanji characters on one end, with the signature and crest of the shop or obi designer. Stenciling and hand-painting, gold and silver leaf imprints or embroidery may be used to enhance the design of an obi or kimono. Japanese embroidery employs mainly satin, split and couching stitches, with a variation on the French knot used to add depth and interest. Sometimes the thread is covered in gold or silver foil. An unlined obi or kimono is called “hitoe” meaning “single layer; a double-layered is called “hara-awase.” Lightweight, gauze-like obi (karami-ori) for use in warm weather or with a casual kimono are made using an open weave technique. Another warm-weather obi is the Hakata obi, characterized by a series of woven stripes and named after the Hakata area in Kyushu where it is made.
The majority of obi produced in Japan today come from a district in Kyoto known as Nishijin, which has been the center of the Japanese textile industry since the fifteenth century. Nishijin is renowned for its brocade, twill and gauze production. The high quality brocade produced by the Nishijin artisans is known as “nishiki,” (“beautiful color combination”) and is characterized by the lavish use of gold and silver threads to make patterns of flowers, birds and traditional geometric designs. Another style of obi produced in Nishijin is “tsuzure” or tapestry. Both brocade and tapestry obis are the most ornate and expensive of all obi. As the kimono industry declines, fewer obi are produced every year and they are now prized by collectors.