Kimono: The history and the present.
Updated: Jan 11
A Kimono is the traditional Japanese garment worn by women and men, with the word originating from the meaning, a "thing to wear" (ki meaning "wear" and mono meaning "thing"). The word started off as a characterisation for clothing. Any type of clothing. It is during the Heian period (794-1192) that the word Kimono began to be referred to the T-shaped robe garments that we know of today. Wide sleeves connecting to a long robe, made of various materials and in many patterns, this principal outer garment of Japanese dress, can be easily distinguished by eye.
The kimono originated as an undergarment, said to have been first introduced by China. Before, during the Nara period (710-794), It was typical to dress with separate upper and lower garments, which could consist of skirts or trousers.
The revolutionary kimonos began taking fashion as an outer garment during the Heian period when a new straight-line-cut garment making technique was developed. The method, which consisted of cutting the fabric in straight lines and sewing the cut pieces together, allowed for the wearer to not be concerned about themselves or the shape of the wearer's body. For a culture of people that commonly sit on the floor for meals, tea ceremonies and other traditional events, the freedom of being able to adjust its length by folding over the material and tying it with an obi or sash, [See my guide on "How to tie an obi."] or changing the width by wrapping more or less tightly to personal taste, in my opinion, this allowed people to feel comfortable and more free about their bodies, yet most importantly allowed them to get on with day to day lives. Its versatility is what made it such a huge trend.
Additionally, no fabric was ever wasted as each garment was created from a single cut piece of material, making it an economically sustainable fashion. The other advantages of the straight-line-cut technique meant that the clothing could be layered easily, making it a warm option for the cold weather months and a breathable option for the hotter months. It was very easily customisable, generally being unlined in the summer, lined in autumn and spring, and padded in winter.
The practice of wearing kimonos quickly became the popular fashion in Japan and the development of colour and pattern combinations, that we are drawn to so much, blossomed. People began using different colour and pattern combinations as a way to represent political classes that they were a part of, or as a way of representing seasons. The Edo period (1615-1868) resulted in people investing in highly expensive textile arts as an outlet to personal display and a means of channelling their wealth, due to the period's rigid laws on sumptuary. This was a time when wealthy people could not improve their social status or influence their hierarchy through their money, birthing a new market for the dazzling displays of beautiful clothing and materials.
Something that the Japanese have always been very proud of is their country's very distinctive, four seasons. It is only evident as to why they would use their garments to celebrate these seasons. Every distinctive season has so much ambience and colour that define it, and this is something that played a huge role in inspiring the people of Japan to experiment and embody these colours and patterns. Even warriors would make the battlefield look like a catwalk show, as they would wear kimonos in an array of colours representing their leaders. The kimono would become a personification symbol, an emblem of the lord you served, for ordinary citizens, an indication of your family background, decorated with the wearer's family crest, for example, something parents would hand down to their children as family heirlooms.
However, with the threat that these elaborate costumes created to the sumptuary laws, Japan ended up restricting fabrics and colours that stirred contest between the chōnin (“townsmen”) of the era. The use of subdued colour, subtle details and the development of elegant chic took over, with many people concentrating on the references portrayed on their garments. The most seen styles included fabric being elegantly embroidered with flowers, stitched with scenes depicting landscapes or scenes from literature.
Unfortunately, due to the Westernisation of Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the kimono slowly went out of style following the government's attempt at labelling the traditional clothing as an outdated and old-fashioned form of dress. There was actually a law in place for a short period of time, stating that government officials and military personnel had to wear Western clothing for official functions. This spiked a steep decline in the number of people that would wear kimonos,
and in recent times, there are only a handful of kimono artists left that are able to preserve the historic techniques of kimono making.
But, the kimono still lives on. It still remains as an instantly recognisable symbol of Japanese fashion.
Today, these garments have become the go-to inspiration to people all over the world. No fashion statement screams as much vibrancy and colour, yet simplicity and elegance as this. And with the recent trend rise in structural designs for the human body, the kimono makes a come back with innovation and cutting edge modernisation of the traditional shape and patterns that many high-profile brands and fashion designers like Alexander Mcqueen and Gareth Pugh are trying to replicate in their collections. The kimono being voted the "Top Fashion Trend" in 2015 (US), is clear evidence of this.
Today the kimono perseveres and is worn and adored by people of all ages, ethnicity and gender, around the globe, that are fighting to preserve the beauty, history and tradition of this art.