Get closer to Japan by realizing its root in simple explanation. Now, let's take a journey of Japanese culture!
What are “Kimonos”?
These days they are considered the national clothing of Japan. When Western-style clothing came to Japan during the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), traditional Japanese clothing began to be referred to as “Wafuku” or “Nihonfuku”. These words were then replaced with the single word “Kimono”. “Kimono” literally means a “thing to wear” but as the years went by and Western-style clothing started to be worn more often, “Kimono” lost the meaning of “thing to wear” and became a word used to refer to “Wafuku”. The word “Kimono” is widely known around the world, more so than the word “Wafuku”.
By the 16th century, the clothing that the Japanese called “Kimono” also became known in Europe. Now the word is recognized and used in many lands today, not only in Europe. So, what is the history of the national clothing of Japan, “Kimono” ? A key word is “Kosode”, a basic robe and form of Japanese traditional clothing created in the Nara period, which was worn as an undergarment by the upper classes of society until the Heian period.
Let's see how “Kosode” transformed throughout the years.
Asuka / Nara period (592 - 794)
In ancient times, Japan was strongly influenced by China. Japanese envoys sent to the Tang Dynasty and the Sui Dynasty in China studied various cultures and religions. This also included clothing. The clothing of government officials and powerful families of the upper classes grew more vivid and magnificent. As well as being an undergarment of the upper classes, “Kosode” was also the working clothes of the common people.
Heian period (794 - 1185)
The system of sending envoys to the Tang Dynasty in China was abolished and gradually the country shifted to a uniquely Japanese style of clothing. The official names for the “Junihitoe” or a twelve-layered ceremonial kimono that women of this period are said to have worn were; “Karaginu-mo Shozoku (Chinese style jacket and train)”, and “Nyobo Shozoku (clothes worn by the women of the court)”.
With many layers of “Uchigi” (Kimono robes used by aristocrats), it could weigh as much as 20kg! Even today, in places like Kyoto, there are shops that offer the experience of dressing up in “Junihitoe”, and it is a very popular choice. Men's clothing was called “Sokutai”, a traditional ceremonial court dress, and “Kariginu”, a hunting costume for the nobles. Even today Shinto priests wear the “Kariginu” at festivals.
Kamakura / Muromachi period (1185 - 1573)
By the end of the Heian period, however, this graceful style of dress was gradually going out of fashion. As the era changed to a time where Samurai held power, clothing also changed to something more practical for battle. Men wore “Hitatare”, a flowing robe which is well known even today as the clothing worn by sumo referees. Women's dress simplified, omitting the “Hakama” or formal skirt and some other styles worn in the Heian period. Until the Heian period, “Kosode”, an undergarment, was being worn as an outer garment and “Uchigi” robes or “Hitoe”, an unlined silk robe and the most commonly made garment for women, was worn over top of that.
The “Kosode” is the original form of the modern Kimono.
Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 -1603)
Clothing again was simplified, with women wearing only “Uchikake”, a long outer garment, over the “Kosode”. Up to this point, patterns were woven into the fabric. In addition to this, fabric could now be dyed and embroidery was used to add variety and splendor. For men's clothing, “Kataginuhakama”, a sleeveless jacket with exaggerated shoulders, became mainstream. A “Kataginu” sleeveless robe and a “Hakama” skirt, similar to the women's, was worn over the “Kosode” robe and this was regarded as the formal uniform of a Samurai.
Edo period (1603 - 1868)
In the Edo period, through economic development and the hard work of merchants, new culture kept developing. Over time, “Kosode”, an undergarment, became the standard dress of the people. Rich merchants made elaborate “Kosode” that used bright colors and gold thread. It is said “Kosode” was perfected in this period, it's shape being almost the same as the modern Kimono. “Furisode”, or long-sleeved Kimonos, became popular among women and from this style, a long-sleeved bridal costume was created. Today it is the highly formal dress of young women, often worn to coming-of-age ceremonies and weddings etc.
Meiji / Taisho / Showa period (1868 - 1989)
In the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), Western-style clothing took root among people who often had the opportunity to meet people from Western countries. However, the Kimono was still the standard form of dress in everyday life. In the Great Kanto Earthquake of Taisho 12 (1923), many women wearing movement-restricting Kimonos were injured. After this, Western-style clothing also spread to women.
These days, wearing a “Yukata”, an informal cotton kimono, is easier than wearing a formal Kimono. Its original form was the Yukatabira, a single-layer absorbent bathrobe which had been around since the Heian period. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period it was widely used as nightwear, or as a way to absorb moisture after bathing in summer.
By the Edo period, it was a favorite style of dress for the common people. Yukatabira is called Yukata for short. These days you will often see Yukata worn to summer events in various colors, patterns and materials. If people from the time when Yukata was worn as nightwear or as a post-bathing outfit could see this, wouldn't they be surprised!
It's not common to see people wearing Kimonos on a daily basis, but there are many opportunities to wear them for ceremonial occasions. Especially at weddings, wearing a Kimono will increase the formality of the occasion and make people happy! At tourist spots there are often shops that offer rental Kimonos so you can walk around town wearing one!
This can be experienced even by those who don't own a Kimono or don't know how to put one on. As mentioned above, Kimonos were originally casual, everyday wear. Now, the Kimono is often thought of as formal wear but actually some stores sell Kimonos that can be more easily combined with Western-style clothes or leather shoes and are made from high quality denim or stretch / water-resistant fabrics. Additionally, adding lace collars to antique Kimonos from before the beginning of the Showa period, or wearing pumps or boots with a Kimono in a non-traditional way is a popular way to dress up a little more stylish than usual. Outside of Japan, it's also being included in overseas fashion!
We are very happy to see the Kimono worn with style, from a non-Japanese perspective. There is even a Kimono shop designing Kimonos that represent 196 countries from around the world for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Find out what kind of Kimono your country has! When you visit Japan, how about taking a walk while wearing a Kimono? By wearing the traditional clothing of the country you are visiting, you are sure to experience something extraordinary.
It is my opinion and summary. Please acknowledge that there are various opinions.