Fashion is the history of society, and clothes speak volumes about the wearer
The kimono, especially, is a form of communication. Japan is often described as a “high context culture,” where a shared culture and non-verbal cues convey more than words. A kimono serves as a canvas to display the wearer's taste, mood, social status, wealth, the seasons and the occasion. As fashion influence shifted from the nobility to the merchant classes during the Edo period (1603-1868), the kimono was at the center of change.
Over centuries, the kimono has evolved and influenced fashion designers around the world. The shapes, the patterns and the culture of kimono are as relevant as ever. It is at once a piece of everyday clothing, a national symbol and an enduring fashion icon.
A Short History of the Kimono
The kimono began as a simple unisex garment. The kimono as we know it wasn't called a kimono (literally a “wearing thing”, or clothing), until the Meiji period (1868-1912); it was previously known as a kosode, meaning small sleeves. It was often worn with a divided skirt (hakama) over the top and a sash to fasten the waist. Chinese fashion influenced the style of kimono and the way it was worn in the Nara period (710-794). However, by the Heian period (794-1185), Japan was focusing inward, and the kimono developed into something closer to what we regard it as today.
While the common people wore simple kosode robes in muted colors and simple prints, members of the imperial court wore more elaborate, multi-layered styles on formal occasions. Colors and patterns indicated everything from rank and social status to age, marital status, the occasion and the season.
During the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, kosode evolved from inner-wear to elaborate outer robes for the nobility. Designs reflected the power of warlords like Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who decorated their robes with fearsome animals, strong patterns and bold family crests, rendered in gold leaf and metallic threads.
Why the Kimono Endures
As a fundamental form, a kimono is a T-shaped robe, made of straight lengths of fabric. The length can be altered and the fabric repaired, providing an early example of sustainable, custom fashion. Unlike most western garments, a kimono is basically unisex and unsized. It covers, rather than reveals the body, putting the emphasis on its surface decoration.
This blend of simplicity, flexibility and self-expression is at the heart of the kimono's endurance; never specifically in fashion, it is never out. The wearer is free to customize: to layer patterns, change the fit, deconstruct and accessorize. We can see its influence in everything from the colorful wrap dresses of Diane von Furstenberg's New York career women to the Jedi costumes of Star Wars.
While we might associate kimono with tradition and formality, when they were first brought to Europe in the seventeenth century, they represented freedom. Without buttons, laces, or high collars, kimono garments were radically different to the prevailing fashions. Traders brought sumptuous padded kimono robes (uchikake) back to Holland as indoor wear for men, and they were soon adopted as symbols of wealth and leisure. We can see examples in the paintings of Hoet, Vermeer and Rembrandt; the kimono was high fashion for the wealthy classes.
Interest in the kimono flowered again in the late nineteenth century, as the enthusiasm for “Japonism” aligned with the rise of modern design and thought. The simple shape influenced key designers who were looking for a new approach to garment construction. We see the kimono in the flowing lines of dresses and coats by Poiret and Vionnet in the 1920s, as fashion moved away from the corseted, body-conscious styles of the Edwardian era.
The Edo Period: Kimono Design and Social Status
During the Edo period (1603-1868), kimono style grew in sophistication. While certain colors and brocades were restricted to the nobility, growing wealth created demand for luxury among the merchant classes. Although they were lower in the social order than the samurai families, they often had more money; nouveau riche with cash to splash on fineries. They started to drive kimono fashion towards bolder, art-influenced styles. The exhibition "Kimono: Fashioning Identities" at Tokyo National Museum has some fine examples, including the “Fuyuki Kosode”, a kimono that belonged to a lumber merchant family in Tokyo. The hand-painted pattern of autumn flowers and grasses is by Ogata Korin, a famous artist of the time, who was boarding with the family (please check the museum website for updates on exhibition schedules).
With advances in printing, performers became glamorous fashion leaders, disseminating their taste through performances and colorful wood block prints called nishiki-e, much like the movie stars and influencers of today. Kabuki actors and courtesans wore brighter, more elaborate kimonos than the general public. The new color printing techniques made wood block prints affordable and what appeared on stage was quickly picked up by the merchant classes, before trickling up to the ruling classes. There are fine examples of these prints at "The World of Tradional Performing Arts: Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh and Kyogen, Gagaku, Kumi-odori" at the Tokyo National Museum. (Please check the museum website for updates on exhibition schedules.)
As Japan closed itself to outside influences, new techniques developed, including yuzen dyeing, to imitate the costly process of hand-painting, while subverting sumptuary laws. While the ruling classes tried to impose restrictions on colors and materials, the merchants got around these rules by wearing them under plain outer layers, showing just a flash of color at a sleeve or a hem.
Modern Japanese Fashion and Kimono
During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan opened up to international influences and began to modernize every part of society. It was a fascinating period for fashion, mixing Japanese and western styles. Men were encouraged to wear western clothing, and women to wear a kimono. Technological advances from the west brought new printing techniques and synthetic dyes that allowed brighter colors. Through the Taisho era and Showa eras, modern art movements, along with cheaper Meisen silks, encouraged the bolder patterns that are coming back into fashion today, as young women explore retro fashion.
"Fashion in Japan 1945-2020" at the National Art Center Tokyo, explores these changes, and the influence of kimono shapes and techniques on contemporary Japanese fashion from the sophisticated use of yuzen patterns by Hanae Mori, to Yohji Yamamoto and the avant-garde designers of the 1970s, to the kawaii trends of recent times. (Please check the museum website for updates to exhibition schedules.)
Contemporary Kimono to Street Fashion
Nowadays, a kimono is mainly worn for special occasions: weddings and funerals, graduations, 20th birthday ceremonies and traditional pursuits like tea ceremony and ikebana. But its influence on fashion is strong. Young women buy vintage haori (kimono jackets) to wear with jeans, and international designers draw on the classic shape and motifs. From the alien exoticism of Alexander McQueen's kimono for Björk to Thom Browne's kimono suiting and Christian Louboutin's obi silk platform heels, western designers continue to find inspiration in this timeless garment. Young Japanese designers are bringing the kimono to a new generation, with bold, casual styles, like the graphic prints of Hirocoledge by Hiroko Takahashi and the punk designs of Tsukikageya.
The kimono featured in the article will feature at the "Kimono: Fashioning Identities" exhibition at Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park).