The history of the Japanese Kimono
Did you know? Many of our most popular fine art prints and posters were inspired by Kimonos and adapted from high definition photos of the garments.
Derived from the words ki (きもの/着物), meaning to wear, and mono (物), meaning thing, the garment has been a traditional and highly symbolic status symbol in Japanese culture for centuries. They range in styles and patterns and according to Kelly Richman-Abdou at My Modern Met, they are “typically hand-sewn into a ‘T’ shape from four single pieces of fabric called tans and tied with an obi, or belt”. The term kimono, however, did not come into popular use until the mid-19th century when Japan reopened its borders after two hundred years of self-imposed isolation. The more decorative and symbolic kimonos are traditionally worn by women.
The earliest record we have of Japanese dress is from the 3rd century. A Chinese document - Gishi-wajin-den (‘Records of Wei: An Account of the Wa’) – states that Japanese men wore a single piece of cloth wrapped around their body and worn over the shoulder, known as a kanfui, and that Japanese women wore a similar sleeveless outfit, known as a kantoi. The women’s kantoi is the earliest model of the modern kimono.
As the garment grew in popularity, it began to incorporate elements of Chinese fashion, especially Han, known in Japan as Hanfu, and it added small armholes for the wearer; the garment became known as a kosode. By the 8th century, the garment worn by women had multiple layers – the junio-hitoe had twelve – and men began to wear a tighter, plainer kosode. While it was the main choice of clothing for the Japanese aristocracy, commoners adapted the garment into a comfortable, tight sleeved kosade known as a tsutsusode, which was suitable for their daily lives.
The kimono was soon worn mostly by commoners or as undergarments for the better-off in Japanese society and by the 16th century, it had become the chief dress item for everyone in Japan. Various changes and alterations had been made, including the addition of longer sleeves and a thick belt to secure the multiple layers of the kimono, known as the obi. Kimonos soon began to reflect the Japanese concept of two lives – the omote, the public side, and the ura, the private side – and so men wore kimonos that were comfortable but functional, while women had more freedom to be expressive. The reopening of Japan’s borders in the 1850s made Japan’s social classes – samurai, farmers, merchants, and artisans – equal and the West influenced Japanese fashion, with men choosing styles popular in Europe and the US. The kimono became something associated with Japanese women.
Kimonos are made from a variety of different materials. Traditional, non-synthetic fabrics such as silk, hemp, and linen are preferred but you can also find kimonos made of modern materials such as cotton and polyester which were introduced to Japan during its Meiji period. Wool was a popular choice for every day-use kimonos. Many kimonos made during World War Two were made from rayon, a regenerated cellulose fiber made from natural sources of cellulose, such as wood, because it was easily available, cheap to purchase, and inexpensive to produce.
It is traditional for formal kimonos to be made from silk, which the Japanese call gofuku (‘wu’ refers to an ancient Chinese kingdom where the weaving of silk floruished, and ‘fuku’, meaning ‘clothing’) as bulkier, stiffer fabrics are considered informal. These formal kimonos often incorporate family crests into them to indicate the utmost formality.
The kimono’s multiple layers each represent an element of Japanese history. There are different types of kimonos that can be worn for different occasions, such as events, celebrations or seasons, and by different people to indicate their status, such as married women (their red-lined kimonos signify their marital status) or the seniority of a geisha or an older, well-respected woman (you can tell by how decorated their kimono is).
Wendy Wu divides kimono types into the following:
- Iromuji – Worn by married and unmarried women, this coloured kimono is mainly worn at tea ceremonies and is made from dyed silk.
- Homongi – Translated to ‘visiting wear’, this piece is often worn by friends of the bride at a wedding, both married and unmarried women. The pattern it is adorned with flows over the shoulders, seams and sleeves.
- Komon – The komon is known as the casual kimono and can be worn around the town shopping or in restaurants with a formal obi.
- Furisode – Colour patterns and designs cover the whole of the furisode and it is also known for their ‘swinging sleeves’, which measure out to an average of 39 to 42 inches. These are worn by unmarried women for formal occasions.
- Mofuku – This style is worn by both men and women as the traditional mourning dress. The plain black silk material is layered over white undergarments and all accessories are also black.
Kimonos are beautiful works of art, and are often decorated, woven, and dyed by hand.
Colour is a crucial part of Japanese culture as it has various symbolic associations. The dyes themselves are believed to embody the spirit of the plants they are extracted from and, as the Victoria and Albert Museum explains, “any medicinal property is also believed to be transferred to the coloured cloth. Blue, for example, derives from indigo (ai), which is used to treat bites and stings, so wearing blue fabric is thought to serve as a repellent to snakes and insects”. Two great examples are purple and red; the plant used to get purple has long roots so the colour came to symbolism undying love, and red signifies youth, passion, and allure, and is therefore the desired kimono colour for younger women.
Furthermore, in the 6th century Japan incorporated the Chinese idea of the five elements into various parts of their culture, including their clothing. Fire, water, earth, wood, and metal are associated with particular colours and denoted particular symbolic meanings: for example, black symbolised water, winter, wisdom, and the north, and so those who wore black kimonos became associated with those elements.
Like traditional woodprints, Japanese kimono motifs are usually inspired by the natural world and feature things such as flowers – flora such as cherry blossoms and maple leaves are seasonal – and fauna, such as bamboo and pine, which symbolised longevity as the plants live for many years and are relatively unbreakable. Other kimonos feature scenes from
mythology or classic/ancient literature, animals such as birds and butterflies, and delicate weather like clouds and snow. In more recent years, kimonos have evolved to reflect Japan’s modernity; boys’ kimonos tend to feature skyscrapers, cars, and airplanes. Human figures are very rarely depicted.
The most popular and enduring motif of Japanese kimonos is the crane. According to World Atlas, “the Japanese crane, also known as the red-crowned crane is one of the rarest cranes in the world. The bird gets its name from the distinct red patch that is found on its crown. In Japan, the crane is considered a “bird of happiness” that can live for a thousand years. The bird is also considered a sign of luck. The Japanese also believe that the crane carries the souls of the dead to paradise. As a result, in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese culture, the bird represents good fortune and longevity. It is also believed that if one completes folding 1000 origami cranes, one is granted one wish”.
Kimonos featuring white cranes, symbolising gratitude and helpfulness, are inspired by a Japanese fairy tale. There are multiple versions of Tsuru no Ongaeshi (鶴の恩返し, ‘Crane's Return of a Favor’), but its main message is one of thankfulness.
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