Why do Japanese People Wear Kimonos? A Kimono History

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Beauty Wearing a Kimono With a Pattern of Waterwheels in Waves

Nami ni goshoguruma moyō no tachi bijin
Beauty wearing a kimono with pattern of waterwheels in waves
Kaigetsudō (1710-1720)

Kimonos, probably the most recognizable Japanese article of clothing, have always been known for their exceptional beauty. It is easy to see why this enduring symbol of Japanese culture has been appreciated by the Japanese and the world alike. History has stood witness to the evolution of this highly prized symbol of Japanese culture as the kimono underwent a number of revivals in previous decades.

To understand why the Japanese wear kimonos, it is important to know the history of kimono itself. Kimonos date back to the Heian period. The dress is representative of polite and formal clothing and is worn for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, and tea ceremonies.

In modern-day Japan the kimonos are not every day wear accept for maybe the elderly. More often kimonos are kept aside to be worn during festivals and to mark important occasions. The kimono has undergone many changes since it was first adopted in the Heian period and has become a symbol of Japanese culture. Keep on reading to discover more about the history of this exotic garment and how time has shaped the way it has been worn over the centuries.

Heian Era – The Kosode Became the Forerunner to Modern Day Kimono

It was during the Heian era that the Chinese influences were at their height in Japan. It was also the period that was considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for the artistic sense and cultural developments that evolved during this time.

During the time, the court nobles wore long trailing robes with sleeves that were large and open at the end. Under this outer robe, they also wore something akin to an undergarment called the kosode. The kosodes were loose-fitting, open and airy, and had long sleeves, which almost hung to the knees. Some of them also wore hakama, which were more like long baggy trousers.

The kosodes were the precursors of the modern-day kimono. After a certain time, it became more fashionable to wear the kimono without this hakama. Instead, a wide sash called obi was worn around the waist that helped bring the dress together. It would be tied at the waist to hold the robe.

In The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu writes about the types of clothing worn in the royal court, giving her readers an insight into the types of clothing worn during this period.

Kamakura Period – Kimonos Began to Be Used as an Everyday Clothing Article

In the next period of Japanese history, the Kamakura period, kimonos had become a clothing of choice by the people of Japan. The people in the Kamakura period also began to layer their clothes to accommodate the vagaries of the changing seasons and soon, it became a fashion.

This is also the period when the traditional Japanese color combinations were born. Each color had a different symbolic meaning and would also be based on seasons, gender, or even political and family ties. Warriors would also dress up in kimonos and the colors of the kimono would indicate the soldier’s rank.

Edo Period – Kimono Making Became a Specialized Art

The kimono that became an everyday clothing article in the previous Kamakura era evolved further in the subsequent Edo period, making kimonos a specialized craft and some of them becoming great works of art.

The country had many feudal domains ruled by lords, and each domain had its own samurais. The samurais were identified by the colors and patterns of their uniforms. The colors representing the feudal domain that these samurais came from would be reflected in the uniforms. They consisted of a kimono, layered with a sleeveless garment known as a kamishimo, and finally, the hakama.

As the demand for kimonos began to increase, kimono makers had to specialize in their craft by producing high-quality kimonos in less time. Kimono making grew into an art form, and went on to become extremely valuable; so much so, that parents began to hand them down to their children as family heirlooms.

Meiji Period: The Decline in the Popularity of Kimono

In the twentieth century, Japan entered the Meiji era. Japan saw itself slowly moving from being an isolated feudal society to one that was heavily influenced by foreign cultures. As a result of this, there was an adoption of radically new ideas that impacted Japan profoundly. The social and political fabric of the nation saw a massive transformation.

The popularity of the kimono that was worn as an everyday item gradually began to fade. Even though the technology of the time allowed for faster production and cheaper raw materials and manufacturing methods allowed more people to afford silk kimonos, Western clothing gained more dominance.

People encouraged the government to adopt Western clothing habits, and government officials and military personnel were required by law to wear Western clothing even for official functions.

Kimonos were still the norm for men and women at home. Civilians continued to wear kimonos outside, but they restricted it to formal occasions only. The became heavily ornamented with the wearer’s family crest identifying their family background.

The Modern Day Kimono

The literal translation of the word kimono means “the thing to wear.” It is derived from the two words, “ki,” which means to wear, and the noun “mono,” which means “thing.” The modern-day kimono has not changed much from the dress that was adopted in the Heian period. It is a simple, large, open, and straight-seamed garment that is worn like a robe and secured with the help of an obi – a wide sash.

There are various nuanced ways in which the Japanese like to style their kimonos. For instance, the length of the garment can be altered by drawing up any excess fabric and tucking it under the obi, or by pulling back the collar of the dress so that the nape of the neck is visible.

Kimonos are also wrapped uniquely, with the left side of the robe folding over the right. This allows for ease of movement, especially in a culture where many activities are performed while seated on the floor. The dress allows for agility while also making its wearer look elegant and graceful.

Unlined kimonos are mostly worn during the humid summers of Japan. In contrast, multi-lined kimonos made of heavier cloth materials, such as wool fabric, are worn to brace against the harsh winters.

The Symbolism of Patterns and Colors on Kimonos

In kimonos, it is largely the pattern and colors, rather than the garment cut, that is most significant. It is an indication of the social status and personal identity of the wearer. Colors are also used to symbolize special occasions and the cultural practices of the people.

The kimono, having originated in the imperial courts of Japan, was initially worn by the elite. Even to this day, the more luxurious kimonos are reserved for the higher class. Majority of the populace would wear silk kimonos only on special occasions.

Images used on kimonos also carry a deep meaning. Specific motifs are used to indicate not just the social status, but also the many attributes of the wearer. It also relates to the season and occasion during which the kimono is worn and is believed to bring good fortune to the wearer.

Colors Also Add Significance to the Kimono

The Japanese people have a heightened sensitivity to color, and this can also be seen in the kimonos they wear. Colors carry a lot of information in Japanese culture – from the seasons to the political class to which one belonged.

They have a strong metaphorical and cultural meaning and each color is believed to embody the spirit of the source from which they are extracted. For example, if color is extracted from a medicinal plant, then the medicinal property of that plant is also believed to have been transferred to the colored cloth.

The concept of the five elements of the universe gained a cosmological dimension in Japan. Each of these elements, fire, earth, wood, water, and metal were assigned a color and each color came with its own virtues.

The color black in Japanese culture, for example, symbolizes water and wisdom. It also represents the direction north and the winter season. Red signifies prosperity, youth, and glamour and is often chosen to be worn by young women.

The Importance of Motifs on Kimonos

Kimono pattern-cranes, chrysanthemums and traditional wave patterns

Kimono motif
cranes and chrysanthemums, traditional wave patterns

The natural world is a rich source for kimono motifs–beautiful decorative images or designs sometimes repeated forming a beautiful pattern. The motifs borrow heavily from the flora and the fauna that is readily found in nature.

Birds such as the crane, and flowers such as peonies, wisteria, and hollyhocks are frequently used to print on the garment. Many of these flowers, such as cherry blossoms, also carry a seasonal significance. It indicates the onset of spring after a long and difficult winter.

Winter, too, finds representation in pine, bamboo, and plum motifs that symbolize an evergreen life, resilience, and hope. The plum is particularly favored for winter kimonos, as it suggests that spring is not far away.

Animals, butterflies, trees, and birds also appear on the kimono, along with other natural elements such as water, mountains, streams, snow, and clouds.

One of the most popular bird depictions on the kimono is the crane. It is a widely accepted belief that the crane lives for a thousand years inhabiting the land of the immortals. Therefore, it is considered a symbol of longevity and good fortune and is used as a preferred choice of motif to be printed on kimonos.

From the early 20th century, motifs began increasingly graphic in nature with kimonos depicting Japan’s modernity and progression through the pictures of airplanes and skyscrapers. In the 1930s, these very motifs became increasingly nationalistic and militaristic to inspire the people of Japan in the times of war.

Inscribing Poems and Stories on the Kimono

The elements of the natural world are given strong poetic associations. Kimonos have been used as a medium to portray these ties. Landscapes inspired by popular folklore and classical literature have also found its way into the kimono.

There is a prominent absence of human figures on the kimono. It is rare to find a human figure drawn on a kimono even though much of the folklore and other stories revolved around humans. To compensate for that, there are objects strewn all over the print in the fabric, such as a dropped fan, or a leaning parasol to indicate the human presence in the scene.

The Significance of White Kimonos

The white kimono, known as Shiro Shozoku, has a somber significance in their culture. Many Japanese people will wrap more than one loved one in this traditional burial garment. It symbolizes the final journey that they take after death. This practice originated as a mix of Shinto and Buddhist tradition.

The burial garment will have the sutras written on the inside and folded in a right-over-left. This is a deviation from the general practice where the garment is folded left-over-right. The attire will be complete with a triangle-shaped headband, a bag containing ferry passage for the river Sanzu, and a walking cane along with coverings for the legs, arms, and back. Lastly, a string of prayer beads is placed in the hands of the deceased.

Apart from the funeral, there are a few other occasions where the white robe is used. Shinto priests adopted the white kimono and named it “jōe,” meaning “purified robe.” Buddhist priests also followed suit and called the same white kimono “kyōkatabira.” White became the color of purity, and brides on their wedding day would also wear a white kimono called “shiromuku.” The term shiromuku literally translates into “white purity.”

This was eventually adapted for use in the bathhouse as well and the same white dress was called “yukatabira,” a word that was later shortened to yukata. It is a light kimono that is still being worn in Japan today. Wearing a white kimono is a visible sign of cleanliness and purity and is generally worn by only three classes of people; priests, brides, and corpses.

Wearing the Kimono Correctly

The left side of the robe needs to be folded over the right. The right-over-left style is reserved solely for corpses. People who are alive should always fold their kimono left-over-right. The video below shows how to wear a kimono correctly:

The origins of this practice strangely lie in class distinction practices observed in China. The way you folded your kimono gave away your rank. By folding your kimono left-over-right, you give yourself more freedom of movement. This was useful for those who worked in the fields. The elite folded their kimono right-over-left and hobbled around to show that they did not need to work for a living.

Death, however, knows no distinction of class and rank. The Japanese tradition dictated that all dead people, no matter what station in life they came from, belonged to the elite class and folded their kimonos right-over-left for the final journey ahead.

Men’s Formal Kimonos Are Expensive

Due to the complexity of wearing the kimono, and the costs involved in obtaining a good quality kimono, there has been a gradual shift towards attires that are more easily obtainable and easier to carry.

Kimono fell out of fashion during the Meiji Period when the government encouraged people to adopt Western clothing styles. Emperor Meiji’s edict required police, railroad men, and teachers to switch to Western clothes. Western clothes soon replaced the kimono wearing school boys and army personnel.

In modern times, the yukata, a simplified version of the kimono, is more commonly used as everyday wear.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you have found this blog post helpful in understanding why the Japanese people wear kimonos and the history of the garment itself. Kimonos have also been heavily influenced by the complex and culturally significant relationship Japan has with color.

Even though the Japanese people do not wear the kimono as often as they used to, it is still an indispensable garment when it comes to special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or tea ceremonies.

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