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CULTURAL TRADITIONS in FASHION 2. The Intricate History of the Kimono

 Vibrant colours, ornate patterns, and exquisite stitch-work are well known elements that can be seen adorning the traditional Japanese kimono. The kimono is still worn on the streets today, however the style of the garment has an extensive history in Japanese culture.


In the Heian period, which started in 794 AD, the kimono was worn by both Japanese men and women. It was considered unisex and was widely worn, though it didn’t receive its original name, the kosode, until somewhere between 1603-1638. The name kosode, which means ‘small sleeves’, was eventually replaced by the name ‘kimono’, which in Japanese literally means ‘thing to wear’, in 1868.



During the Edo period (1603-1868), the kosode garment indicated its wearer was Japanese regardless of their social status, which helped to identify non-Japanese visitors in the country in a time when Western empires were trying to capitalize on the goods of the East. However, whilst the original garment was simply a cultural indicator, it did indeed evolve to signify the class of the wearer. For example, it became that those of a higher class were more likely to adorn their kosode with bright colors and patterns, whereas a lower-class citizen would been seen in a simple kosode with little or no decoration. The aristocrats at the time were known for wearing Chinese characters (known as kanji) from literature to symbolize their status as it insinuated that they were well-versed in reading and fine arts.



Social status was not the only indicator tied to the kosode, with certain elements also nodding towards gender. The traditional cherry blossom design that is often seen stitched into intricate patterns on the kosode portrayed mortal feminine beauty and wealth. This type of kosode was only worn by sophisticated women during the summer season. With so many subliminal messages interwoven into the cloth of the kosode, books known as Hinagata-bons were created to serve as design guides to determine what each pattern symbolized. The Japanese would examine these books before choosing a design that would be custom sewn by a designer, making the kosode a wearable work of art.


Once Japanese culture was introduced into Western culture, wearing a kosode became more common and less tied to one’s social status. It eventually evolved into the modern-day kimono, though the boxy, structured style of the kimono did not take its familiar shape until the end of the 16th century. Particular interest from the West in this style of dressing came in the late 19th Century, which is interesting as it doesn’t fulfil the usual Western expectations of clothing to closely fit the silhouette. Instead, the kimono is designed to hang off the body of the wearer regardless of their gender.


1603-1868 (Edo): At this point in time, the kimono was still a strong indicator of gender and social class. Women were scolded for adorning their kimonos more than their social class permitted. Anyone dressing above their status was considered inappropriate, and wearing red kimonos was not allowed.

1868-1912 (Meiji): The Gregorian calendar was introduced in this era, bringing with it new styles of the kimono based on the season. During this time, Japan grew more modernized in its ways of life. However, the women continued to spend many hours cleaning the traditional Japanese garments, as each kimono had seven parts that had to be cleaned individually and sewn together.

1912-1926 (Taisho): Moga, meaning “the modern girl” introduced a new wave of feminine style during the Taisho era according to Frank. This wave brought on a sense of daring, rebellious attitudes by Japanese women as more people began to adopt Western styles, smoking, and other habits that were not formerly well-received in Japanese culture.




An onlooker who is well-versed in the symbolism of the kimono can easily tell the social status of the wearer simply based on the style of the kimono. The style of the kimono can tell a passerby the martial status (of a woman), what style of gathering they are attending, and their profession. Below we examine the most common types of kimono and what they represent.


Furisode and Komon: Both of these styles are worn by unmarried women, however the furisode is worn at a more special occasions, whereas the komon is a simple garment that can be worn in a casual setting. Below is an image of an ornate furisode which can be recognized by its colorful embroidery of plants, trees, and other elements of nature.

Tomesode (Kuro and Iro): This style of kimono is worn only by married women. It is a patterned garment that usually contains crests. The two styles of tomesode are reoffered to as kuro and iro, kuro being a formal piece and iro being a less formal, but still decorative, nonetheless.

Iromuji: Fit for tea ceremonies, the Iromuji is a simple kimono that can be worn by both married and unmarried women. This style of kimono is always worn in a solid color with the intention of placing focus on the event to which it was worn rather than the wearer.

Odori Katamigawari and Susohiki: Both styles of kimono are worn by dancers or performers. However, the Katamigawari is the traditional kimono of a Japanese dancer, recognizable by its fabric and unlined design to allow its wearer to move more freely.


Uchikake: One of the most formal styles of kimono, the Uchikake is typically worn over top of additional garments and is only worn by brides or performers. This garment does not feature any belt or ties and comes in many bright colors.


HOW the KIMONO is WORN in the 21st CENTURY 


Although it is less common to see people walking the streets of Japan in kimonos, the 1990s has seen a revival of its wearing amongst the youth to summer festivals and events. Here the traditional kimono is paired with trendy shoes and decked out with other modern twists. What we must be aware of, though, is appropriating (LINK TO THE ARTICLE in United Colours of Fashion, Appropriating and Appreciating] the treasured history of the kimono and kosode, or trivializing it for Western social events without understanding the deep thought behind its patterns and shapes.


The kosode and kimono carry a rich past between them, but what they truly represent is how one article of clothing can be altered to show the personality of the wearer. This is something we can look to in the modern day, ensuring that we treasure our clothes and recognize what they say about us, rather than viewing clothes as a seasonal trend to dump when the next new thing comes out.