Kimono throughout Japanese History: The Construction, Parts, and Styles

Around the world, kimono are viewed as a very traditional symbol not only Japanese clothing, but Japan as a country and a specific culture as well. They have been worn for hundreds of years and—due to their typically formal nature—are most often worn during public or special occasions. The history of kimono can be traced back nearly as far as the fifth century. Around that time period, Japanese embassies were frequently sending emissaries to China in order to improve relations between the two neighboring countries as well as to import (and export to a degree) their more up-to-date technology and products. Because of Chinese advancements—compared to struggling Japan—this merchandise directly brought over became incredibly popular and sought-after by those with money and power, as they could afford in them both expenses and leisure. Therefore, the earliest known Japanese kimonos are currently believed to have been greatly influenced by traditional Chinese clothing of the time—then called kanfuku. These renderings were referred to as gofuku, literally “clothes of Wu.”

Fashions and styles dramatically changed over the following centuries, due to a variety of influences. By the eighth century, having an overlapping collar on one’s kimono was considered highly fashionable, especially for women. Up until the Heian Period, a half-apron called a mo was still typically worn over kimono, and by the Muromachi Period, a type of single kimono that used to be considered as a type of “underwear”—the kosode—started to be worn without the usual hakama, “trousers” or a sort of divided skirt. Typically the hakama was worn over the kosode, but now a type of belt called an obi was used to close the kimono. Finally, in the Edo Period, popular kimono fashion dictated that the obi be wider than before and the sleeves become significantly longer. Also, the way of tying the obi closed became something to pay attention to. These are commonly considered to be the last major changes generally made to the over-all structure kimono in history.

After World War II and during the subsequent American occupation of Japan, Western (specifically American) style clothes became the norm for every day wear and usage. They were not only significantly cheaper, but easier to put on and move around in, as well as cooler for the frequently hot and humid Japanese summers. Yukata also were worn more often, for pretty much the same reasons. An edict was even passed by the Emperor stating that Western style clothes now become the uniform for certain kinds of government employees, such as teachers, railroad men, and the police. It also quickly became the uniform style for members of the army. By the 1930s, school uniforms for both boys and girls were replaced with Western style ones as well. Nowadays, almost the Japanese population wears Western style clothes on a daily basis, with yukata being donned mostly for special occasions.

Surprisingly, kimono are actually are only made from a single bolt of cloth, a tan. This way—if necessary—because only one piece is used, another kimono can be tailored from the same material for another person. This fabric is traditionally 14 inches wide by 12 ½ yards long. There are four main strips that make up a kimono: two sections covering the entire body, and another two that are used for the sleeves. There are also numerous smaller strips that are used as the collar and to frame the larger parts of the kimono. The dimensions of the sleeves are controlled by the dimensions of the original fabric. Typically, the sleeves are not allowed to be wider than the base materials width—meaning that they can be smaller, and the length from the spine to the edge of the sleeve shouldn’t be more than twice of the width. Therefore, kimono sleeves were usually about 27 inches long by 14 inches wide. Recently though, due to the increasing average body size of a Japanese person, kimono material can now be found to be up to 17 inches wide, although still with the same length. People of especially large size, namely sumo wrestlers, must order their kimono custom-made because of the drastic increase in fabric needed. This is usually done by actually sewing two or more bolts of cloth together, using non-standard size cloth, or even having custom-width fabric woven.

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Kimono and its main accessory the obi are almost always made out of silk and other similar fabrics, such as silk brocade, silk crepes, and satin weaves. More modern ones are now made out of material that is easier to take care of, like rayon, cotton sateen, cotton, polyester, and other synthetic fibers. Traditionally, kimono are hand-stitched together, which obviously involves a substantial amount of work. Some can be made partly by machines, but individual sewing is still needed for certain parts.

The fabrics used to make kimono are usually decorated and dyed by hand. The yuuzen dye resist technique is most commonly used to put patterns that repeat over a large area on the cloth as its being made. With this, patterns are hand applied by either drawing or painting with specific textile dye or embroidery. Another type that more often used in decorating expensive kimono and haori jackets is the shibori method. This kind of intricate tie dye is created by binding certain parts of the kimono fabric together tightly, masking off other areas, and then dying it my hand. Afterwards, after the bindings are removed, an unusual and intricate pattern is produced. Because this requires a great deal of training, ability, and effort, this style of patterned kimono are incredibly expensive to buy. Formal kimono decorated with free-style designs that cover either the entire kimono itself or run just along the hemline. Informal ones, on the other hand, tend to have patterns either dyed or woven repeated throughout the entire kimono. Because so much time and effort is put into creating one singular kimono, they are made from such fine material, and the designs on them are so beautiful and intricate, kimono have been noticeably considered as great works of Japanese throughout history.

Kimono may be worn by both Japanese adult men and women; therefore, they are made in a variety of size to fit different types of people. Theoretically, men’s kimono should fall to about the ankle, without the need to tuck any extra fabric in anywhere. A woman’s, on the other hand, is especially long because some cloth is needed for a special tuck around the waist that can be seen just under the obi. This ohashori is used to adjust the size and length of the kimono to each individual wearer. The sleeves are also sewn so that they fall to exactly the wrist when the arms are lowered to the side.

Women’s kimono can come in a wide variety of styles, ranging in usage from formal to casual based on the pattern and color of the cloth. Older or married women tend to wear surprisingly simple kimono. Young women, however, dress significantly more elaborately, and their sleeves are much longer as well. These sleeves are only loosely attached to the main body of the kimono so that the bottom can hang over the obi around the woman’s waist easily enough. Other variations may depend on the kind of fabric used, the type and color of the accessories, and the number—or otherwise absence—of family crests or kamon. Running from the most formal to casual styles, silk is ideal while cotton and polyester are more common, and five crests showing the utmost respect.

ountless other little differences can also reveal information about the wearer—something that a woman has to keep in mind when picking out a kimono to wear for a special occasion. With these discreet messages, other people can easily find out whether the woman wearing the kimono is married or not as well as her age. There are so many different parts to a kimono and they are so difficult to put on that it’s almost impossible to be done alone. A typical outfit may be made of upwards of twelve separate pieces that must be worn, matched, and secured in a certain way otherwise they might not hold for very long, or they won’t look correct in the end. Oftentimes, professions kimono dressers who are actually licensed in putting kimono on other people can be asked to come and help. They are usually located in hair salons and frequently make house calls on customers. In the end, many women nowadays simply don’t know to put on a kimono at all, due to the fact that they are so intricate and they are only worn on fairly special occasions.

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Men’s kimono are far simpler than women’s, both in the way they are constructed, as well as the patterns and colors used on them. There is typically only one basic shape to men’s kimono that is unaffected by age difference, unlike the women’s. There are only about five different pieces involved in putting it on, not including the footwear added at the end. The sleeves are sewn on the body of the kimono directly, with a few unattached spaces at the bottom for room to move around. They also aren’t as deep as women’s sleeves, that way the obi around their waist isn’t hampered by them in any way. Men’s most formal type of kimono are made out of plain black silk with five kamon located on the back, shoulders, and chest. Those that are slightly less formal have only three kamon, and are worn with white-colored undergarments and accessories. Nowadays, the easiest way to distinguish between different kinds of kimono for men are in the varieties in the fabric that they’re made out of. They are traditionally made with fabrics of more subdued, dark colors, such as dark blue, green, brown, and even black. Sometimes there will be subtle patterns located throughout the cloth, or the fabric will be textured in a certain way. Recently though, casual kimono are starting to appear in brighter colors like purple and lighter shades of green and blue. Sumo wrestlers especially are known for wearing these kinds of bright colors, occasionally even going so far as a shade of fuchsia.

In the past, people chose which kimono they wore on a daily basis or on a certain occasion according to the individual and various meanings behind the colors and patterns on the kimono and underneath layering that were visible. During the Heian Period, kimono were sometimes worn with up to a dozen layers, and each sort of combination of colors would constitute a different pattern and be given a name and a meaning. The patterns on a kimono could also signify what season it was. For example, during the summer, water-type patterned kimono were often worn. In the autumn it changed to maple leaves; winter meant bamboo, pine trees, and plum blossoms, and spring was always butterflies and cherry blossoms. Nowadays, this tradition—as well as the meanings themselves—have all but been forgotten; people simply choose to wear whichever colors and patterns they personally like or think match best. Usually, a second kimono would be worn underneath the outer one to give the impression that the outfit was deeply layered. This second, inner kimono is called the hiyoku. Now, the lower half of the kimono is often double-sided for essentially the same purpose, and—although it technically isn’t the same—that part is still referred to as the hiyoku. Geisha and maiko are about the only ones who still practice this time-honored tradition anymore. Special emphasis on choosing the correct kimono and underneath layers is put in whenever they are attending dance performances or similar prestigious events. One particular practice that is almost exclusive to geisha and maiko is the habit of dramatically lowering the part of the kimono right behind the neck, allowing a tantalizing view of the back while entertaining customers.

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One of the reasons why kimono aren’t as popular nowadays as they were in the past is due to the excessive amount of money needed to purchase them, as well as to keep them in good condition and clean them too. Because it takes a considerable amount of time, effort, good materials, and honed skills to make just one kimono, they tend to be incredibly expensive. A complete kimono outfit consisting of the kimono itself, the necessary undergarments, an obi, socks, sandals, all of the ties and accessories can end up costing well over $20,000. Even just the kimono alone is about half of that price, and an obi is a couple thousand dollars as well. As a means of combating this, some overly artistic people have started making their own kimono, either by recycling older, used kimono or by using a simple standard pattern. Another more common method is by making the kimono out of a different type of fabric entirely. Usually machine-made fabrics are used because they are significantly cheaper and surprisingly easier to clean. Second-hand kimono stores have also recently become a fairly popular and thriving business in Japan. The obi, however, still continues to be a moderately expensive item. Simple ones with easy patterns or plain colors are relatively more affordable if cost is more important than appearance, but even used intricate ones can be upwards of a couple hundred dollars. Men’s kimono and obi, however, don’t usually cost nearly as much as a woman’s, even if they are made from the same material in the same way. Because there isn’t as much decoration, patterns, or colors to them—as well as there usually being less fabric to work with as well—they don’t traditionally cost as much comparatively, either bought new or used.

When a customer buys a kimono, or orders one custom-made for themselves, it is usually delivered with a certain type of stitches around the outside edges. These shitsuke ito are long, loose basting stitches are used to help prevent bunching, folding, and wrinkling, as well as to keep the kimono’s layers in alignment with each other. In between usages, when the kimono is being stored, special care is taken as to how it is folded so that creases are less likely to be created. The cloth is also wrapped in a type of paper—tatoushi—to help preserve the quality of the material as well. Also to make sure that the kimono doesn’t become stale or musty, it needs to be thoroughly aired out before and after each usage, as well as at least seasonally. Traditionally, when kimono need to be washed, they are taken apart into individual pieces, carefully and methodically washed, and then laboriously re-sewn back together by hand. This method, aria hari, was incredibly difficult and time consuming to do, therefore making it a very expensive process. Modern kimono that are made out of sturdier and simpler fabrics aren’t as particular and new ways of cleaning these types of kimono are being used. It is possibly for most kimono to be dry-cleaned, but considering the care involved, it’s very expensive. Still though, when it does come time for an owner to have their kimono washed, whether it been an expensive one or not, usually a trained professional is given the job, instead of attempting to do it at home.

Bibliography:

“Kimono.” Japanese Lifestyle. 3 Mar. 2010. Web. 1 July 2010. <http://www.japaneselifestyle.com.au/fashion/kimono.html>.

“Kimono.” Japan Zone. Web. 1 July 2010. <http://www.japan-zone.com/culture/kimono.shtml>.

“Kimono.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 20 June 2010. Web. 1 July 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimono>.

Layton, Julia. “How Geisha Work.” How Stuff Works. A Discovery Company. Web. 1 July 2010. <http://money.howstuffworks.com/geisha4.htm>.

“The History of Geishas.” ELanguage School. Web. 1 July 2010. <http://learnjapanese.elanguageschool.net/history-geishas>.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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