You Are What You Wear – a brief introduction to the kimono

The first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word Geisha is for many the mysterious and extravagant kimono. Being highly interested in fashion, I have always been fascinated by the luxurious fabrics and seemingly advanced structure of this piece of traditional Japanese clothing. What is the origin of this wonderful garment and what role have Geisha played throughout its history? These will be the two main questions I will try to answer in this paper. I will therefore firstly give an introduction to the historical background and then move on to the importance of Geisha in the development of the kimono in more recent times.

The History of the Kimono

The kimono is always mentioned when talking about the traditional Japan and its symbols, and very rightfully so considering that the garment cannot be found anywhere else in the world in this specific style. As with anything else, the kimono does however of course have a history and an origin, things that might lead us outside the boarders of Japan itself, as we will soon see.

The robes constructing the kimono has been securely traced back as far as to the era of Kamakura in the thirteenth century, here seen as a part of the warriors outfits in the shape of outerwear. Even further back, something that resembles the garment has been spotted in paintings mainly on people belonging to the lower castes in society such as servants and labourers. This implies that what later would become the clothing of the rich, made up by luxurious silk fabrics and extravagant embroideries might have its origins in the simple worker’s outfit. In fact, what we today believe to be a traditional Japanese garment is very likely to have its roots outside of the country, in the many flourishing early cultures of South-East Asia. The reasons for these suspicions is the fact that similar T-shaped coats have been found in earlier civilisations in countries all over the region, China holding perhaps the strongest evidence of this. Figurines of servants wearing kimono-like garments have been found in tombs dating back to the Han dynasty, which took place 206 B.C. – A.D. 220 (Liddell, 1989, p.1).

Japan, as many other countries at the time, was highly influenced by the great empires in China and it is through this admiration that we can see the adaptation of language and art, as well as clothing. Come the eighth century and the Nara period of Japan, the influence from China became greater and greater and the way of dressing was now more and more turning towards a Chinese style within the court. The so-called Yoro Clothing Code of 718 can be considered one of the earliest steps of the development of the kimono. Though the kimono later on in time was to become a garment for both men and women, what we see at this time in history is that the early adaptation in fact was for women only, men wearing a slightly different style of clothing (Dalby, 1993, p.27-28).

The first wave of Chinese influence on Japanese clothing continued up until the tenth century when Japan closed itself somewhat to outer influence. This meant that the garments now took on a more unique Japanese form, the development of course constantly continuing. At this point in time women wore many layers of robes on top of each other. What is interesting is that women throughout history, and even still at this time, wore trousers underneath the robes, something that would continue to be a feature for quite some time to come. What is also worth noting is that the kimono as we know it today in fact derives from one of the robes worn as an underwear layer at this point in time. The garment was called kosode, a name literally meaning small-sleeved, and was to begin with very simple and plain white (Dalby, 1993, p.33).

As time went by the extravagance of layers of robes started to disappear, leaving space for a more simplified way of dressing. Come the Kamakura period (1185-1333) a great change in women’s clothing can be seen. All of a sudden the aforementioned underwear kosode became a highly visible garment, worn together with so-called hakama-trousers and a single gown known as uchigi. As the Muromachi period took on, the development of the more simple kosode went even further, the women now abandoning the hakama-trousers, leaving the simple robe as the centre piece of the female dress code. The abandoning of the hakama-trousers also meant the birth of a very central piece in modern kimono style, namely the obi. The trousers had functioned as a way to hold the robes together, meaning that when these were dropped a new way to do this had to be developed. The first obis were a lot more narrow and simple than the ones we see today (Dalby, 1993, p.36).

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Up until this point in time, the main developers, if you may, of the clothing style had been the court ladies. Come the sixteenth century a new source of inspiration sprung to life, namely that of the courtesans. These ladies were somewhat more extravagant in their style and took a lot of influences from China in the development of their way of dressing. Once again the great empires of China became a great source of inspiration and we here see the robes becoming more and more luxurious again.

What is interesting when studying the development of the kimono is what parts of the historic garment were to become the main attributes of modern style. As mentioned earlier, the kosode was in fact a piece of underwear to begin with. Much like that, the obi was not intended to be visible in its early days. As we all understand though, this changed over time, and what was primarily invented as a way to keep the robes together later became one of the most essential parts of the entire outfit. Throughout the Edo period (1603-1867) the obi began taking a more central role in the outfit, becoming visible as well as growing in size. Worth mentioning here is also the way the obi was originally tied. The way one often hears about the way an obi should be tied is that the proper way is to have the knot on the back, it being tied in the front implying that you are a courtesan or prostitute. However, the original way of tying it was to have the knot in front, mainly out of pure convenience. The trend of having the knot on the back sprung first in the later part of the seventeenth century, not becoming full standard until the early twentieth century (Dalby, 1993, pp.44-45).

The introduction of the wider obi also meant a change in the way of designing the kosode. Prior to this the garment had been one long piece and patterns etcetera could therefore be designed with this in mind, creating long beautiful patterns. With the new more distinctive obi though this had to change, since the wide piece of cloth around the waist created a very clear break in the middle of the patterns. Therefore the design now moved towards being more centred to the lower parts of the robe, underneath the obi.

As the Edo period preceded the women’s kimono only became more and more extravagant with long robes, advanced obis and hairstyles beyond our imagination. Come the eighteenth century though, there was a great change in style, the kimono now moving towards a more stylistic and simplistic look, more commonly known as iki. Though this style was a lot more sober on the outside, the fascination for luxurious goods did by no means go away. What we see here is instead a change into a fascination for very expensive underwear made from the finest of fabrics (Dalby, 1993, pp-52-53).

As can be noted in the text above, the form of clothing that we today call kimono is mainly referred to as kosode. The matter of the fact is that the term kimono, which literally means object of wear, did not spring till the Meiji period (1868-1912). The kimono did at this point in time become defined as the typical type of Japanese clothing by Westerners who know were allowed into the country. With the Westerners also came western style of clothing, something that would challenge the place of traditional Japanese clothing in society, people starting to adapt to the Western way of dressing. This nevertheless meant the end to the development of the kimono. Unlike the rather simplistic form of the garment that we see today, the kimono of the Meiji period was rich in details and layering. The obi was wider than the ones we see today and the knot, which by now was supposed to always be tied at the back, was also larger in size (Dalby, 1993, pp.90-91).

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The description of the kimono above might perhaps imply that this was strictly a garment for people of higher rank within society. This was however by no means the case. They were in many ways those who set the trends for the garment’s development but the piece of clothing as such was in fact the clothing of the average Japanese person up until the early part of the twentieth century, if not even longer. In time, the Japanese did however adapt more and more to Western ways of living and dressing, especially after WW II, giving us the situation we have today where the kimono mainly can be found in its more dressed up form used at formal occasions.

As becomes evident when reading the above, the kimono has not, like many other traditional outfits for countries throughout the world, looked more or less the same over the years, but has indeed gone through a great transition, ending only with the introduction of Western clothing in the nineteenth century.

The Great Fashionistas of Kimono – the role of Geisha

When Westerners hear the term kimono, I believe a majority picture a Geisha dressed in her most beautiful robes. When reading about the history of the kimono it also becomes evident that the Geisha have played a central role in the development of the garment in more recent years of the history. As mentioned earlier in the text, the courtesans in the sixteenth century played an important role in the development of trends for the kimono, a role that Geisha later were to pick up on, and which they hold still till this day. Ever since the late eighteenth century and onwards, Geisha have, to a greater or lesser extent, played a key role in the social life of upper class Japanese society, always being a given part of any social event. With this in mind it is not so surprising anymore that their influence on the kimono wear has been so great, being a part of “the right crowd” also rendering you an important role within the development of fashion (compare for example with the Hollywood stars of today. To participate at the right gatherings and parties also mean that your style becomes more displayed and used for inspiration).

Geisha are known for wearing kimono in utter perfection, something that is highly surprising if one considers the fact that they use the garment daily as their work wear. Though commoners in present time might choose to buy a less expensive kimono, Geisha are still known for wearing very expensive and luxurious versions, something that also puts them in debt prior to their debut, a Geisha wardrobe being worth thousands and yet thousands of dollars.

Though an untrained eye might not be able to spot the difference between the way a Geisha wears her kimono and the way a commoner would, there a numerous small differences that imply the intimate relation between a Geisha and her garment. So for example do Geisha wear and tie their obi in a slightly different manner. Also the way the neck of the collar is set varies very subtly but nevertheless gives a clear distinction between “an amateur and a pro”. Overall, the fact that Geisha wear kimono with such frequency means that they stand out from ordinary people in the sense that they can look very comfortable and graceful, moving with ease and knowing how to handle the garment in any situation, much unlike commoners today who might wear a full kimono only a very limited number of times in their entire lifetime. One can here draw a parallel to the Western world and wearing an evening gown. A person who is used to wear this type of clothing, say for example celebrities and royalties, can work the high heels and the dress in a way that makes them look nearly divine. Compare this to a girl on her high school prom night, a night that for some might ending up with sitting very still or standing in a corner, not wanting to risk looking like Bambi on his adventures on the ice.

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An ordinary person might invest in one very beautiful kimono and use it for a long time, however for a Geisha the situation could not be more different. As to avoid using the same kimono twice with the same customer she has to own a number of sets. In addition to this the style of the kimono differs with the season, meaning that you need different kimonos for different times of the year.

As our Professor, Ms. Fiona Graham who herself is a Geisha, explained while we were on a field trip to visit a kimono sale, certain patterns and embroideries on a kimono might be suitable only for a couple of weeks each year, for example during the blooming of a certain tree. Nevertheless a Geisha would invest in such a garment in order to have the perfect outfit for that very occasion. In addition to this there are also different types of kimonos depending on the occasion and style of the engagement. So for example there is the very formal dressing of zashiki-gi, used for banquets etcetera, in itself has two subcategories; the formal de outfit and the more casual, regular futsu version. What one might not bear in mind though is that Geisha usually also wear kimono in their everyday life for different engagements. For this there is therefore yet another subcategory of more everyday clothing, called fudangi (Dalby, 1993, p330).

For a Geisha it is important to always have clean and fresh-looking kimonos. This means that instead of mending a garment that is starting to get a bit torn, a Geisha most probably would go to her local supplier to buy a new one, creating a constant flow of new investments. This gives at least a small idea of the enormous expenditures constant kimono wearing creates for a Geisha, it being their biggest expense all throughout their careers.

As expressed above Geisha might be considered to be the last people reminding who utterly and thoroughly know how to wear and handle a kimono. Bearing this in mind, one realizes that Geisha not only pass on traditions in terms of music and classical entertainment, but that they also carry a very important cultural treasure in the way they dress.


A garment that by many both in the West as well as in modern-day Japan perhaps is imagined to have a long history and tradition in its present form has a richer history than one a first might expect, taking us outside the borders of the country even. What I have aimed at with this essay has therefore been to, in a brief way, explain the route of development that leads to the garment we so highly associate with the more traditional side of Japanese culture. In addition to this I have tried to explain the role Geisha have played in the history of the kimono, as well as why they up until this day can be considered to be the patron of the garment, passing on the tradition of the luxury and perfection that can be brought out wearing this piece of national treasure.

List of Works Cited

Dalby, Liza Crihfield (1993). Kimono – Fashioning Culture. Yale University Press, New Haven, and London.

Liddell, Jill (1989). The Story of the Kimono. E.P Dutton, New York.

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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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