The kimono is the most basic term for traditional Japanese dress. The term literally translates as "thing to wear." The word kimono came into use in the late nineteenth century as a way to distinguish native clothing from Western clothing, and thereafter became more common in Japan. Kimono refers to the principal outer garment of Japanese dress, a long robe with wide sleeves, made of various materials and in many patterns. It is generally unlined in summer, lined in autumn and spring, and padded in winter.

The history of the kimono

The kimono's form was first introduced from China as an undergarment. Its use as a normal form of dress for men and women dates from the Muromachi period (1392-1568). At that time the samurai, or warrior class, replaced the court nobles who always wore ceremonial clothing and lived in castle towns. Clothing increasingly needed to be wearable for travel and urban outdoor life and the kimono was the foundation of these trends. Women's kimonos became very decorative from the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868), in spite of bans on luxurious living imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, the rulers of Japan at the time.

Japanese clothing was not traditionally accented with costly or decorative accessories, particularly jewelry, hats, or gloves, as Western dress traditionally is. Instead, all of the expression of taste and elegance was focused upon the kimono, the central and key garment in Japanese dress, particularly in the case of women. Thus developments in the kimono as the principal garment for men and

Ancient Japanese Kimonos

Japanese schoolgirls dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos which, in the past, could indicate the social rank, occupation, or age of the wearer. Reproduced by permission of© Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS.

women of all social classes revolved around patterns and colors. At first the only patterning used was in the weaving of the fabric, but, given that the expansive robe was a great canvas for the artist, distinctive designs stretching across the whole garment were created in tie-dye, resist-dye, embroidery, and other methods, particularly for wealthy customers. The wealthy could also layer more kimonos and coordinated the colors that peeked out at the neckline and cuffs. Some kimonos were painted upon with ink, like a brush painting on paper.

The kimono is a comfortable garment for people to wear who sit on the floor or on a tatami mat, a straw floor covering common in Japanese homes, as is done in Japanese culture. Its length can be adjusted by how much it is folded over when the obi, or sash, is tied; its width can vary depending on how much it is wrapped and how tightly the obi is tied; and it can be layered for changes in climate.

There have been few fundamental changes in the shape of the kimono since the eighteenth century, except for minor changes in hem length and sleeve or collar shape. The kimono can be either formal or relatively casual, depending on its materials, pattern, and the accessories worn with it. Since its beginning, the kimono has denoted social rank and occupation, especially for men, and age, particularly for women. Today, people are less knowledgeable about the specific rules of dress and tend to choose a kimono based on its appearance.

Kimonos in contemporary Japan

Though Western dress is now the norm in contemporary Japan, the kimono is still worn on special occasions. There are schools in modern Japanese cities that train native Japanese on the finer points of wearing the kimono. They instruct in the complicated ways to tie the obi, as well as the subtle ways of draping the kimono, walking in it, and selecting and combining the colors and patterns. The kimono still expresses the wearer's good taste as well as sense of propriety or social understanding.

Although the modern kimono is generally a T-shaped robe, there are a variety of subtle variations for different wearers and different occasions. The furisode, which literally means "swinging sleeves," is worn by young unmarried women. The sleeves of the


One of the strongest and most luxurious fabrics in the world, silk has a long history. The cocoons, or casings, of the silk moth have been used for weaving fine fabric in China for almost five thousand years. The philosopher Confucius (551-c. 479 b.c.e.) told the story of Empress Xi Ling-Shi, who had a silk cocoon drop from a mulberry tree into her cup of hot tea and discovered the cocoon's strong and very long silk filaments. It was the empress who, around 2640 b.c.e., organized the harvesting and weaving of these long strands into silk. (Most historians believe that this story about the origins of silk production is not based in fact, but they do not know the exact origins.)

At first the Chinese carefully confined production to their own use, but demand for the lustrous fabric of China's imperial court spread. Traders seeking silk soon created an overland route to China that became known as the "Silk Road." By 139 b.c.e. the Silk Road had become the world's longest highway, stretching from eastern China to the Mediterranean. For years it was the principal east-west trade route for goods and ideas.

The Chinese were careful to protect their secret methods, searching travelers at the borders for cocoons or eggs. By 200 c.e., however, Chinese immigrants established silk industries in Korea and Japan. About one hundred years later silk began to be produced in the Indian subcontinent. Later the silk moth was secretly exported to the Byzantine Empire (476-1453 c.e.)

in the Middle East by Persian monks, from present-day Iran, who smuggled the cocoons out in their hollow canes. They established a new silk industry in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, Turkey, under the protection of the emperor Justinian (483-565 c.e.). The silk worm was only introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century when Christian crusaders (those who fought to gain control of the Holy Land from the Muslims) traveling in the Middle East brought silk weavers from Constantinople to Italy.

The silkworm is actually not a worm at all but a caterpillar. Although it is thought to be a native species of China, there are no longer any silk moths living in the wild anywhere in the world. All that exist are raised to make silk.

After the domesticated silkworms are born, they eat exclusively mulberry leaves and constantly for about a month, increasing their weight by ten thousand times and shedding their skin four times. When they have eaten enough, they begin to produce a jelly-like substance made of protein that hardens when it comes into contact with air. At the same time they produce a gum called sericin to hold the filament together. After three or four days they have spun the cocoon, which looks like a puffy white ball. In eight or nine days the cocoons are killed by steam or baking, placed in water to loosen the sericin, and unwound. The filaments average 650 to 1,000 yards long. Between five and eight of them are twisted together to make one thread.

Today China and Japan produce over half of the world's silk. Silk is known for its resiliency, elasticity, and strength.

furisode average about eighteen inches long or more, although a variation called chu-furisode can have more practical sleeves of about fifteen inches. This type of kimono can also sometimes have three-foot-long sleeves that sweep the ground, but that is usually for theatrical or ceremonial effect, such as those worn by maiko, the novice geishas, a special group of female entertainers. The armholes of the furisode are long slits, allowing for ease of movement and ventilation. Wearing the furisode is an announcement that the women is eligible for marriage.

The houmongi is the formal kimono worn by women once they are married. It might be worn to weddings or to tea ceremonies. It often has a pattern called eba, which spreads over the kimono without appearing to be disturbed by the seams through a special method of dyeing. The tomesode, sometimes called the edozuma, is another formal kimono, worn by married women only to the weddings of close relatives. This kimono has a pattern on the lower front of the garment from around the knees to the hem. The bride in a traditional Japanese wedding wears the most formal kimono, called a uchikake. It is a long kimono coat with a padded hem, which is made either from stiff, thickly woven brocade or satin. The kimono trails the ground on all sides, and because of the length and stiffness of the kimono the bride must be assisted in walking.

Kimonos for men are usually made in subdued colors and patterns of black, gray, brown, and shades of dark blue. If they are decorated, the usual patterns are fine checks, polka dots, or bird's-eye designs. The formal kimonos for men are called monsuke, which means "with crests." They are made of plain black silk with five crests and are worn with a white under-kimono called a juban and with hakama, or trousers, in gray or brown. The Mofuku kimono is the most somber of modern ceremonial kimonos, and it is worn only for funerals and mostly by men. The Mofuku is usually made of black silk, with family crests at key places. It is worn with a long white undergarment called a naga-juban, black accessories, and black fabric zori, or sandals.

Kimonos are worn tightly wrapped around the body from left to right. (Only the kimonos of the dead are wrapped right over left). The actual garment is five inches longer than its wearing length, and it is drawn up and tied with a slim silk cord under the obi so that the hem is at the wearer's heels. The obi adds padding to the middle so that the body is tubular looking, the preferred silhouette in Japan. Worn with the kimono is an undergarment called a shitagi, which is simply a thin under-kimono. The juban is another undergarment, worn short by men and long for women. Its neckband, or eri, is black silk for men and made of crepe or plain silk for women.

Kimonos are not usually purchased ready-made. They are sold in a length of cloth called a tan, which is usually about sixteen feet long and one foot eight inches wide. Each kimono is cut from this single piece of fabric, with no fabric wasted. They are very simple to make, and all are made in much the same dimensions. In order to be cleaned, the kimonos are usually ripped apart and cleaned as flat fabric.

Today there are kimono artists who are considered by the Japanese government to be national treasures and who preserve historic techniques for the decoration of the kimono. Their masterpieces are unique and can be more expensive than a magnificent painting. Some have been sold for upwards of one hundred thousand dollars.

Most modern-day Japanese people have never owned or worn a kimono. Some may rent one for the several occasions in their life that call for them. Nevertheless, the kimono is the instantly recognizable symbol of Japanese fashion.


Dalby, Liza Crihfield. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993. Reprint, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Ho, Kenson, et al. Kimonos Unlimited: An Endless Creative Journey. Vancouver, Canada: INASO, 2000.

Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Kosode: 16th—19th Century Textiles from the Nomura Collection. New York: Kodansha International, 1985.

[See also Volume 2, Early Asian Cultures: Obi]

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