The kimono is more than a symbol of Japanese culture that is instantly recognizable to the rest of the world. It is a garment that represents what it means to be Japanese, worn for centuries since the Heian period (792-1192). Since then, the kimono has evolved into many different styles based on who is wearing it and for what occasion. And because of the many things that the kimono embodies, the possibilities are endless.
So let’s start with the history of the kimono and how its significance has evolved into how it’s used in today’s Japan.
Taken from the Chinese Wu Dynasty in the 8th century, the kimono was first seen with shorter sleeves and was known as the kosode.
Like most feudal societies, much of Japan’s history (before the Edo period opened the country to the rest of the world) was riddled with in-fighting. Because of constant warfare between rival daimyo (feudal lords), Tokugawa Ieyasu was suspicious of foreign influence, colonialism, and Christianity. After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and becoming the shogun, Ieyasu focused on strengthening the social, political, and economic fabric of a war-torn Japan.
Japan – and only Japan – was Ieyasu’s priority. The Tokugawa Era (or the Edo period, as it’s better known) ushered in a period of peace and prosperity for the country. For the next 200 years, Japan’s ports were isolated from the rest of the world (except for Korea and China), until the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa opened the borders to Commodore Matthew Perry and his American warships.
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It was during this time that the kimono as we know it was born. Up until then it had been called a kosode and had relatively few style changes. What was constant was the way that everyone wore it, regardless of age, gender, or social standing. Granted, peasants made up more than half of the social hierarchy during the four periods leading up to the Edo and Meiji restoration periods (1868-1912).
Fashioned from a single bolt of fabric, the kimono was more than a lavish piece of clothing. It was art.
Wealthy daimyo classes commissioned their kimonos much in the way the Borgias or the Medici of Renaissance Italy commissioned paintings by Leonardo da Vinci or Michaelangelo for their ornate halls. Fashioned from a single bolt of fabric, the kimono was more than a lavish piece of clothing. It was art. More significantly, it was the wearer’s identity. With every embroidered flower, every hand-painted scene, and every swirl of color, the kimono told a life story. Fabric, pattern, and color were crucial, for they represented someone’s rank, gender, and age, and it all tied into their image within their social standing.
Today, the kimono is still symbolic of not only the wearer but of Japan itself. Kimonos are worn at weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies, and so much more. For example, 20-year-olds wear their kimonos to shrines on Coming of Age Day, a holiday when boys and girls are accepted into society as adults for the first time. Girls wear furisode, a kimono with long, flowing sleeves, while boys wear the haori half coats with hakama trousers that are decorated with their family’s crest.
For formal events like weddings and funerals, married women wear tomosode, kimonos with shorter sleeves, and subdued designs that highlight their family crest. While it’s more common for attendees to wear Western suits and dresses (thanks to Westernization during the post-Edo Meiji Restoration), wearing a kimono is still very symbolic of the pride surrounding Japanese heritage to this day.
Another holiday where we see the kimono is Shichi-Go-San (seven-five-three), a Shinto-influenced ceremony that promotes the healthy development of children at age seven, five, and three.
Perhaps the most iconic and recognizable kimono-wearer is the geisha. The geisha’s role has evolved over the centuries, but today they provide entertainment, food, and drink for tourists and wealthy businessmen alike. Things like hem length and the color of the collar tell onlookers the geisha’s rank; if her collar is red and not white, then you know that she is a maiko (a geisha in training).
Despite Japan’s rapid industrialization after the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa, the kimono is still deeply woven into the cultural fabric of their society. Japan went from being an isolated, feudal nation to one of the Big Five at the Treaty of Versailles by 1919. Today, their economy is ranked third in the world. And through all of the rapid modernization, they still held on to the kimono, the timeless garment of their roots in the ancient world.
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