Exploring the kimono: a tapestry of Japanese society

Written by Tom | 28th August 2020

The kimono is Japan's national dress and one of the country's most distinctive pieces of clothing. A traditional garment that means “thing to wear”, kimonos have existed since the Heian period (794-1193 CE) as a fashionable dress for men and women. The kimono provided artists with a blank canvas to craft some of Japan's most timeless designs. And it also served as an indicator for a person's — particularly a woman's — status and role in an otherwise conformist and homogenous society. It's both a lesson in craft and history, as our Japanese art experts, Cristina Ortega, Giovanni Bottero and Surya Rutten explain. 

A stroll through Kyoto's Gion District or Kanazawa's geisha district might be one of the few glimpses you'll get of kimonos in modern-day Japan. In these parts, geishas and their apprentices' maikos , can be seen navigating the labyrinth of teahouses, flickering past in flowing robes. For a dress that has anchored itself as a symbol of Japanese society, it's one that is increasingly less worn. But kimonos are enduring, as their history reveals. 

The kimono's beginnings

The kimono has undergone multiple iterations and was only given its name during the Meiji period (1868-1912). When the kimono was introduced during the Heian period, it began as a simple cut of fabric that men and women would drape over their bodies. This was often worn with the hakama , a kind of trouser skirt inherited from the Chinese. Come the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE), kimonos were belted with an obi , a wide sash, and had evolved into daily wear for many Japanese people. It was at this point in which the kimono's more codified stylings came into play. 

Women normally predominantly wore the obi on the back, as a front-facing knot was a way to identify sex workers

“The obi can tell you a lot about the wearer,” Cristina explains. “While primarily used to close the kimono, the sashes and the way they were knotted spoke to certain aspects of Japanese life. The knot differed depending on the occasion, season and even the generation or social status of the wearer. For instance, the knot is always worn on the back, as only sex workers would wear a knot at the front ”. 

However, the kimono was still broadly considered a unisex piece of clothing, then named the kosode (to mean “small sleeves). Just before the Meiji period, the trend for layering took hold. Some outfits had as many as 12 layers (jūnihitoe), though the majority were limited to a more manageable five or six. 

Identity and femininity

The dawn of the Edo period signalled the kimono's shift from simple clothing to becoming a linchpin of Japanese society. One of the kimono's most liberating features was its uniformity in terms of cut and construction. “In the West, fashion ’s evolution has often been led by changing cuts and the way it was made. In Japan, however, kimonos have always had a flat T-shape pattern, which meant that design and color played a far more important role in conveying a message ”, Giovanni explains.  

Everyone wore kimonos in Japan and because of the uniform cut, design and colour was a way to differentiate oneself

The kimono's proliferation in Japanese society was notable for a time when Japan was largely stratified. Regardless of one's position in society or income, everybody wore a kimono. “In the Edo period, Japan was still completely closed off to foreigners. The kimono consequently became a point of national pride and identity ”, Giovanni says. “And yet, because the kimono was so widely worn, there was a need to differentiate between individuals in a hierarchical society. There were differences in length or the shape of the sleeves, and the use of varying shapes, colours, styles and patterns of the kimono became very codified. Everything had a hidden meaning and could only be used within a certain context ”.

The kimono was one of the few means of expression a woman had - though if they were wed to a samurai, their dress was more muted

For women, the kimono was adopted as a kind of bastion for Japanese femininity. Women were seen as representations of the household; the demure figures waiting on the men, who were instead defined by action, work and war. Kimonos embodied the performative role women needed to play in society - they were elegant, beautiful and restrained costumes, versus the more austere designs meant for men - and were one of the few instances where women could express themselves. 

“Kimonos revealed a woman's marital status,” explains Surya. “Non-married women would wear a furisode with long sleeves of coloured motifs covering the entire garment. A married woman, meanwhile, would wear a kimono, with shorter sleeves and a motif on the bottom or at the tips of the sleeves, depending on the occasion. "

More than a motif

Motifs on kimonos played a crucial role in both the garment's aesthetic and its symbolism. “Kimono motifs were regularly used by ukiyo-e artists in woodblock prints as a way to tell the story of the characters depicted,” says Surya. “While kimonos worn by actors in theater traditions - such as Noh and kabuki plays - helped inform audiences about the performer's role and feelings”. Ukiyo-e artists even helped include visuals from books on kimono design, known as Hinagata bon, which were used as a blueprint by everyone involved in the production of kimonos. 

This print depicts the courtesan, Kagawa, of the house of pleasure Inamotoya

Some of the most recognizable motifs include the cherry blossom and cranes designs that were more than just elegant flourishes. The cherry blossom represents fleeting, feminine beauty, which was only worn by women and mainly in the summer. Kimonos adorned with cranes were saved for weddings, as the bird serves as a symbol of hope, peace and longevity.

The kimono is a flag bearer for Japanese femininity but also society in that it captures Japan's spirit of what can be seen and what is left unsaid

The kimono remains a snapshot into Japanese life. When Japan opened up to the world in 1854, the kimono was one of the first things the West was drawn to. It was the visual representation of Japan to foreigners, while within the culture it was the route to unmasking the body beneath. As Japan modernised rapidly, men moved away from wearing kimonos while women were encouraged to continue. 

But the kimono has never fit into a simple narrative and the last few centuries have seen the kimono reimagined and reclaimed by women in various subversive ways. From Yayoi Kusama using a gold kimono to demonstrate her outsider status within the 1980s Pop Art movement, to Megumi Igarashi's use of the kimono in her provocative art. Yet, the kimono still stands as a vessel to the past, while women linger on as its mouthpiece – quietly enduring, a visceral reminder that Japan’s identity was, and often still is, best understood in what is seen rather than in what is said.  


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