Elegant and easy to wear, kimonos have a long history, both as a staple garment in Japan and as an influence for American fashion. Even now, they can be seen as a trend on the runway and on the streets. Who knew a garment so simple would have such longevity?
The word “kimono” originally meant “clothing” in Japanese. Over the years, though, it has come to reference a specific, robe-like garment created in the Heien period (794-1192). Before 794, the Japanese wore simple separates, usually a top and trousers or a skirt, largely influenced by the Chinese. Then, Japanese clothiers started using the straight-line-cut method to create kimonos. It was super simple: clothing makers cut long, straight lines of cloth and sewed them together. They didn’t have to think of specific shapes and sizes. Plus, the garments were easy to fold and could be suitable for every season due to their differing fabrics and ability to be layered. The ease of the garments led to their everyday wear in Japan.
It wasn’t long before the Japanese started to experiment with colors and layers. Color combinations depended on the season or the wearer’s socioeconomic class. From 1192-1573 (the Kamakura and Muromachi periods), men and women wore the brightly colored kimonos we’re used to seeing today. Warriors also wore colored kimonos representing their leaders.
The Edo period (1603-1868) was a time of stability and control. The country operated on a feudal system (different domains ruled by lords), and the Tokugawa clan ruled over everyone. Samurais were identified by their uniforms’ colors and patterns. With more garments to wear, dressing became more of an art form. Families started passing down their more valuable kimonos to younger generations as heirlooms.
Everything changed during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the Japanese became more interested in Western culture. Kimonos were still worn for formal occasions, but the government encouraged society to embrace Western clothing for everyday wear. This preference continues today, with formal kimonos typically reflecting family heritage in design. Kimonos are still worn for such special occasions as tea ceremonies and funerals. And there has been a major reversal in influence—now, Western culture is inspired by the gracefully draped designs.
1. Kimono (black), Japan, 1934, and Kimono (blue), Japan, 1870-1880, from Victoria and Albert Museum, London
2. Print from Meiji period depicts both traditional kimonos and Western-inspired dress. Utagawa Kokunimasa Print 1893
3. Kimono-inspired design, The Row Spring 2015 RTW
4. Kimono from Free People is a street style trend today
5. Vera Wang kimono-inspired jacket, Spring 2015 RTW