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When we think of traditional Japanese dress, we inevitably think of the kimono as a garment that has been around throughout the course of Japan's history.  However, this is not the case.  While it is true that the kimono is the national costume of Japan, which is why it is the first thing we think of but the garment in its first recognizable form did not appear until the 7th century.  In fact, what we think of when we refer to a kimono today was not developed until the Edo period. 

Kimonos are breathtakingly beautiful and somewhat daunting to the eye of the westerner that might find it tempting to try to wear one.  It looks a bit like a bathrobe but much, much more complex than traditional Western wear.  Does the word "kimono" convey any special insight into how to wear this garment by its meaning?  Unfortunately not!  The word kimono simply means "something to wear".  Historians specializing in period clothing tell us that the name kimono came to be known to us about at the same time that Japan, after years of being closed to foreigners, was first entertaining visitors from the west.  "Something to wear" was the answer given to curious inquiries about the Japanese style of dress.  The name "kimono" stuck. 

Much of the tradition surrounding kimonos comes from the Chinese.  We know that Japan and Chinese nurtured a thriving trade between them.  During travel, Japanese traders brought back clothing traditions from the Chinese court, which were adapted in Japan and remained popular until diplomatic relations between these countries cooled off in the early Heian period.  For example, the fact that kimonos are always crossed left over right.  That tradition started in China, where it was considered very poor taste and breeding to cross right over left. 

Kimonos changed through the different periods of Japan's history to reflect the lifestyle and culture of the time.  The cut, color, fabric, and decorations of a kimono may vary according to the sex, age, and marital status of the wearer, the season of the year, and the occasion for which the kimono is worn.  During the Heian period, sitting on the floor became an important part of the Japanese lifestyle.  Clothing became stiffer and made up of multiple layers to help people be more comfortable.  It was not unusual for women in Japanese society to wear as many as twenty layers.  The layered color pattern reflected many things including seasons, directions, virtues, and elements of the earth as they related to spirits of nature.  The multiple layers also helped stay warm in winter. 

The next period in Japan's history - the Muromachi period (1192-1573 A.D.) - saw the rise of the Samurai tradition in Japan.  Kimonos became simpler to reflect the needs of the more active Samurai lifestyle.  With the increase in industrialization and the growth of the merchant class during the subsequent Edo period (1601-1867 A.D.), kimonos went through their final evolution to the single layer garment tied with the obi sash we recognize today.  One interesting fact is that up until the Edo period, the belt of a kimono, the obi, was always tied in the front.  The Edo period saw the tradition change to what it is today, with the obi tied in the back. 

The Imperial household of Japan still uses kimonos of the Heian period for special occasions such as coronations and weddings.  To Japanese clothing historians, the Heian period is known as a time when the Japanese began expressing their perception of the seasons and especially color changes associated with the changing of the seasons through the design of their kimonos. 

Kimonos appear deceptively simple to wear.  There are some styles of tying the obi knot that require half and hour to complete.  Even a simple shopkeeper's kimono involves a complex folding and tying procedure in order to wear properly.  Today, modern men and women in Japan prefer yofuku, which is a western style dress for everyday wear.  Kimonos are still favored by some for special occasions and ceremonies, like traditional weddings.  Kimonos are expensive, though providing a new business opportunity in Japan providing kimonos "for rent" for those times when only this traditional garment would do.


 

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