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?
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.