The Evolution of the Japanese Kimono: From Antiquity to Contemporary

Roots, evolution, and innovation are key to the rich and long history of the Japanese kimono, which also had an influential role in the art industry.

May 23, 2021By Stella Polyzoidou, BA Archaeology and Art History
utagawa kunisada woodblock print japanese dress
Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada, 1847- 1852, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Kimono has always had a dynamic part in Japanese dress history. Not only does it fully embody the traditional cultural values, but it also reflects the Japanese sense of beauty. In Japanese dress items, there’s no relationship between the garment and the body, that’s the way every kimono is essentially the same size. The most distinctive characteristic of kimonos is that they are straight seamed garments, made out of a single piece of cloth and simply constructed.  Throughout history, the Japanese kimono has changed according to the socio-political situation and developing technology. Expressions of social status, personal identity, and social sensitivity are expressed through the color, pattern, material, and decoration of a Japanese kimono.


Nara Period: The first appearance of the Japanese kimono 

court women preparing woven silk emperor hui tsung
Court ladies preparing newly woven silk by Zhang Xuan, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


In the Nara period (710–794), Japan was heavily influenced by the Tang Dynasty of China and its clothing customs. At that time, Japanese courtly women started to wear the tarikubi robe, which was similar to the modern kimono. This robe had several layers and consisted of two parts. The upper part was a patterned jacket with very long sleeves, while the lower part was a skirt that draped over the waist. However, the ancestor of the Japanese kimono dates back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1192).


Heian Period (794 – 1185)

kanjo court lady torii kiyonaga woodblock print
Kanjo: A Court Lady by Torii Kiyonaga, ca. 1790, via The Met Museum, New York


This period saw the flourishing of fashion in Japan, generating an aesthetic culture. The technological achievements of the Heian period empowered the creation of a new kimono-making technique, called the “straight-line-cut method.” With this technique, kimonos could adjust to any body-shape and were suitable for all weathers too. For the winter period, kimonos could be worn in thicker layers to provide warmth, while for summer in lightweight linen fabric. 


As time progressed and the layering of kimonos came into fashion, Japanese women began realizing how kimonos of different colors and patterns looked together. In general, motifs, symbols, color combinations reflected the wearer’s social status, political class, personality traits, and virtues. One of the traditions was that only members of the upper class could wear the jūni-hitoe, or ‘a twelve layered robe.’ In fact, this was made of expensive colors and imported fabrics like silk. The innermost layer of the robe, called kosode, served as underwear and represents the origin of today’s kimono. The common people were forbidden to wear colored kimonos with bright designs, so they wore simple kosode-style garments. 

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Kamakura Period: The Samurai Aesthetic of Japanese Kimono (1185–1333)

chiyoda castle yoshu hashimoto chikanobu
Chiyoda Castle by Yōshū (Hashimoto) Chikanobu, 1895, via the Met Museum, New York


During this period, the Japanese dress aesthetic changed, moving from the extravagant clothing of the Heian period into a much simpler form. Τhe rise of the samurai class to power and the total eclipse of the Emperor’s court marked a new era. The new ruling class wasn’t interested in adopting this courtly culture. However, samurai class women were inspired by the courtly formal wear of the Heian period and reformed it as a way of displaying their education and refinement. In tea ceremonies and gatherings, the ladies of the upper-class, such as the Shogun’s wives, would wear a white kosode with five layers of brocade to communicate their power and status. They kept the basic kosode of their predecessors, but they cut down the many layers, as a sign of their frugality and practicality. Towards the end of the period, full-cut red trousers called hakama began to be worn by upper-class women and the court. Lower-class women couldn’t wear the hakama pants of the upper-class women, instead, they wore half-skirts to be sure their kosode remained in place.


Muromachi Period: The Kimono Blossoms (1336–1573)

japanese outer robe uchikake chrysanthemum isteria bouquets
Outer Robe (Uchikake) with Chrysanthemum and Wisteria Bouquets, via the Met Museum, New York; with Outer Robe (Uchikake) with Mandarin Oranges and Folded-Paper Butterflies, via the Met Museum, New York


In this period, the wide-sleeved layers were abandoned progressively. Women started to wear only the white kosode, which were even more bright and colorful. New versions of kosode have been created: the katsugu and uchikake styles. The first one is a kosode worn like a veil on the head while the second is a reminder of the tradition with the additional layers, popular among the ladies of the samurai class. However, the biggest change to women’s fashion in this period was the abandonment of hakama pants for women. To keep their kosode tight, they invented a narrow, decorated sash known as obi.


The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568–1603)

japanese kimono two lovers hishikawa moronobu
Two Lovers by Hishikawa Moronobu, ca. 1675–80, via the Met Museum, New York


This is the period where the Japanese dress obtains a more elegant form. There is a dramatic change from the earlier Azuchi-Momoyama period robe, according to which each kimono was treated like an individual canvas. Artisans and craftsmen unraveled new skills of weaving and decoration, without having to import the fabric from China. 


japanese kimono whose sleeves tagasode screens
Whose Sleeves? Tagasode, Momoyama period (1573–1615), via the Met Museum ,New York


By the early Edo period, these new techniques of silk-making and embroidery were already spread, allowing the merchant class to feed the emerging fashion industry


The Edo Period (1603–1868)

anna elizabeth reede kimono gerard hoet
Anna Elizabeth van Reede by Gerard Hoet, 1678, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The early 1600s was a time of unprecedented peace, political stability, economic growth, and urban expansion. The people of the Edo era were wearing simple and sophisticated kimonos. Style, motif, fabric, technique, and color explained the identity of the wearer. The kimono was tailored and handmade with natural fine fabric, which was very expensive. Thus, people utilized and recycled the kimono until it got worn out. Most people used to wear recycled kimonos or rented ones. 


Some people belonging to the lower class never had a silk kimono. The ruling samurai class was an important consumer of luxury kimonos. At first, these styles were only available to samurai class women living in Edo year-round. However, it wasn’t them who created Japanese dress styles in the Edo period – it was the merchant class. They benefited most from the increased demand for the goods. So, they demanded new clothes to express their growing confidence, as well as their affluence.


In Edo, the Japanese kimono was characterized by asymmetry and large patterns, in contrast to the kosode worn by Muromachi Period samurai ladies. Large scale motifs gave way to small-scale patterns. For the Japanese dress of married women, the sleeves were sewn to the body of the kimono, as a symbol of their fashionable taste. On the contrary, young unmarried women kimonos had longer and longer sleeves, reflecting their ‘child’ status to adulthood. 


women strolling garden kacho teahouse edo diptych print
Women strolling in the garden of the Kacho teahouse in Edo by Utagawa Toyokuni, 1795-1800, via the British Museum, London


Women of the lower classes wore their kimonos until they became rags, while the high-class people were able to store and preserve theirs, and to commission new ones. Kimonos became more valuable, and parents handed them down to their children as family heirlooms. Kimono is connected to the ‘floating world’ – a world of pleasure, entertainment, and drama that existed in Japan from the seventeenth century through to the late nineteenth century. Yoshiwara, the pleasure district,  became the hub of the popular culture that flourished in Edo. 


utagawa hiroshige nakano street yoshiwara parade woodblock print
Nakano Street in the Yoshiwara by Utagawa Hiroshige II, 1826-69, woodblock print, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


One of the great events of Yoshiwara was the parade of the highest-ranking courtesans wearing their new kimonos. Famous courtesans and kabuki actors  like Geishas, which also included the Kabuki theaters of Edo. Courtesans were  fashion icons, similar to today’s influencers and trendsetters, whose styles were admired and copied by ordinary women. The most elite and popular courtesans wore special kimonos with vibrant designs.  


pleasure boat sumida river torii kiyonaga kabuki actors
Pleasure Boat on the Sumida River by Torii Kiyonaga, ca. 1788–90, via the Met Museum, New York


During the Edo period, Japan enforced a strict isolationist policy known as the closed country policy. The Netherlands were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan, so they brought fabric to Japan which was incorporated into the Japanese kimono. The dutch commissioned makers in Japan to create robes specifically for the European market. In the mid 19th century Japan was forced to open its ports to foreign powers, leading to the export of Japanese goods including kimonos to the West. The Japanese silk merchants were very quick to capitalize on the new market. 


Japanese Dress and Meiji Era (1868–1912)

japanese kimono robe sash
Robe with sash, 1905 – 15, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


In the Meiji era, Japanese fashion adjusted to the western standards, after the trade development of Japan with the West. The shift from kimonos to a more westernized way of dressing and the decline of men in Japanese kimonos began when major ports in Japan began to open. This resulted in the importation of various technologies and cultures from the West. 


A big part of adopting westernized clothing came from military clothes. The Japanese government wanted to move away from the Samurai leadership of the past in favor of the professional military style of the British Empire. The government in turn banned kimonos from the military dress. The materials from western trade such as wool, and the method of painting with synthetic dyes, became new components of the kimono. Elite women in Japanese society also desired more expensive and exclusive garments from western societies. 


In the early 20th century the Japanese kimono really started to influence European fashion. There was an appearance of kimonos with new bold designs. Japanese people started to produce what was known as kimono for foreigners. Japanese realized that women in Europe wouldn’t know how to tie an obi, so they provided the garment with a sash in the same fabric. Also, they added extra panels into the kimono that could be worn as a petticoat. In the mid 20th century western clothing was adopted as the everyday norm. The kimono became a garment used only for milestone events in life. 


japanese kimono furisode khalili collection
Kimono for a Young Woman (Furisode), 1912-1926, via Khalili Collection


The most formal garment for a married woman is a narrow sleeve kimono at events like weddings. Married women wear different kimonos from unmarried women. A single woman wears a single broad sleeve eye-catching kimono on formal occasions. The upper  back and the sleeves feature the family crest. The narrow sleeves symbolize that the woman wearing them is now married. This kind of narrow sleeve kimono became formal in the early 20th century which indicates that the trend was inspired by western formal attire. 


Japanese Culture and Western Modern Art

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Lady with Fan by Gustav Klimt, 1918, via Leopold Museum, Vienna


Among many other painters, Gustav Klimt was fascinated by Japanese culture. He also loved to paint female figures. Both of these characteristics are found in his work Lady with a Fan. The lady is also gorgeous and styled in a brightly-colored  Japanese dress, much like a kimono, while holding a Japanese fan. The way Japanese art has impacted Western art throughout the years can be seen in many other impressionist artists like Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Pierre Bonnard.


Japanese Kimono from the Post-war Period to Present Day

angela lindvall kimono john galliano 2007 collection
Angela Lindvall in kimono by John Galliano, Spring/Summer 2007 collection, via Vogue magazine


After WWII, the Japanese had stopped wearing kimono, as people were trying to rebuild their lives. They tended to wear western-style garments rather than kimonos which turned into a codified costume. People would wear a kimono for events that marked the different stages of life. At weddings, it was still quite popular to wear white kimonos for the ceremony and lavishly colored ones for the celebration afterward. 


In the allied occupation that followed the Second World War, Japanese culture became increasingly Americanized. This was of concern to the Japanese government who feared that historic techniques will start  to decline. In the 1950s, they promulgated various laws that allow the protection of their cultural properties, such as particular techniques of weaving and dyeing. The kimonos worn by women, especially younger ones, those with lavish decoration have survived in the museum and private collections. Collecting beautiful kimonos and publishing picture books about them was a great sport between the end of the Meiji and World War II. 


There’s been a real renaissance of kimono in Japan in the last few years.  Many fashion designers have been inspired by the shape of the Japanese kimono: Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen. The timelessness of the kimono seems to have made it very popular with performers like Freddie Mercury, Madonna, and Björk- to name a few. From the Nara period to the contemporary era, the Japanese kimono has been subjected to both local and global reinvention, earning a fascinating place in fashion history.

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By Stella PolyzoidouBA Archaeology and Art HistoryStella is a writer, fashion editor, website owner of Silk Pastelle and a cat lover with a BA in Archaeology and Art History from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. When she doesn't write about fashion and art, she watches biographical films and reads about different cultures. She completed her internship at MOMus Museum and she's currently doing her MA in Museum Studies.