Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan’s Traditional Dress

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This traditional Japanese clothing is quite ubiquitous, so much that it has become such a fashion symbol in not only Japan but also the rest of the world. At some point in our lives we’ve heard about the kimono, or even wore a clothing piece that resembles it — I don’t know about you but I know I have, just don’t ask me how many times! 

The word “kimono” has been thrown around as casually and as often a word can be, but do people actually know what it is? It’s quite obvious to everyone that this form of clothing belongs to the Japanese but it’s not just a fashion style — the kimono has quite a culturally rich history with significance to the wearer. It’s also a huge category with not only one type of kimono but numerous types for various occasions. With the untrained, naked eyes, you can’t imagine how a single bolt of cloth can differ from one another.

And that’s where I come in — skip the loaded informative and winding sites, all you ever need to know about the famous traditional Japanese wear is just a scroll away and neatly compartmentalize for your reading pleasure. What are you waiting for — read on!

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress

The Japanese Kimono: What Is It?

What is the kimono, you ask? Well, it’s quite simple. A kimono is a traditional wear for the Japanese. The word “kimono” is made up of the kanjis 着 (ki) to mean “wear” and 物 (mono) to mean “thing”. Combine them together and you have the 着物 (kimono) which literally translates to “a thing to wear”.

These full-length robes are usually sewn in a T-shape manner, made of different pieces attached together for the various forms. Depending on the style and type of kimono, there are multiple factors that are included — pattern, style, and types of parts are just a few things to note.

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress
A pictorial representation of front and back of the kimono (Astridvincent, Feb 2008)

Parts of a kimono

The beautiful robe that we know as the kimono is often understood as a whole piece of garment that is a simple robe, however, the term refers to the entire outfit rather than a piece of clothing itself. There are various, intricate parts that make up the kimono. Impress your friends with these component names:

Sode refers to the sleeves of the kimono. That’s not all there is to it — some of the main parts include the sodeguchi which is the armhole, and the sodetsuke refers to the inner armhole of the garment. The sode can come in a few different lengths — the longer and brighter sleeves are worn by younger maidens while the simpler sleeve style is worn by married or older women and is usually black and of normal length. 

The lower part of the sleeve that’s unsewn is known as the furi. The furi can swing about freely, which is taken advantage of by the performers who don the kimono during their performances like the kabuki actors. There’s also a hidden pouch inside the furi part of the sleeve known as the tamoto — you can keep all your deepest darkest secrets there!

Only on the female kimono, there’s a small opening under the sleeve called the miyatsu-kuchi and they’re used to adjust the fit of the kimono.

Eri refers to the entire collar of the kimono. Just like the sleeve, there are various components to the eri —the ura-eri is the inner lining part of the collar while the tomo-eri is the top piece of fabric. The tomo-eri serves as a protecting part that can easily be replaced if stained or damaged.

The inner lining of the kimono is called the do-ura. In a female kimono, it’s usually a simple lining whereas the male kimono is often seen with more decorative patterns. This comes from the concept from ancient times where the men would flaunt their wealth based on the inner lining of the kimono when they remove their kimono (for example, in a bathhouse). The lower lining has a different name called the suso-mawashi.

The extra gusset that extends the front of the kimono is known as the okumi, and the general front panel next to the okumi is known as the mae-migoro. The main back panel of the kimono is then referred to as the ushiro-migoro.

You may be surprised but even the hem guard of the kimono has a name, and that is the fuki.

Another component with a special name is the measurement of the distance between the back center seam and the sleeve’s edge — this is called the yuki.

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress
A woodblock print of a Japanese woman in a kimono (Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1830-1850)

A Brief History of The Japanese Kimono

The very start of the Japanese kimono history is during the Heian period, about 794 to 1192 AD. During this time, the kimono was just a simple garment for the people to wear conveniently. Just like the kimono we now know and love, it consisted of straight cuts and made to fit every size and body type.

The kimono saw a huge popularity rise in the Edo period (1603-1868). Regardless of age, social status, or gender, the people of Japan don the kimono proudly. Because there was a large number of people wearing the same type of clothing, the people became more experimental with their own kimono and began customizing them. This was also the time where the geishas and kabuki actors featured the kimono in their craft.

However, not long after the Edo period, the fifth shogun Tokugawa banned the people of Japan from wearing the kimono and flaunting expensive kimonos. That didn’t stop them from wearing them though — the people rebelled and wore kimonos that had subtle designs only visible if you’re extremely close to them.

During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the government ordered the citizens to wear Western clothing instead to play into the country’s fast-paced Westernisation. The kimono slowly disappeared from everyday streets, replaced by simpler, Western clothing. However, the traditional Japanese kimono still remains in the Japanese culture and is now only worn during formal occasions like weddings, funerals, graduations, and even festivals.

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress

The Symbolism of The Kimono

Every kimono is different from another. Unlike modern fashion where a change in a top is just an expression of fashion style, an alteration in any aspect of the kimono symbolizes something — it can be a significant change in meaning or it can even be a subtle one. Regardless, no two kimonos have the exact same symbolism, and that’s what makes the kimono so unique.

Material is one of the factors that affect the symbolism of the kimono. Traditionally, kimonos were made of fabrics that were handmade and decorated by hand as well. Silk, linen, and hemp were among the fabrics typically used. The lower class was more often seen with kimonos made of cheaper fabric like cotton. For the upper class, silk and satin were used to express their social status. Today, status and class don’t really play a part in one’s kimono material. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and rayon are even used to make kimonos!

The motif of the kimono is also used to communicate social status as well as personality traits and other characteristics. Designs can come in different forms of symbols and patterns — sometimes these are specially made for a clan or royal family. Popular motifs are inspired by natural elements like blossoms, birds, and leaves, just like the traditional Japanese art, woodblock prints.

One factor that’s just ever so slightly above the rest is color. While the first two factors are often used to differentiate class, the color symbolizes the significant characteristics of the kimono. It is more of how the colours came about, like the pigments used to make specific colors. The origin represents quite a bit when it comes to the kimono. For example, a blue kimono is seen as a repellent against insects as the color comes from indigo. Indigo has long been used to treat stings and bites, hence the connection is made there.

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress

The Common Types of Kimono & When To Wear Them

As we have mentioned, kimono is a general category of traditional Japanese wear. On top of having various components to the clothing, there are also quite a few types of kimono. Each of these kimono types is created for their own exclusive use, so try not to confuse them! You wouldn’t want to attend a formal occasion wearing a casual kimono, do you?

Since there’s quite a variety of kimono types, let’s just take a look at the main types and the occasion to wear them!

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress

Yukata

You’ve probably heard of this casual kimono clothing, the yukata. The most significant differentiator of this type of kimono is the fabric that it’s made of. The yukata is often made of cooling, thin fabric like cotton, linen, or hemp. That’s because it’s specially designed for summer use.

Unlike the other kimono types, the yukata doesn’t require an inner layer. It can be worn directly on your skin and tied off with the obi. The yukata is often paired with the traditional Japanese wooden sandal called the geta.

When to wear?

In olden Japan, the yukata wasn’t used for that, however. Literally translated to “bathing cloth”, the yukata was exclusively worn by the upper class as a bathrobe after they have taken a bath. Now, wearing the yukata is not limited to that.

The yukata is quite famously known as the most informal wear of all the kimono types, and unlike the rest, you can wear the yukata to sleep! On top of that, they’re the ideal choice of wear for outdoor festivals like fireworks displays. 

Your best chance at seeing a yukata is at an onsen (a Japanese hot spring) or ryokan (a traditional Japanese hot spring resort) where they’re provided for the guests to use when taking a bath or a dip in their hot spring facilities.

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress

Furisode

You can recognize the furisode by its long sleeves and electrifying colors and flashy motifs. They’re made that way on purpose — they symbolize the bright energy and beauty of the youth. The sleeves can be as short as 114cm to as long as 124cm — it might even touch the floor for some of us!

This type of kimono is exclusively worn by women and more specifically unmarried women. You’re more likely to witness young ones in their friend groups, each donning a dazzling color of their own. The furisode is arguably the most glamorous of them all in terms of the print design of the fabric.

When to wear?

The furisode is usually worn during the Coming Age Day ceremony, a celebration that marks the coming of age and maturity of young girls and congratulating them. These girls will go all out with their physical presentation — expect to see full-face makeup and elegant hairstyles to match their fancy furisode. 

The furisode for this occasion is usually gifted by the girl’s parents, usually a family heirloom. For families that don’t have one, they will then rent the furisode as the price of purchasing one can be anywhere from ¥100,000 to ¥150,000!

Other occasions to wear the furisode includes attending a wedding ceremony. More than likely if it’s a traditional Japanese wedding, the bridesmaids and female guests will put on their elegant furisode for the occasion. 

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress
Woman in tomesode, photo by Laura Tomàs Avellana

Tomesode

The best way to differentiate the tomesode type of kimono is by the motif position — this type is distinguished by having the patterns only below the waistline. There are two types of tomesode: one is the colored one called the irotomesode and the other is the black colored one, known as the kurotomesode

The kurotomesode is the most formal type of kimono. It holds the family crest at five different places — one on each sleeve, two at the front on the chest area, and one at the back. The kurotomesode can only be worn by married women

Unlike the kurotomesode, the irotomesode can be worn by unmarried women and they’re not as formal as the other. 

When to wear?

Because the kurotomesode is one of the highest levels of kimono type, it is only worn during the most special of occasions. You’ll often see the mother of the bride and groom wearing the kurotomesode.

The irotomesode is slightly different but also on the higher end of the formality spectrum of kimono types. While it’s lower than kurotomesode, it’s still worn during special occasions but not as exclusive as the kurotomesode. Usually, the other family members and relatives during a wedding ceremony will wear them.

Why Do Japanese Wear Kimonos? — A Look At Japan's Traditional Dress

Why Wear The Kimono: Olden Days vs Modern Day

The reasons behind wearing the kimono in the olden days compared to the modern-day are polar opposites — you might even say they’re not even on the same spectrum! 

While it all began as just essential clothing wear for the Japanese back in the olden days, it evolved to become a way of communicating and representing not only social status but one’s personality traits and features. The same message is still well-received today but they are not as significant as they were back then.

In fact, in the modern-day, all levels of social status and hierarchy in terms of kimono might as well be considered gone. Back then, silk was a luxury and premium material that only the higher-ups were able to get their hands on, but now, silk is as easily accessible as cotton. 

A kimono is worn in the present day as a sign of respect to the Japanese people’s traditional roots during formal events and occasions, which is why they’re often seen at weddings and funerals as these instances are of high importance.

On top of that, our current generation is seeing many interpretations of the traditional kimono presented in a myriad of ways. Everything from the wrapping method of the kimono and prints to the silhouette and structure is incorporated into all types of fashion pieces that you can see being worn casually on the streets of Japan. Of course, the original kimonos are still only used for formal occasions.

To Summarise…

The kimono has come a mega long way. With such a rich history, it’s no wonder it has evolved into becoming quite a broad category of clothing consisting of various types of kimono for their specific timing to wear them. Not to mention how the reason for wearing the kimono has also taken its own fair share of evolution. One thing’s unchanging though, and that’s how the kimono has such a strong symbolism that still stands strong today.

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