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Japanese Kimono

Robes during the Heian period were voluminous and multi-layered.
Hiroshige Utagawa, Kunisada Utagawa, and Kyu_shiro_Maruya, Chiryu, April 1855, color woodblock print, Gift of Louis W. Hill Jr.

The octagons on this robe were inspired by a popular Chinese design.
Kariginu, brocade on a dark blue twill-weave ground, Edo period, Gift of the Harriet Hanley Estate and Kathryn Glessing

Europeans were intrigued by Japanese culture during the late 1800s.
Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876, oil on canvas, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

key idea
Ever-changing styles

Originally, the Japanese word kimono meant “the thing worn,” referring to many types of Japanese clothing. Today, we think of a kimono as a T-shaped robe that wraps around in the front and is tied with a sash, called an obi. Although historically both men and women wore these robes, today women are most likely to wear them. And instead of wearing kimonos as everyday attire, women most often wear them at special ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies, and children’s festivals.

Clothing styles changed throughout Japanese history. Fashion of the Nara period (645–794) was highly influenced by Chinese styles, especially in the use of silk. During the Heian period (794–1185), it was popular to wear many layers of clothing–in fact; women of the elite class would wear as many as 15 to 40 layers! The practice of wearing these layers was later discarded during the Kamukura period (1185–1333), when people wore just the under-robe, called the kosode, which means “small sleeve,” referring to the opening at the wrist. The kimono style we know today is derived from the kosode. One of the most important fashion eras in Japan was the Edo period (1615–1868). During this time a new dyeing process was developed and detailed patterns became popular.

In the late 1800s, Japanese dress was increasingly influenced by the West. Many Japanese men and women combined their traditional clothing with Western apparel. For example, a man wore his short coat (haori) with Western-style trousers. Some women wore American-style blouses or European-style shoes under their kimonos.

While Japan embraced Western fashion, the fashionable society in both Europe and the United States became interested in Japanese arts and culture. Stylish Western women began wearing Japanese kimonos to society functions.

Kimonos are still worn for important celebrations, such as weddings.
Shinto Wedding, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Tokyo , 2005, digital photograph by williamjr on
March 2008