Kimonos and Other Traditional Japanese Clothing

Don't worry, there won't be a quiz.
Don't worry, there won't be a quiz.

Basics and History of the Kimono

The Kimono, worn by men and women, was the standard clothing for most people in Japan for centuries, prior to the opening of the country to trade with Western industrial powers in the Meiji era (mid-19th century). While kimonos are still worn in traditional spheres such as ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), at tea ceremonies, at festivals, weddings, and other formal occasions, the Japanese gradually started to favor modern, western clothing for everyday use for practical reasons. (Wikipedia: link below)

I feel that kimonos and other forms of traditional Japanese clothing (wafuku) have a timeless elegance to them, much like 19th century ball gowns.

Traditional Kabuki Costume
Traditional Kabuki Costume | Source

Contemporary Use

Like I said earlier, there are still facets of Japanese society where the kimono or other traditional garments were not replaced by Western wear. These include:

  • Geisha, who primarily exist in Kyoto where the tradition is most kept alive, but can be found all over Japan, though few exist today.
  • Festivals, which are celebrated at various times throughout the year, some being local, some national.
  • Sumo wrestling and other traditional Japanese martial arts.
  • Kabuki theater
  • The tea ceremony
  • Ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns
  • Weddings, funerals, and other formal occasions: Japanese people may either wear a kimono or formal Western dress

Interestingly, at most beauty salons in Japan, one can get help in putting on and tying the sash (obi) around their kimono. Most kimonos are difficult for the uninitiated to put on correctly, and another person is usually required to help tie the sash (obi) and knotted cord sometimes also used.


As wikipedia mentions, even though second-hand kimonos can be purchased relatively cheaply, the skilled craftsmanship necessary to make obi keeps them fairly expensive.
As wikipedia mentions, even though second-hand kimonos can be purchased relatively cheaply, the skilled craftsmanship necessary to make obi keeps them fairly expensive. | Source

Men's vs. Women's Kimonos

When most people hear the word "kimono" they probably think of the long, elegant, elaborate, beautifully decorated women's kimonos. Men's kimonos are plainer, with less patterning and more drab colors. They feature a narrower obi (sash) with a smaller, simpler knot in the back.

A man's kimono is sometimes worn with hakama, or wide-leg trousers, beneath it. These pants are used in many traditional Japanese martial arts. Red hakama are worn traditionally by miko, or Shinto 'shrine maidens', young girls who act as caretakers of Shinto shrines. (More about traditional miko clothing later in this article.)

The men's kimono is often worn with a haori, a kind of formal kimono jacket, over it. Traditionally this was only worn by men.

A furisode kimono with long sleeves is the most formal kind of kimono for unmarried women, or women under the age of 20.
A furisode kimono with long sleeves is the most formal kind of kimono for unmarried women, or women under the age of 20.
This style of short-sleeved kimono is more associated with married women. Older women tend to wear darker and more subdued patterns than younger women.
This style of short-sleeved kimono is more associated with married women. Older women tend to wear darker and more subdued patterns than younger women.
Geisha's kimonos are known for the  neckline in the back which shows off white marks on the nape of the neck. The obi in a geisha's kimono is wide and high. They wear a headdress, usually of synthetic hair, with elaborate kanzashi, or hair ornaments.
Geisha's kimonos are known for the neckline in the back which shows off white marks on the nape of the neck. The obi in a geisha's kimono is wide and high. They wear a headdress, usually of synthetic hair, with elaborate kanzashi, or hair ornaments. | Source
This doll shows the kimono of the "oiran" or courtesan, of the Edo period. During this time, prostitution was legal, but heavily regulated, with prostitutes being confined to certain districts known as the "pleasure quarters".
This doll shows the kimono of the "oiran" or courtesan, of the Edo period. During this time, prostitution was legal, but heavily regulated, with prostitutes being confined to certain districts known as the "pleasure quarters". | Source

Kimono and the Wearer's Status

Historically, Japanese society used kimono styles and patterns for both men and women to denote a person's social status. The imperial family wore the most complicated and longest kimonos. Long, trailing sleeves were considered appropriate for young, unmarried women and inappropriate for older or married women. Poorer people wore plain, solid-colored kimonos made of linen or cotton, whereas the rich more often could afford to wear silk.

While Japan had some of its own silk industry, the best silks were imported from China, making the use of silk a luxury. Today you can still see this in the fact that silk kimonos are more formal and cotton yukata or kimonos are informal wear, commonly seen at festivals and ryokan. In traditional Japanese society, everyone's position and rank was plainly visible based on their style of dress.

The common, but untrue, assumption that traditional geisha were prostitutes is actually blown apart by the fact that geisha and prostitutes in the Edo period wore very different styles of kimono: the prostitutes wore a kimono with the sash tied in the front rather than the back, to make it easier for them to get their clothes on and off quickly!

In contrast, a geisha's kimono was very elaborate and tied in the back like most kimonos do, but featured a kind of neckline that hung low in the back, showing off the stripes of face paint on the back of the neck. Geisha were basically just hired as entertainers and companions, but sex or even kissing in such elaborate costumes and makeup was almost out of the question. But the ancient Japanese people recognized that even talking to an exceptionally beautiful person was worth paying a little for. While geisha still exist, I think the modern form of them is very much seen in the "Japanese idol" phenomenon; in both cases, the girls are supposed to be beautiful, charming, and polite, and in both cases their primary profession is entertainment. Elements of the "geisha as companion" tradition carry over today in the form of the host and hostess clubs, where people go to have conversations, and to dine or have coffee, with beautiful people of the opposite sex.

On the low end of things, the peasant class was considered to be putting on airs and getting above themselves if they wore kimonos that were too fancy. Laborers, craftsman, fishermen, and farmers also had to take practical considerations when choosing a kimono. Making kimonos was usually considered women's work, and was usually done as a small-scale industry.

Yukata

Yukata are less formal kimonos without interior linings, often worn during the summer, at ryokan, at onsen (hot springs resorts), and at festivals. They are considered inappropriate for more formal occasions, but for festivals especially they are popular because they're easier to wear, and a bit more comfortable to move around in, than a kimono.

Modern geta sandals
Modern geta sandals | Source
Traditional tabi typically worn with a kimono or yukata.
Traditional tabi typically worn with a kimono or yukata.
This form of tabi are a modern creation, and would not have been possible to make prior to the Meiji period, but even the inaccurate Hollywood image of ninjitsu is pretty cool, nonetheless.
This form of tabi are a modern creation, and would not have been possible to make prior to the Meiji period, but even the inaccurate Hollywood image of ninjitsu is pretty cool, nonetheless. | Source

Traditional Japanese Footwear and Accessories

Basically, footwear with the kimono are usually either zori or geta, which are both flip-flop-like sandals. Zori are made with interlocking weaves of straw, whereas geta are generally made with wood. Beneath these, you have the traditional style of Japanese socks, called tabi, which are made with the toe configuration of the sandals in mind.

It's worth mentioning that the ninja made use of a kind of modified tabi to make their boots from, because the wood or bamboo sandals were not conducive to silent movement. That is why, if you see a movie with ninja in it, the boot has a toe divide; originally, they were just sneaking around in just their socks, and over time, these socks became modified for climbing walls and fighting and other ninja shenanigans. Today, most "ninja tabi" you see are black with rubber soles, which isn't historically authentic, but is good for martial arts training. However, most real-life ninja didn't actually wear the all-black garb most people associate with them; they wore clothes to fit in with their surroundings or to gain access to certain places, meaning they more commonly wore disguises than the tight, black outfits which are a fiction of Hollywood.

Kanzashi are the traditional hair ornaments worn by women. The most elaborate are worn by geisha. Different styles of kanzashi are worn for different festivals and times of the year. The practice is thought to have originated in the Jomon period, when people wore small rods in their hair as amulets to ward off evil spirits. However, contemporary styles of kanzashi mostly date back to the Nara period, when many cultural attributes from China became influential and popular in Japan.

The shrine maiden, or miko, wears a white haori (kimono jacket) tucked into red hakama (trousers).
The shrine maiden, or miko, wears a white haori (kimono jacket) tucked into red hakama (trousers).

Traditional Japanese Garb for Shrine Maidens

While hakama, or wide-legged trousers, are often associated with men, especially samurai and those practicing certain martial arts, red hakama are paired with a white kimono top to form the traditional garb for Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko. Miko show up in anime, as they are often associated with having mystical powers in stories. In real life, they take on more mundane duties associated with running shrines, and also live a very spiritual life, similar to monks and nuns. Some of them do fortune telling, and all of them participate in various Shinto rituals. Nowadays, many girls working as miko are high school or university students who take it on as a part-time job, but in the past, it was more of a lifelong commitment, like other religious callings.

Examples of Kimonos in Anime

The girls of 'Lucky Star' look adorable in their festival Yukata!
The girls of 'Lucky Star' look adorable in their festival Yukata!
The girls of Sailor Moon wear yukata in the occasional Japanese festival episode. How cute!
The girls of Sailor Moon wear yukata in the occasional Japanese festival episode. How cute!
Inuyasha's Kikyo wears the traditional garb of a Shinto miko.
Inuyasha's Kikyo wears the traditional garb of a Shinto miko.
Historical shows, such as "Basilisk", show characters in traditional dress. Sometimes, however, these shows give some of the characters' traditional garb a modern upgrade.
Historical shows, such as "Basilisk", show characters in traditional dress. Sometimes, however, these shows give some of the characters' traditional garb a modern upgrade.

Kimono-Wearing Dolls

Conclusion

While there is no doubt that western-style clothing is going to continue to be the usual form of dress in Japan, I'm glad that some people are keeping alive this historical tradition. The kimono is a quintessential hallmark of Japanese cultural identity, as are associated accessories. The making of kimono was once "women's work" and was a major source of income for women in the past, as was the related trade of silk farming. But while the word "kimono" conjures images in the mind of elegant femininity, men and peasants also wore more subdued, practical kimonos in the past. What the kimono lacks in terms of expense and inconvenience, it makes up for in its beauty.

Have you ever worn a kimono, yukata, or other traditional Japanese clothing? If so, please relate your experience in the comments!

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Is it OK for Westerners to Wear a Kimono? Basically, yes!

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3 comments

Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 13 months ago from Australia

I bought some 2nd-hand kimono and men's haori (the shorter jacket, is this correct?) when in Japan - the material and workmanship are just exquisite, and I will wear them on formal occasions. I feel honoured to have them a way of keeping a traditon alive while crossing it across cultures.


RachaelLefler profile image

RachaelLefler 13 months ago from Illinois Author

Hi Anne,

Yeah, it's neat. Each of them is like a work of art.


CYong74 profile image

CYong74 8 months ago from Singapore

Wow, your article is really detailed, with plenty of informative good pictures. Big thumbs up!

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