Previously on Is it a Robe? Is it a Jacket? No, It’s a Kimono!

We have had the opportunity to gain insights into the historical evolution of the kimono, tracing its origins and understanding its profound cultural significance. Throughout our exploration, we have witnessed how the kimono has evolved over centuries, influenced by a myriad of factors such as geography, climate, trade, cultural interactions, natural disasters, and shifts in societal norms. While our previous investigations have primarily focused on kimonos exclusively designed for women, it is essential to acknowledge the existence of kimonos specifically tailored for men, as well as other traditional garments that are worn by individuals of both genders in Japan. In this segment of our series, we shall embark on an examination of some of these distinct garments and accompanying accessories.




An indigo dyed cotton yukata; “Tie and dyed cotton women’s robe”, c. mid 20th century, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500840 ASIA, The Zay Initiative,

A yarn dyed cotton ikat yukata; “Yarn dyed cotton women’s robe”, c. mid 20th century, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500842 ASIA, The Zay Initiative,


The term (yukata) quite literally translates to “bath clothes,” although its contemporary utility transcends the confines of bath attire. It represents the quintessential unlined traditional garment, characterized by shorter sleeves, typically fashioned from cotton, linen, or hemp materials, rendering it ideal for warm-weather seasons. These attractive, more often than not indigo dyed blue and white kimonos finds favour among individuals of varying age groups and serves as an apparel choice for a multitude of informal occasions, including sojourns at ryokans or traditional Japanese inns or onsen or hot springs, participation in Japanese traditional festivals such as the summer festival matsuri and the fireworks festival hanabitaikai, engagement in sundry summer pastimes, or simply meandering during the summer months.

During the mid-Edo period, a sophisticated stencil printing technique was innovated, specifically tailored for the production of yukata, a traditional kimono that continues to be worn universally by both men and women in contemporary Japan. Originally crafted from bast-fibre fabrics such as hemp, yukata initially retained their status as bathrobes and were not donned for public outings until the later stages of the Edo period – 1603-1868 CE.

As the 19th century dawned, religious practitioners began to adopt water-based purification rituals, subsequently inspiring the samurai and nobility to embrace this practice. The unsuitability of silk for such aquatic rituals necessitated the transition to cotton or linen-like fabrics. This transformation extended beyond the upper echelons of society and permeated into the middle and lower strata, resulting in the establishment of public bathhouses in Tokyo. Consequently, individuals who walked from their residences to these communal bathing facilities began to exhibit a preference for more ornate yukata, which were suitable for public display.

Nonetheless, the iconic blue and white colour scheme of the yukata did not emerge until the advent of large-scale cotton production in Japan. As cotton became a ubiquitous household commodity, artisans specializing in finishing processes, including dyers and printers, came to recognize indigo’s innate compatibility with cotton fibres. This marked the inception of the enduring union between the yukata and the timeless shades of blue and white.




Front and Back of a printed silk nagajuban; “Resist printed men’s under robe”, c. early 20th century, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500841 ASIA, The Zay Initiative,

An under garment for a kimono, nagajuban is worn to keep the kimono from getting dirty and is often an unlined garment made of lightweight fabric. It is also worn by both men and women and is usually shorter in length than a regular kimono typically falling at the ankle and is secured above the waist level  with a tie.

An essential undergarment for the kimono, the nagajuban exhibits distinct characteristics in its design and composition. Its sleeves typically remain unsealed along the entire cuff side, with only a few stitches connecting both sides at the juncture where a conventional kimono’s sleeve cuff would end. These sleeves lack any curvature along the outer edge, maintaining a square shape. Furthermore, the nagajuban’s length is generally slightly shorter than that of a kimono when worn. Its lack of any surplus length and overlapping panels in the front and a collar set at a lower angle compared to a standard kimono does not allow the front fold or oshashori. It is noteworthy that nagajuban serve as foundational undergarments and are worn beneath various types of kimonos, excluding the yukata.

Nagajuban are typically constructed from lightweight materials, with silk being a common choice. Women’s nagajuban can exhibit either patterns or a plain surface, with contemporary variants frequently adopting a white colouration. Conversely, men’s nagajuban are often dyed in dark hues and may be fashioned from the same fabric as the outer kimono, as certain kimono fabric bolts are woven with sufficient length to accommodate this dual usage. Men’s nagajuban frequently boast greater ornamentation than their female counterparts, frequently featuring intricately dyed pictorial scenes on the upper back panel.

The term nagajuban is a compound word formed by merging naga, signifying long, and juban, connoting undergarments. Intriguingly, the etymology of the latter component, juban, traces its roots to the Portuguese word gibao, denoting a snug-fitting doublet resembling a contemporary shirt, itself borrowed from the Arabic term jubbah.



Front and Back of a printed nagagi; “Resist printed linen men’s robe”, c. 1900, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500841 ASIA, The Zay Initiative,

The nagagi, commonly known as ‘haori clothing’ in the Western world, is a type of men’s kimono typically worn in combination with a haori jacket. Crafted from materials like silk, cotton, or hemp, the nagagi distinguishes itself from traditional Japanese men’s attire by omitting the customary hakama trousers typically worn by men. This versatile garment is suitable for a range of occasions, spanning from semi-formal gatherings to casual get-togethers, including dinners with friends, informal nights out, and various relaxed social events.



Front and Back of a dyed silk haori jacket; “Tie and dyed silk men’s jacket”, c. mid 20th century, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500483 ASIA, The Zay Initiative,

The (haori) is a traditional Japanese jacket, worn either at hip or thigh-length, and typically donned over a kimono. It lacks the overlapping front panels and features a narrower collar compared to a standard kimono and is distinguished by the addition of two slender, triangular panels sewn into each side seam. To fasten the haori at the front, two short cords known as (haori_himo) are employed, attaching to small loops sewn within the garment.

With the Edo period’s, marked economic prosperity amongst the affluent yet socially lower-ranked merchant class, disposable income became abundant. A significant portion of this surplus wealth was allocated towards clothing expenditures. Restricted by various dress regulations imposed by the ruling classes, that merchant-class Japanese men during this era, prompted the usage of haori characterized by plain external designs but adorned with lavishly decorated linings—a trend that continues to influence men’s haori fashion to this day.

In the early 1800s, the geisha community in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo, renowned for their distinctive and stylish fashion choice, began incorporating haori into their kimono ensembles. Up until that point, haori had exclusively been a male garment. This trend led to the widespread adoption of haori amongst Japanese women by the 1930s.


A woven michiyuki; “Woven silk women’s jacket”, c. 1939-45, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500482 ASIA, The Zay Initiative,

This is a traditional kimono coat with a specific purpose. Designed for wear when venturing outdoors, the michiyuki serves multiple functions: protecting the kimono beneath it from dirt and moisture while providing additional warmth to the wearer. Michiyuki coats come in various lengths, ranging from short, waist-length versions to those as long as the kimono itself. Typically, they feature plain colours or subtle, understated patterns, a deliberate choice considering their intended role as a protective outer layer subjected to more wear and tear than the kimono beneath.

In contrast to the haori, another traditional kimono over-garment, michiyuki boasts a square neckline and is typically fastened using buttons. Historically, michiyuki has primarily been tailored for women, whereas the haori originally served as a male garment, later adapted into a female version.


A woven obi; “Woven women’s waistband”, c. mid 20th century, Japan; Acc No: ZI2017.500838 ASIA, The Zay Initiative, NOTE: This pic is a placeholder low res one because the object has not been photographed yet professionally,

The obi is a versatile belt worn in conjunction with the traditional Japanese kimono. It has evolved significantly in its size, shape, and style since its humble origins in Heian period Japan. Originally a slender and unassuming belt, the obi has undergone a transformation, resulting in an array of diverse varieties characterized by differences in size, proportions, lengths, and tying techniques. While initially sharing a similar appearance for both genders, the obi has diversified into a broader spectrum of styles for women compared to men over time.

The story of the obi is a fascinating tale that sheds light on its central role in traditional kimono ensembles. In this hierarchy of attire, the obi takes precedence over the main kimono, and its significance can be traced back to its intriguing origins.

During the Kamakura era – 1185-1333 CE – women used a simple sash to secure their daily attire around their waist, a practice that endured until the Genroku period – 1688-1704 CE. These women maintained a curated collection of sashes to match their various outfits, a sensible approach to fashion at the time.

However, a pivotal transformation occurred thanks to the world of Kabuki theatre. Legend has it that a kabuki artist – male – known for portraying female roles, was exceptionally tall. To divert the audience’s attention from his towering stature while on stage, he began wearing a wide, stiff sash adorned with intricate knots, allowing it to trail behind him. This striking innovation captivated the courtesans of the era, who eagerly adopted the style, subsequently popularizing it throughout society.

Another, perhaps more accurate, theory attributes the creation of the obi to weavers in Kyoto. The demand for elaborate brocade fabrics waned due to Japan’s sumptuary laws, which restricted the use of such opulent textiles to the upper class. Ironically, the nobility couldn’t afford these lavish garments, and the wealthy merchant class, despite having the means, faced their own set of sumptuary limitations, including restrictions on the number of new robes they could acquire each year.

Ingeniously, the weavers in Kyoto identified a loophole in the laws. They clandestinely collaborated with theatre artists and kabuki actors to promote a new fashion trend that showcased their exquisite brocades and tapestry-woven fabrics. This partnership birthed a multitude of intricate sash tying techniques, each knot coming to signify the wearer’s age and social status. For instance, courtesans – geisha – preferred to tie their obi in the front for ease and speed of removal, while young unmarried women wore it at the back with long, flowing ends trailing behind them.

Over time, the obi ascended to become the focal point of women’s attire, to the extent that the design of the kimono itself drew inspiration from the obi. By the 19th century, kimono embellishments were strategically placed near the hemline, allowing wearers to determine the level of extravagance in their obi, a practice that continues to shape fashion choices to this day.

Coming Up!

  • Japanese family crests and their use
  • Shibori, Katazome and Yuzen