What is a kimono? The answer to that would generally be ‘the complex-looking traditional garments, worn by Japanese women, that are more often than not accompanied by even more complex-looking, larger-than-life bows.’
While that explanation would not be absolutely wrong, it would certainly be incomplete. While to the outside world, who by and large are used to wearing a bodice and a pair of trousers in some form or another, or a tunic of some kind, a kimono may look daunting yet undoubtedly beautiful at the same time. However, the complexity of a kimono is not in its complicated bow or its drapes, it is in the etiquette. A kimono is not just a mere garment to be worn when attending parties or going out, it is a symbol that defines the essence of the moment. From “Kon’nichiwa” to “Sayōnara” there is a kimono for every occasion, and each one of them is bound to be a work of art and love, dedication and perfection.
Japanese kimonos have captured the essence of Japanese culture and tradition for centuries. Steeped in socio-political history involving trade and cultural exchanges between nations, the history and evolution of the kimono is indeed fascinating – a thorough exploration of which shall be shelved for the time being, as it could only be possible in a space dedicated to it. However, we do require a basic knowledge of Japanese history starting from around the 8th century CE.
The ancient and medieval period witnessed a great deal of Sino-Japanese cultural exchanges. There has always been a solid socio-cultural bonding between the two nations through trade and politics, especially during the Tang Period (c. 618-907 CE) in China. Japan had been involved in 19 cultural and trade expeditions to China between c. 607-838 CE. Things were going great until multiple shipwrecks, vessel damages, and unfavourable wind conditions prevented further exchanges. Up until the early Heian Period (c. 794-1600 CE), Japanese court fashion was almost always heavily influenced by Chinese products, especially textiles. However, with the failed expeditions, Chinese imported goods did not even make it to the Japanese ports, which essentially meant that even the upper class, the so-called bastions and creators (arguably) of culture, who otherwise could both afford and were allowed to wear imported clothes, were prevented from it. Thus, impeding them from establishing a tradition, and disseminating it within the existing Japanese society and creating space and opportunity for the development and evolution of indigenous Japanese culture and traditions independent of Chinese influences. Of course, there were remnants of existing Chinese influences that cannot be completely ignored, but by and large, an independent cultural identity was formed that evolved over time to reflect Japanese aesthetics and values.
It is a mystery as to why Japanese kimonos are so unflatteringly shaped. Historians hold the belief that it can be attributed to two main factors: the strong societal value placed on avoiding waste and the interruption of trade with China. While earlier Chinese fabrics were often cut and stitched, after the discontinuation, it became imperative to use cloth economically as local weavers struggled to meet growing demands.
Now that we know the basic history, let us delve into the garments – their style, construction, colour, pattern, distinctions, and names.
First, we will look at the two direct predecessors of the kimono which are still in use.
A portmanteau of two Japanese words – juni meaning twelve; and hitoe meaning unlined robes – a (junihitoe) is exactly that – twelve layers of unlined robes. While wearing layered clothing was a direct influence of centuries of cultural exchanges with China, the creation and evolution of the junihitoe was equally native to Japan. Apart from the sudden halt in cultural exchange across the East China Sea, there emerged a ‘native style’ in architecture too. Looking to the past for inspiration, Japanese houses were built a foot or so off the ground, evoking the style of the rice granaries of the past. The rooms had an open plan by which they were separated from the gardens by foldable latticed wall panels. This arrangement fostered a close and intimate relationship with nature. However, these attractive features that continue to be a part of traditional Japanese architectural styles made houses cold and draughty. Although enjoying a steamy summer, the winter months in Japan are usually freezing especially in land-locked areas like Kyoto. Unfortunately, wool remained extremely exotic in Japan until about the 18th century. Thus, Japanese society adopted the layered look to keep themselves warm and comfortable. Interestingly, society’s tendency of exaggeration even with their clothes often led to women sometimes adopting fifteen to forty layers especially at the imperial court, resulting in bouts of swooning and fainting of women due to the overwhelming weight.
Interestingly, the original term for layered clothing was karaginumo, which more often than not exceeded twelve layers for women. The term junihitoe to describe layered robes came about by mistake. While deciphering and working on a famous Japanese epic that dealt with a court lady trying to escape her enemies by jumping into a river, historians came across the protagonist being described as wearing twelve layers of unlined robes – junihitoe. Thus, the term was coined to describe any layered and unlined robes worn together. Today the junihitoe is still worn ceremonially, but the number of layers has been exponentially reduced to a far more manageable limit.
Kosode and Hakama:
Although it cannot be categorized as a kimono, the (kosode) is the immediate predecessor of the kimono. It was a wider, looser variant of the kimono and featured longer collars as well as completely sewn and elaborately round yet narrower sleeves. During the Heian period, the kosode was an everyday garment usually made of white or, very rarely, plain red silk. It was worn by both genders. The earliest examples were probably knee-length, so that they could be tucked into loose, wide-legged trousers (hakama). Originally the kosode functioned as an undergarment. Constructed out of two full-width cloths sewn together down the back lengthwise and left open in the front. Extra widths of cloths were stitched to the main garment to make the sleeves and construct a front overlap. Usually, the men’s kosode, styled after the king’s had a round neck, while women’s kosode had a longer V shaped neckline where the outer edge of the collar could be folded to create the first of the colourful multilayer junihitoe. Women also wore kosode with a hakama and a wrap in the privacy of their home.
On the other hand, over time, the hakama too became long and cumbersome to the point where the end of the hakama legs would often trail behind the wearer like a couple of parallel trains. In fact, the last few years of the Heian period had experienced quite a few fatal fires across the kingdom. The biggest of them all, ended up killing many aristocrats, men and women alike, because their escape was impeded by their cumbersome trailing robes. Some even perished under the weight. These incidents finally led to a substantial reduction of the layering to just five, a number that is still prominent at present, and limited the layered ensemble only to ceremonial occasions. This gave more prominence to the kosode, finally making it the primary outerwear with a gradual increase in its length until it reached the wearer’s ankles.