Kimono: what is it & why it's so important

Published November 12th, 2021

This traditional Japanese clothing is quite ubiquitous. The word and style of “kimono” is obvious to everyone that it belongs to the Japanese. Once it was a basic piece of clothing, but it now has become a fashion symbol not only in Japan but also worldwide. But did you know that the kimono has a very culturally rich history? Every piece of kimono is significant to the wearer and there are various types of it to suit different occasions.

To the untrained, naked eye, you can’t see the difference, but with this article, you just might. Here’s all you need to know about the kimono — its history, significance, and what the piece of cloth resembles today.

What is the kimono?

So first thing’s first: what is the kimono? A kimono is a traditional wear for the Japanese. The word “kimono” is made up of the kanji characters 着 (ki, “wear” in Japanese) and 物 (mono, “thing” in Japanese). When you combine them together, you get “thing to wear”.

These are usually full-length robes sewn in a T-shape manner. They are often 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.

History of the kimono

During the Heian period, about 794 to 1192 AD, this is when the kimono was first created. The kimono was just a simple garment for the people to wear conveniently. Just like the kimono we are familiar with now, it consisted of straight cuts and made to fit every size and body type.

The kimono rose to popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868). The Japanese wore it proudly, regardless of age, social status or gender. Many were wearing the same type of clothing, so some became more experimental with the kimono designs. People started customising.

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 the expensive types. But the Japanese people were smart, and designed some that could only be seen as luxurious if you’re really close to the fabric.

Skip a few centuries and when the Meiji era (1868-1912) came around, the government ordered the citizens to wear Western clothing instead. This was part of the country’s fast-paced Westernisation. The kimono slowly disappeared from everyday streets. People were wearing Western clothing like suits to work.

But the kimono wasn’t gone. People were wearing them at home, during formal occasions and festivals. These customs are still upheld today.

What Does The Kimono Symbolise?

There are no two kimonos that are the same. Every kimono is unique. A small alteration in a kimono represents something. It can be a significant change in meaning or it can even be a subtle one. But no two kimonos symbolise the same thing.

Material is one of the major factors that affect the symbolism of kimono. Traditionally, Kimonos were traditionally made of handmade fabrics and also decorated by hand. Usually, these are silk, linen and hemp. The lower class was more often seen with kimonos made of cheaper fabric like cotton. The upper class wore kimonos made of more expensive fabric like silk and satin. These were used to express their social status. Today, status and class don’t matter as much. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and rayon are even used now!

The motif of the kimono is also used to communicate social status. These motifs are also a way to express personality traits and other characteristics. Designs can come in forms of symbols and patterns. Popular motifs are inspired by natural elements like blossoms, birds and leaves. It’s similar to traditional Japanese art like woodblock prints. Some motifs are also specially made for a clan or royal family.

Another factor is colour. The first two differentiated classes back in the day. Colour symbolises the kimono’s characteristics. A great example is a blue kimono, which is seen as a repellent against insects as the colour comes from indigo. Indigo has long been used to treat stings and bites, hence the connection is made there.

Wearing The Kimono Today

Wearing a kimono now and back in the day are for various different reasons. It all began as just essential clothing for the Japanese. It then evolved into a way of communicating and representing social status and one’s personality traits and features.

Nowadays, though, all levels of social status and hierarchy from the kimono might as well be considered gone. Silk was considered luxury because it was a premium fabric to get. Now, silk is just as easy to buy as cotton.

When wearing kimono in the present day, it’s a sign of respect to the Japanese people’s traditional roots. Most of the time, kimonos are worn during formal events and occasions.

The current generation is seeing many interpretations of the traditional kimono presented in a myriad of ways. There’s a new modern take on the kimono, involving everything from the wrapping method of the kimono and prints to the silhouette and structure.

Would you wear a kimono?

So as you can see, the kimono has come quite a long way – from significance and meaning to design and reason to wear. It has a significantly rich history encompassing various types of them. We have an article just about the various types of kimono – check that one out!

One thing’s never going to change is that the kimono will always have a strong symbolism in the Japanese culture.