Woman in Kimono

Around the world, the kimono is recognized as the national dress of Japan. Made from a single, long fourteen-inch-wide bolt of silk, the kimono has an over-all T-shape, with its component parts joined mostly in straight, vertical seams. In contrast to typical Western garb, the kimono is flat rather than three-dimensional, and angular, not form-fitting. It is more an expression of surface design by means of dyed and/or embroidered patterns than a product of tailoring and weave.

The term "kimono" was coined during Japan's first era of modernization, the Meiji Period (1868-1912), in response to the heightened awareness of the Japanese to Western clothing, customs, and ideas. Japan had recently emerged from an enforced period of isolation with feelings of self-consciousness in regard to their dress as compared to that of occidentals. A dichotomy was established distinguishing Western clothing (yōfuku) from native dress (wafuku).

Kimono, the best-known article of traditional clothing, takes its name from the verb kiru, meaning "to wear," and mono, meaning "thing." In its narrowest sense, the kimono is the descendant of the kosode, a former undergarment that emerged prior to the Edo period (1603-1868) as the principal article of dress most sensitive to changes in styles and fashion. More broadly, kimono can refer to any traditional Japanese T-shaped garment, whether worn by men or women in any context-sacred or secular, for weddings or funerals, onstage or at festivals, or simply for relaxing at home.

Kosode/Kimono Parameters

The kosode takes its name from the adjective ko, meaning "small," and sode, for "sleeve." In that a kosode/kimono sleeve has the appearance of a large pouch, it is difficult to consider the kosode sleeve as being small. In fact, what is small relative to the overall sleeve size is the opening through which the hand passes. The kosode sleeve opening is so-named in contrast to the ōsode sleeve, which is entirely open and unsewn.

The kosode took precedence over the ōsode as the was relegated to conservative milieux such as court rites, religious rituals, and the no theater. Other variations in construction include the absence or presence of a lining, wide lapels that overlap or narrow ones that abut, a flat collar, and the occasional use of padding. When the front panels of the robe are wide enough to overlap, the left front panel is always closed over the right side. The obi is a sash used to secure the robe around the body.

Distinctions existed among kosode of the past, some of which are still current in kimonos. One type of kosode, the furisode (literally, "swinging sleeves") has sleeves especially long in their vertical dimension. The furisode is reserved for unmarried girls. The katabira, for which the nearest modern descendant is the yukata, was unlined and not made of silk, but rather of a bast fiber (usually hemp or ramie). Two other types of kosode, called koshimaki and uchikake, were worn as outer robes on top of another kosode. The koshimaki was densely embroidered with small auspicious motifs and draped around the hips while held in place by an obi. It became obsolete; however, the uchikake, worn like a cape and not fastened at the waist, had a thickly padded hem and was still being worn at marriage ceremonies in the early 2000s.

Early Styles

After the kosode ceased to be the plain, unpatterned silk garment worn next to the skin under layers of voluminous robes, as in the Heian Period (794-1185), it served as outerwear, initially for the lower classes and eventually for the samurai class and the aristocracy.

One of the first discernible styles in kosode, nuihaku, featured decoration in embroidery (nui) and metallic foil (haku). In some examples, the robe's markedly contrasting sections differ in both motifs and color schemes. Another early style, known by the poetic name tsujigahana (literally "flowers at the crossroads"), was technically exacting, involving careful tie-dyeing, delicate ink painting, and, occasionally, embroidery and applied metallic foil. Some kosode patterned in this fashion were only decorated at the shoulders and hem, with the midsection left empty. primary vehicle for fashion, while the o

Kanbun Style

The earliest style for which there is considerable pictorial and written documentation, as well as extant garments, is known as Kanbun (1661-1673) after the Japanese era of that name. Order books from the Kariganeya clothing atelier in Kyoto, which catered to samurai class and aristocratic clients, reveal an exuberant asymmetrical style often featuring large-scale motifs in a sweeping composition extending from the shoulders to the hem, with the left body panel (as viewed from the back) mostly free of decoration in its midsection. The broad, flat expanse of surface area and the T-shape, two characteristics inherent in kosode construction, are exploited to their full design potential in such robes.

In Kanbun kosode, tiny tie-dye spots were used extensively in the creation of individual motifs, and in combination with embroidery in polychrome silk threads and gold and silver threads. Occasionally, written characters in a flowing script were incorporated into the design scheme, adding a literary aspect and creating deeper levels of meaning in the pattern by combining words with individual design motifs.

The two most elite (and, eventually, most conservative) levels of society, the aristocracy and the samurai class, were patrons of this bold and innovative style. The earliest published kosode design books (hinagata-bon), printed from wood blocks to allow for wide dissemination, also featured the Kanbun style, indicating there was also a popular audience for this new fashion. Members of the nouveaux riche merchant class had the money to afford such expensive robes, although they were at the bottom of the social scale, below farmers and artisans.

Kosode design books allowed a larger public to keep pace with changing fashions. A client would select a design from such a book, then choose colors from an album of dyed fabric swatches; after which a kosode maker, in collaboration with a dyer, would produce the finished product. The concept of ready-to-wear clothes for both Western-style garments and kimono did not have an impact in Japan until after World War II. Even as late as the early twenty-first century, most finer kimonos were still made to order, like haute couture in the West.

Genroku and Yōzen Styles

The next dominant style is named for the Genroku years (1688-1704). During this time women's obi grew wider, and therefore more prominent as a fashion accessory. Many different methods were invented for tying the obi, adding another element to the repertory of styles available to fashionable women. The obi was now usually knotted at the back.

As the obi widened, the sleeves of the furisode-type kosode lengthened even more and its unpatterned space diminished, although the shoulder-to-hem Kanbun-style sweeping design composition was more-or-less preserved. The overall effect was one of opulence, as the design filled up more space and the wider obi added a further expanse of decoration.

The Kabuki theater, a new and raucous form of popular entertainment, enjoyed a wide audience in the urban centers where the merchant class was based. Since women were banned from the Kabuki stage, male actors also played the female roles. They launched fashion trends in women's kosode, particularly by popularizing certain shades of colors and individual design motifs. Woodblock print publishers had eager urbanites lining up to buy the latest images of Kabuki stars, and also of geisha, who were the female trendsetters of the moment. By this time, men's kosode were no longer interchangeable with women's dress, except within the Kabuki and brothel demimonde.

Another style that emerged during the Genroku years was named after a Kyoto painter, Yōzensai Miyazaki, and is simply referred to as Yōzen. He is believed to have popularized a technique that combined freehand painting and paste-resist dyeing using a wide variety of colors and allowing for the production of highly pictorial imagery and unusual shading effects on kosode.

Yōzen kosode represented a uniquely Japanese achievement in the costume arts. Whereas technological advances in textile production had previously been initiated on the Asian mainland (especially in China) and were later copied and refined by the Japanese, a new means of decoration involving the skill of the dyer and the hand of the painter had been created in Japan itself. The nearest equivalent to Yōzen in textiles outside of Japan is Indian chintz, which, however, utilizes cotton fabric rather than silk and makes less use of freehand painting and shading effects. Yōzen remains a popular technique for the decoration of kimono in the early 2000s.

Late Edo-Period Styles

Extravagance in Genroku and Yōzen-style kosode led the Tokugawa authorities to enact sumptuary laws from time to time, leading to restrictions on the use of certain colors for the lower classes and to controls on some of the more costly textile techniques. Apart from the sumptuary laws, which were randomly enforced, a reaction against flamboyance and excess became the underlying basis for a new style.

Esthetic terms such as iki and shibui were used by trendsetters who dressed in kosode with a simple striped pattern in subdued colors, or who chose a quiet ikatpatterned fabric for their robes. Other kosode were decorated only along the hem, with the remainder of the garment devoid of design except for traditional family crests arrayed across the shoulders. Subtlety, with a touch of luxury, could be conveyed by wearing a plain kosode with a richly decorated lining.

Excess was not completely forgotten during the late Edo period. The Bunka-Bunsei years (1804-1830) saw the production of many densely embroidered kosode rich Yo in gold thread and that were often chosen by brides for their weddings. Even Buddhist monks commissioned extravagantly woven ritual robes during this period.

A trend in kosode of the Samurai class played on the juxtaposition of certain design motifs alluding to literary works from Japan's medieval period. Another style, which continued into Japan's modern era, was based on the work of the Shijō-Maruyama school of painting, whose artists were influenced by Western painting techniques such as the use of perspective. Several of these painters were recruited to work on kosode designs, and were able to successfully adapt their landscape, bird, and flower themes to the T-shaped garment.

Meiji Period (1868-1912)

In the 1850s, Japan was forced to end its policy of isolation when militarily superior Western powers demanded trading concessions. China, which had historically been the fount of culture for Japan, as ancient Greece and Rome had been for the rest of Europe, was then under the yoke of Western imperialism and was no longer considered to be a suitable role model for the Japanese.

When power was assumed by the Meiji emperor in 1868 after the shogunate collapsed, the elite of Japan embarked upon a serious program of studying and emulating Western technology and customs, including dress. In 1887, the Meiji empress issued a statement denouncing the wearing of kimono as harmful to the female body and advocated the Western blouse and skirt as a more practical form of women's wear.

However, only wealthy women who moved in international circles felt the need and had the means to dress Western style. The long kimono and its wide, tightly bound obi made chair sitting a challenge. In the traditional Japanese home, kimono-clad women sat on a tatami mat-covered floor with their lower legs folded under their thighs. Most women continued to wear kimonos, as they did not lead public lives and had no occasion to experience Western-style interior decor. The daughters of Meiji women did, however, improvise a sort of Western two-piece outfit to serve as school dress. They wore their kimonos tucked into hakama, the traditional skirtlike trousers, which had most recently served as part of formal dress for samurai-class men during the Edo period.

For urban men, whose lives were led in public while their wives stayed home, uniforms based on European models were worn in the exercise of certain professions. If a man had the means, he could visit a tailor and be fitted for a suit, which would invariably be made of wool, a fiber Japan itself never produced. Otherwise, at least a token article of Western dress would be worn in public, such as the bowler hat.

Meanwhile, in the West, kimonos appealed to certain sophisticates who developed a passion for things Japanese. Numerous portraits were painted of Western women in kimono during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The kimono could add both an exotic and an erotic flavor to a painting. Puccini's Madame Butterfly and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado put the kimono on stage in front of large audiences in Europe and the Americas. Fashion designers such as the Callot sisters and Paul Poiret were inspired by the kimono shape.

Taishō Period (1912-1926)

Japan continued to modernize and prosper during this period. When a major earthquake seriously damaged Tokyo in 1923, much of the city was rebuilt in a more Western style, making Western attire more practical in the new modern interiors. The kimono and other traditional dress for women were further marginalized as female students started to wear blouses and skirts instead of kimono tucked into hakama (although such an outfit can still be seen at graduation ceremonies), and as more women entered the workforce.

Shōwa Period (1926-1989)

Militarism came to the fore in 1930s Japan, eventually leading to the disaster and devastation of World War II. Rampant nationalism did not bring about a revival of the kimono. Women were needed to fill jobs abandoned by men in the armed forces, and kimonos were impractical as work clothes. Fabric was rationed, and the kimono was seen as wasteful, requiring more material than Western-style clothes. During the occupation period following Japan's defeat, many families were forced to sell or barter heirloom kimonos for daily necessities, causing yet another setback to the tradition of kimono wearing.

However, economic recovery and prosperity created a large middle class in Japan, resulting in an increase in disposable income and leisure time. Housewives now sought to cultivate themselves by engaging in traditional arts such as flower arranging and tea ceremony, for which kimono was the appropriate dress.

Department stores became major retailers of kimonos, which were still made to order from narrow bolts of silk. Brides continued to dress in kimonos for weddings (but would also change into a Western-style wedding dress for a portion of the ceremony), and might even enroll in a school at which the proper choosing and wearing of the kimono and obi were taught. Traditional annual events, such as New Year festivals and coming-of-age ceremonies, were further occasion for kimono wearing, although primarily for women and children.

Colors and patterns in kimono did change from year to year, but the burst of creativity in surface design and dyeing of the Edo period has yet to be equaled. The modern kimono represented a middle-class rediscovery of a traditional garment. Its role is minor, or nonexistent, in the lives of Japanese women in the early twenty-first century, with the exception of the geisha, who continued to wear kimono with a sense of style while entertaining men.

However, kimonos did experience another incarnation in postwar Japan as art objects. Certain artisans who continued to practice traditional crafts, including textiles, were designated "Living National Treasures" by the Ministry of Culture. Two of the best-known Treasures in the field of textiles, Kako Moriguchi and Keisuke Serizawa, had some of their fabric production made into kimonos, which were subsequently shown at exhibitions and collected as works of art. Their work, and that of other artists of their caliber, has extended the creative life of the kimono.

The Art-to-Wear Movement led to kimono-inspired artistic production in the West. Such pieces have been worn as clothing or displayed on walls, illustrating that the scope of the kimono has broadened well beyond that of a national costume.

See also Japanese Traditional Dress and Adornment.


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