The kimono is a simple garment with a complex history that has been shaped by the evolution of weaving, dyeing, and embroidery techniques as well as cultural changes in Japan. The kimono's form was first introduced from China as an undergarment. Its use as a normal form of dress for men and women dates back from the Muromachi period (1392–1568). Meaning 'the thing worn', the term kimono was first adopted in the mid-19th century. Prior to that, the garment was known as a kosode, which means 'small sleeve', a reference to the opening at the wrist. Originally worn by commoners, or as an undergarment by the aristocracy, from the 16th century the kosode, or kimono, had become the principal item of dress for all classes and both sexes. It is still today, an enduring symbol of traditional Japanese culture. In kimono dress, it is the pattern on the surface, rather than the cut of the garment, that holds significance. Indications of social status, personal identity and cultural sensitivity are expressed through color and decoration.
The Edo period (1615–1868) was one of unprecedented political stability, economic growth, and urban expansion in Japan. Women's kimonos became very decorative from the middle of the Edo period in spite of bans on luxurious living imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, the rulers of Japan at the time. The primary consumers of sumptuous kimono were the samurai, the ruling military class. Yet it was the merchant and artisan classes, or chōnin, who benefited most from the peace and prosperity of the period. However, the rigid hierarchy of Tokugawa Japan meant that they could not use their wealth to improve their social status. Instead they had to find different outlets for their money, such as buying beautiful clothes. It was this new market that stimulated the great flowering of the textile arts in the Edo period, what would be considered today as the “fashion industry”. The kimono developed into a highly expressive means of personal display, an important indicator of the rising affluence and aesthetic sensibility of the chōnin. During this period, woodblock-printed pattern books, called hinagatabon, played a crucial role in transmitting the most fashionable designs, just as fashion magazines and catalogues do today.
The modernization of the kimono happened during the Meiji period (1868–1912). In an attempt to place Japan on equal footing with Europe and America, Japanese officials began wearing Western-style clothing. In the late 1880s, even Empress Shōken promoted Western gowns to encourage women to adopt modern modes of dress. The kimono gradually became identified as Japan’s national dress, and at the same time became a highly sought-after fashion item in Europe and the United States, coinciding with the Japonisme craze that inspired many Western artists and designers, notably Vincent van Gogh and other Impressionists.
The Taishō period (1912–1926) saw great urban growth, particularly in Tokyo. The prosperity and optimism of the period is evident in the colorful and cheerful textile designs, such as a kimono ensemble with brilliant explosions of chrysanthemum blossoms. Although Western-style clothes gained popularity, the kimono continued to be every-day wear. The motifs were dramatically enlarged and new designs appeared, sometimes inspired by Western-style painting. In creating such boldly patterned kimonos, the designers benefited from new types of silk and innovative patterning techniques and the technological advances made during the late 19th century. The kimono became relatively inexpensive and these highly fashionable garments were made available to more people than ever before. These vibrant kimono styles remained popular until the 1950s.
During the Shōwa period (1926–1989), kimono design continued to evolve in response to the artistic and political upheaval at the international level. There were even war propaganda kimonos with unique designs reflecting contemporary politics of the 1930s and 1940s. Over time, kimono makers evolved from nameless artisans to designated Living National Treasures, and the kimono gradually transformed from an item of every-day clothing to an exclusively ceremonial garment.
Kimonos are also known to be rather expensive. If this limits the wearing of them, it also proclaims their high cultural value. Indeed, the garment may be worn much less, but its symbolic importance has grown. As Japan has come to define itself within the western world since the late 19th century, the kimono has come to mark a boundary with the foreign, to stand for the essence that is Japanese. This is reflected in the fact that most contemporary textile designers working with traditional techniques still use the kimono as the primary format for their artistic expression.
The 21st century, however, has witnessed something of a kimono renaissance. Many eminent fashion designers, both in Japan and the West, creating innovative works inspired by the age-old indigenous garment. Elegant kimono in beautiful modern fabrics can be seen increasingly on the streets of Japan, while second-hand kimono are becoming popular with the young, who often re-style them or combine them with other items of dress. After the Second World War, kimono were often viewed as a product of Japan's feudal past or a symbol of woman's oppression, but today with Japan experiencing a “kimono boom”, they are just another choice in a woman's - and even occasionally a man's - wardrobe. They are an item of fashion, just as they were in their Edo heyday.
Author: Aruña Quiroga
Sources: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom; http://www.vam.ac.uk/, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States; http://www.metmuseum.org/