What is a Kimono?

Japanese kimono

The kimono is a traditional dress of Japanese culture , whose birth dates back to almost 1300 years ago, although originally it was quite different from today’s; it has therefore evolved over the centuries until reaching the current version.

The word kimono (着物) means “thing to wear” ; in fact in the past this word was used to indicate any dress worn, without specific distinctions; today, however, it is used to refer solely to traditional dress.

When not worn it has a clearly visible T shape and is made up of various pieces, all rectangular in shape; the pieces are made from a single roll of fabric, silk or brocade, called ” tan “, 35cm long and 11.5 meters wide; the seams, all done by hand, are always and only straight (some small curves are present on the collar) and there are no buttons or zips.

One of the peculiarities of women’s kimonos is that there are no sizes; for example, to adapt it to one’s height, a fold is made on the waist called ” ohashori ” which is then covered by the Obi (which we can define as a belt).

The decorations can be embroidered or painted directly on the fabric using various techniques and based on the prestige and type of the kimono.

The front flaps must always be closed by overlapping the left side over the right; the opposite custom, i.e. the right side over the left, is used only for the deceased.

History and evolution of the Kimono

History of the Kimono

The birth of the Japanese Kimono , or rather its very first version, was born in the Nara Period (710-784) when the influence of Chinese culture began to expand significantly in Japan. At the beginning of this period the traditional Chinese dress style called Hanfu, used in the Wu regions during the Tang Dynasty, arrived in Japan and greatly influenced the fashion of the time.

In fact, throughout the Nara period, Chinese culture was widely absorbed by the Japanese thanks to the kentôshi, or diplomatic missions to imperial China, thanks to which the Japanese ambassadors studied politics, religion, writing, technology and the arts and they imported the concepts to their homeland.

There were even laws that forced clothing to be overlapped from left to right, to respect Chinese custom.

However, it was during the Heian period (794-1185), also following the interruption of kentôshi, that Japan began to personalize Chinese aesthetics and thoughts to transform them into something original and unique. Thus was born the Jyuni-Hitoe , the so-called ” 12-layer Kimono ” (even if in reality the layers were not really 12, but could vary more or less), a mix between Chinese culture and Japanese aesthetics; it weighed about 20 kg and was used as formal clothing by the Imperial Court during rites and ceremonies.

The lower-middle classes wore clothes similar to the undergarments of aristocrats; a robe called “ kosode ” and a “ hakama ” (a long skirt with or without division for the legs) or “mo” (a kind of apron) for the lower part.

Between the Heian period and the Kamakura period, the color combinations of kimonos had the specific task of indicating a wide range of indicators such as age, rank, marital status, season or particular events. For example, the “ kurenai ,” a shade of crimson, could only be worn by women of the imperial family, or a dark brown hakama indicated a single woman; just as the warm colors indicated autumn and the pestle colors indicated spring.

Also in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the number of layers that made up the “kimono” became thinner both for the samurai and their wives and daughters. For the former, having fewer layers of clothing under their armor allowed them to move more easily, for the latter, having fewer layers represented a more practical nature of life. In fact, they usually wore a kosode (which therefore began to stop being considered underwear) and a red hakama, and only during outings did they add a few more layers.

In the Muromachi period (1336-1573) the kosode, for women, was definitively transformed; it began to be colorful and have decorations . Furthermore, the hakama also began to no longer be used. At this point, however, it was necessary to find a way to keep the dress closed, as it no longer had the support of a skirt; the Obi , a band of cloth rolled around the waist, was then used. This band was approximately the height of a belt. We began to have the true precursor of the modern Kimono .

In the Edo period (1603–1867), although power was held by the shoguns and samurai, the real money capital was managed by the merchants, who did everything to show off their wealth. For example, they commissioned custom kosode from famous artists. This was not looked upon favorably by the shoguns, who wanted the lower classes (such as merchants) to remain low; so they introduced laws that prohibited the “tie & dye” dyeing technique (used to paint fabrics) to those belonging to the lower classes.

In that same period, the painting technique called yuzen began to emerge , and since the law did not prohibit that type of decorative technique, merchants began to request its use to paint their kosode. This allowed much more sophisticated, beautiful and artistic designs to be created; Even today the yuzen technique (freehand dyeing directly on fabric using glue and corn starch) is used to create the most traditional and expensive Kimonos.

Also during the Edo period, the sleeves of the kosode (which literally means “small sleeve”) began to lengthen considerably, first for unmarried women and then also for married ones. At the beginning, the sleeves of adult women were sewn to the body of the dress while those of children and girls were “free”, but since the seam made it difficult to move the arms, over time they were no longer sewn. For men, however, the seams remained.

Furthermore, the increase in the size of the sleeves began to no longer clash with the harmony of the entire dress; so the Obi (the belt) also began to be enlarged, taking inspiration from the clothes worn by Kabuki actors (first and foremost Kichiya Kamimura), very popular in that period.

Obi knots also began to multiply in various styles; furthermore, having the knot on the front meant that the woman was married or widowed, while having it on the back meant that she was married.

The modern Kimono is born.

In the period of the Meiji restoration, with an edict, the emperor forced public officials, railway workers, the army and teachers to wear Western clothes. Subsequently, school uniforms also took on a Western style. Therefore Kimonos are starting to be used less and less even though they remained an integral part of Japanese culture .

Today, Kimonos are worn only during weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies and matsuri, but it is not very difficult to see people walking around in Kimonos in everyday life, especially if they are older and perhaps in cities like Kyoto .

Types and styles of Kimono

There are many styles of Kimono in Japan; each one differs from the others in color, fabric, shape and occasion for which it is worn.

Men’s kimonos follow a single style and vary only in color (almost always with dark shades such as black, grey, dark blue, brown and their shades, sometimes with small decorations such as checks or bird designs) and in the tissue. Unlike the women’s ones, they have shorter sleeves and are sewn to the body, with the exception of the final part; they have no fold at the waist and the obi is tied on the hip and not on the waist; it is also easier for a men’s kimono to be accompanied by a hakama (a kind of skirt) than for women’s kimonos.

Women’s kimonos, on the other hand, have many styles and the more formal ones are made up of many more pieces (usually at least 12); it can be said that putting one on is quite difficult to do without the help of a second person.

As already mentioned, coloring is also an important part of kimonos: as well as varying based on the event in which it is worn and age, there is also a table that assigns a traditional Japanese color based on the month of birth.

Below I propose some of the most popular kimono styles.


Furisode kimono

The Furisode is the kimono worn by single women at a formal event , such as a wedding (as a relative or friend of the bride and groom) or at a coming of age party. It means ” wave sleeve “, in fact its sleeves are very long and reach up to the ankle keeping the arms extended horizontally; furthermore they are widely colored and decorated throughout their entirety.

They are almost always made of thin silk and can cost a lot, which is why they are often rented or bought used. It is also common that as the girl’s age advances (today up to 30 on average) the colors become duller and the decorations less showy.

Curiosity: in ancient Japan the waving of Kimono sleeves in front of a man symbolized the love that a girl felt towards him. This counting technique was considered very attractive; but, if it was a married woman who wore a kimono of this type, then it was considered unworthy, because it was traced back to the desire to want to cheat on one’s husband 🙂 This logic has also remained in modern Japan, even if nowadays, they are seen much more often married women wear it.


Tomosode kimono

The Tomesode is the most formal kimono that can be worn by displaced women ; it is comparable to a Western evening dress and is monochromatic, with the exception of the lower part, which has decorations in various styles; its name can be translated as ” shortened sleeve “, in fact compared to the Furisode, its sleeves are much shorter. Kamon , or family coats of arms, can also be sewn onto it .

There are two categories of Tomosode: the Kuro-tomesode and the Iro-tomesode .

The Kurotomesode is black in color and is worn, for example, during weddings by the bride’s mother or grandmother; seeing it worn by another guest at a wedding is considered disrespectful or impolite. This kimono was born during the Meiji period, and was made from a Furisode whose sleeves were cut and shortened after the owner got married. It is also forbidden to wear it in the presence of members of the imperial family, as the black color was considered unlucky.

The Irotomesode can, nowadays, also be worn by unmarried women and can be of various colors, with the exception of black; usually the older versions have darker colors while the more modern versions have pastel and lighter colors. It is mainly worn during weddings (with a degree of kinship or strong friendship) or celebrations for the awarding of a medal/decoration.


Kimono houmongi

The Houmongi kimono is a fairly recent type , invented in the Taisho period (1912-1926), to respond to the wide demand for kimonos that were comparable to Western clothes and less formal than tomesode .

Its name means ” visiting dress ” and can be worn, as the name suggests, when you go to visit someone or during weddings (if you don’t have close relationships with the spouses), without distinctions between married women or not. .

The decorations that are made on this kimono are made on the entire piece of fabric, without worrying about where the stitching or cuts should be applied, a bit like a real painting.

Kakeshita, Uchikake and Shiromuku

Kakeshita kimono
Kimono kakeshita shiromuku

The Kakeshita is the wedding kimono ; it can be differentiated into Shiro Kakeshita , if its color is completely white, or Iro Kakeshita , if it is colored instead. Its sleeves are very long, so it is part of the furisode style, but compared to the latter it has much more showy and elaborate decorations, very often hand painted, or with golden threads and very high quality fabrics.

The Uchikake , however, is not a real kimono , but more of an overcoat , which is put on over the Kakeshita at the end of the wedding ceremony. It has a padded lower part of the hem and is not tied like a kimono, but is worn open and slightly trailing rather than reaching down to the feet.

The colored and decorated version is mainly used during Buddhist ceremonies, while for Shinto ceremonies the Shiromuku is worn , a completely white version (or in recent years also light ivory) and without any decoration, accompanied by the Wataboushi (the typical white hood seen during Shinto weddings).

The Uchikake, as well as during weddings, is also often worn by kabuki theater actors.


Kimono Iromuji

The Iromuji is translated as ” one color “, can be used by both married and single women and is considered both an informal and formal kimono ; in the latter case the formality is given by the presence of the Kamon (the family coats of arms) which cannot exceed three elements.

As the name suggests, its color is solid, pastel, without particular definitions of possible colors, but avoiding both white and black; it may also have subtle ridges throughout the fabric, but they are usually imperceptible.

It is the most suitable kimono for the tea ceremony , in fact its uniformity and soft colors allow you to concentrate solely on the ceremony and not on the person who is preparing the tea. But it can be used for any type of event, from weddings to dinners, from conferences to the most diverse social events. Aside from the presence of kamon, the obi used also makes it more or less formal.


Mofuku kimono

The Mofuku is the kimono that is worn during a funeral by close family members, such as daughters or wives; its meaning is literally “ mourning dress ” or “ weeping dress ”. Its color is purely black, including all accessories, and does not have any decoration, with the exception of 5 Kammon (the same family members) and any reliefs on the obi, which will however be black.

The only two white parts are the Juban, or the part of the dress in contact with the skin, whose collar is slightly visible underneath the kimono, and the tabi (socks). Additionally, during death memorials, family members may wear a partial mofuku.

Susohiki or Hikizuri

Kimono susohiki

These two kimonos are practically synonymous with each other and refer to the dress worn by geisha , or even by traditional Japanese actors and dancers . As with the uchikake, they have padding on the bottom hem, they are left trailing and unlike other styles of kimono , they have the collar sewn in a different way, so as to allow it to be kept lowered further back without deforming the fit of the dress.

The kimonos worn by maiko (apprentice geisha) have long sleeves like furisode, while those worn by geisha have shorter sleeves; furthermore, they are accompanied by so many accessories that dressing independently is practically impossible, so there are real helpers or okāsan (mother geishas).


Kimono yukata

The Yukata can be defined as the summer kimono , informal and casual, par excellence, even if in reality for many it is not subject to a real kimono . It has no lining, it is made up of a single dress (plus the obi and geta) and the fabric used to make it is almost always cotton or synthetic material; this also means that its price is negligible compared to one of the kimonos I listed above.

Originally yukata, as their name indicates, were used only in baths and onsen as a bathrobe and were woven in hemp. Today, however, it has become the most common summer dress to wear during a matsuri (Japanese holiday), hanabi (fireworks) or along the streets of some places famous for their onsen. However, it can happen to find people, both men and women, children, teenagers or adults, dressed in yukata on the streets of cities even during everyday life.

What are the parts that make up a Kimono called?

Kimonos, if we consider only the outermost garment, are made up of various parts, and each has a very specific name that identifies it (in reality this happens to some extent for all items of clothing, even Western ones 🙂 ). Specifically, taking into consideration the female version:

Parts that make up a kimono
© CC BY-SA 3.0 (derived from Astridvincent)

Doura (胴裏)

It is the internal upper lining. The women’s kimono, almost all of the time, will have a very simple lining and without decorations because this will never be visible; in those for men, however, it could be decorated as a tradition.

Susomawashi (裾回し)

It is the internal lower lining. Unlike the doura, this lining is made with a more particular fabric because the probability that it can be seen is higher, for example, when walking.

Maemigoro (前身頃)

It is the main front part. It is made up of a single large piece of rectangular fabric, running vertically from shoulder to toe, with no stitching across its entire area. In the women’s kimono it reaches beyond the feet, because it will then be shortened with a fold at the waist called “ohashori”, in the men’s kimono, however, it will have the right length because ohashori is not foreseen.

Ushiromigoro (後身頃)

It is the main rear part, “antagonist” of the maemigoro. It is made up of two large vertical pieces sewn from bottom to top to each other and to the front.

Okumi (衽)

It is the front part to be placed over the maemigoro and serves to keep the kimono closed correctly. One part of the okumi is sewn with the collar at an angle; furthermore it does not feature any type of reinforcement.

Eri (衿)

It’s the collar of the kimono. It is the same width as the okumi although it is folded in half when sewn; in this way it has a more rigid consistency.

Tomoeri (共衿)

It is the upper part of the collar, sewn directly to the Eri, the Maemigoro and the Ushiromigoro.

Uraeri (裏襟)

Always referring to the collar, but indicates the internal part.

Sode (袖)

It is the sleeve seen as a whole which is then divided into different parts.

Sodeguchi (袖口)

It corresponds to the opening in the sleeve around the wrist, where the hands come out. It can sometimes be sewn to make it appear as if there are multiple layers of fabric.

Sodetsuke (袖付)

It is the name of the seam between the Sode and the Maemigoro and the Ushiromigoro. In the female version there is an opening in the lower part, called Miyatsukuchi, while in the male version the seam follows the entire sleeve from the armpit to just before the hand.

Miyatsukuchi (身八つ口)

It is the opening under the sleeve present only in the female version and serves to keep the silhouette of the dress linear when the ohashori is applied, i.e. the fold made at waist level to adjust the height of the kimono.

Furi (振)

It is the part of fabric positioned under the sleeve, which can be more or less long based on the style of the kimono. If folded on itself it forms the Tamoto otherwise it is the part of the Furisode that “oscillates”.

Tamoto (袂)

It is a kind of pocket, in the female version, which forms in the internal part of the Furi.

Fuki (袘)

It is the hem that runs along the entire lower perimeter of the kimono.

Obi, or kimono belt

The accessories that make up a kimono are various, but a very important role is played by the outermost belt called Obi , located at waist height, which serves to keep the dress tightly closed.

Obi, the Kimono belt

As also happens with kimonos, the more colorful and decorated an Obi is, the closer it is to being worn by girls and unmarried women; on the contrary, the older women get (and eventually get married), the more pale and dark the colors become. Even the materials and embroidery have the burden of providing the kimono with a more or less formal appearance ; a thinner, cotton Obi is much less solemn than a larger, brocaded Obi.

Another important feature of an Obi is its knot (almost exclusively for the female version); there are many and each is associated with the type of kimono worn, the age of the wearer and the formality of the event. The most famous and used nowadays is called Otaiko Musubi, as it is suitable for any formality, age and marital status; it was invented in 1823 by some geisha.

The men’s obi, on the other hand, is more standardized and with very few variations, both in color and size and in terms of knots.

Kitsuke, the Japanese art of dressing the Kimono

Kitsuke is the Japanese word that indicates the art of dressing the Kimono , like other Japanese arts, such as Ikebana (the art of arranging cut flowers), Kodo (the art of incense) or Sado ( the art of the tea ceremony).

The goal of those who practice kitsuke is not to make the person wearing the kimono look beautiful and well dressed, but to ensure that the kimono is worn in the best way so as to show all its beauty and the mastery of the person wearing it. He has made.

The procedure for correctly wearing all the “pieces” that make up a kimono can be more or less long and complicated (for example for the Furisode it takes up to 2 hours) and a precise sequence must be followed, which however differs from school to school.

Furthermore, the perfect style is achieved when the person wearing it does not show their curves, the final result must be similar to a “top hat with arms”. For example, a bra called “Kimono Bra” is used which is very similar to a sports bra, in order to flatten the breasts as much as possible; we also use padding for the back of the back and elastic belts to keep everything secure to the body.

For women, the items to use are: Tabi (socks), Kimono Bra (bra), Hadajuban (an undergarment), Kimono Pads (back pads), Juban (pre-kimono slip), Kimono, Obi (belt ), Obiage (type of scarf to put over the obi), Obijime (string to put over the obi), Zouri (shoes).

For men, however, the elements are minor, namely: Tabi, Hadajuban, Juban, Kimono, Obi and Zouri or Setta (always footwear).

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