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The Evolution of Kimono

Are you interested in Japanese traditional clothing? Do you consider kimono as Japan's traditional outfit, and would like to try it on at least once in your life?
Well, while most people can easily identify the traditional Japanese outfit as kimono「着物」there are few who actually know that it isn't a garment worn by many until the Heian period, and the name "kimono" for the garment wasn't recognized until the Meiji period!

Also, although it is undeniable that the kimono is a historically significant part of Japan's culture, historical records pointing to Jomon period suggest that the clothing back in this hunter-gatherer era held little resemblance to the kimono. The kimono isn't "traditional" in this sense, but it is a garment that evolved along with the Japanese people through the Jomon period to the modern days.
Restored Incipient Jomon man
(Supervised by Hisao Baba, illustrated by Reiko Ishii)
In the Jomon period, the attire that the hunter-gatherers wore was thought to be made of fur and draped loosely around the bodies of the hunters, enabling them to benefit from the warmth and protection that the furs offered without any impact on mobility.

However, when Japan started switching from hunting-gathering to agriculture, the properties of garments that the civilization needed changed. In the Yayoi period, the outfit that they used was a loose cloth with holes for arms. This gave them a lot more freedom for movement and helped them work on rice fields comfortably. Geta which are commonly and traditionally paired with yukata was said to be developed during this period as well.
When trade flourished in Kofun period, the influence of Chinese and Korean culture came into play. The attire worn by women during this period was heavily inspired by Chinese and Korean robes which were closed at the front and tied at the waist with brightly colored sashes.

It is also noteworthy that there are still differences between the garments during the kofun period and kimono as many women then still wore skirts and trousers under their tops, making it a two-piece garment rather unlike the kimono we know today.

(Book “The History of Women’s Costume in Japan.”)
In the Asuka period, civilization has improved and developed advances sewing methods that allowed them to improve on the garb from the Kofun period to become more practical and aesthetically pleasing. Clothing became longer and wider, and were  divided by color into three different groups: formal clothes, court clothes, and uniforms. It is also during this period that males became the ones predominantly wearing trousers while females wore long, flared skirts.
          
In Nara period, Chinese culture was actively absorbed by Japanese locals as they sent envoys under the Kentoshi system to Tang Dynasty China. It is also in this period that the process of dyeing the kimono was further developed. Most of the kimono from Nara period consisted of only a single color per layer. In addition, Nara period also came out with a Code that required all kimono to be crossed left over right, and this convention that was inspired by Chinese robes stayed with the Japanese until modern times.

The Kentoshi system was subsequently abolished in the Heian period and during this period of transition, the Japanese were able to build their own national culture. Layered and patterned clothing to suit the four seasons became popular and colorful in the Heian period with the further development of dyeing procedures, and these techniques were swiftly employed to create a gorgeous set of robes that unified both the Chinese culture and Japanese aesthetics.
The most commonly known type of kimono in the Heian period is the Jyuni-Hitoe, otherwise known as the twelve-layered kimono which you often see on Hinamatsuri dolls. However, this attire does not consist of clunky twelve layers. In fact, the official name is Itsutsuginu-karaginumo, also known as the five-layered Chinese dress costume, which consists of six different parts in addition to the base Itsusuginu (five-layered robe): Uchiginu (a silk robe), Uwagi (outer robe), Karaginu (a waist length Chinese style jacket), Mo (ancient skirt) and Nagabakama (a long hakama).
In the Edo period, the kimono started becoming much simpler though more merchants started to pursue the emerging world of Japanese fashion and created decadent fashion compiling designs from several famous artists into one kimono and adorned the fabrics with metallic leaf, gold threads, dappled tie-dye (kanoko shibori) and luscious embroidery.

With fashion becoming an outlet to show off wealth, many samurai became extremely displeased with the riches of the merchants and the Shogunate passed many laws regulating the dressing of the lower classes. One of such laws was the forbidding of merchants and other lower classes from using the labor-intensive and expensive  dapple tie-dye technique.

Yuzen dyeing was developed at around the same time, which allowed craftsmen to paint the kanoko pattern directly onto the kimono, allowing for the use of distinctive and vivid colored fabrics with more artistic textiles. Since only the tie-dyeing method was illegal, merchants got away with using yuzen technique.

Three stark difference between the kimono during the Edo period and those before was the number of layers, length of the sleeves and the obi. With the improved dyeing techniques, kimono during this period had became single-layered once again and fashion was focused more on the patterns adorning the fabric rather than the number of layered colors. The sleeves were made longer to amplify the gracefulness of women as they moved, and were commonly seen in unmarried women's kimono. The idea of having longer sleeves for unmarried women are still rooted in Japanese culture with the Tomesode which is a formal kimono worn by married women. On the other hand, the obi sash in this time period became wider and several techniques of tying it were invented and came into fashion.
Japan opened her ports to trade in 1853 and soon after the overthrowing of the Shogun and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1869, the new government realized that they had to transform themselves along the Western line in order to compete with the military and industrial might of the West. One of the by-product of this transformation was fashion. Many of the male elites started to wear business suits to work due to its association with concepts of civilization and modernization that the government was promoting. However, many women still wore kimono most of the time and one avenue that technology was employed was actually to increase the production amount and quality of silk fabrics, making them more affordable.
Industrial development during the Taisho period was heavily stimulated by the First World War. With the domination of urban growth, many people moved to the capital, Tokyo, to find work. Women also started entering the work force and although they still wore kimono, these garments often had Western influences in their designs. For instance, kimono became even more comfortable, vibrant and affordable with the new types of silk, patterning techniques, chemical dyes and industrialized mass production.

Women began wearing hakama as well, to improve their mobility when working and schooling. Also, the motifs on the kimono were typically dramatically enlarged and also diverged from the usual patterns found on traditional kimono. This style was believed to have been inspired by Western styles such as Art Deco, and acted as a visual statement for the independent, urban women of the Taisho and early Showa periods.
After the Second World War, Western-style clothing has became the everyday wear for most Japanese. Kimono became very expensive to own and maintain, and are only worn at a limited number of formal occasions and in festivals, and there are guidelines to what type of kimono should be worn during which occasion.

In the 21st century however, we are witnessing something resembling a kimono renaissance as they gradually come back into fashion.

The example that we are all familiar with are yukata reappearing in departmental stores in summer, and locals wearing these while touring summer festivals. Moreover, on New Year's, some females also choose to don a thicker winter kimono which is further layered with furs to keep warm while going for their first shrine visit of the year.

However, what you might not know is that fashion gurus have spun off looks involving elegant kimono in beautiful modern fabrics, and this is actually inspiring youths to match kimono fabrics with different items. Some of these youths wear these outfits to events such as graduation, while the bolder ones are trying them for everyday looks.

Fashion brands are riding on this wave to come up with new ideas which combine elements of kimono with other everyday items, designed for those who love the traditional aspects of Japanese fashion but are too afraid of standing out if they were to use them for everyday wear! And so far, the more popular items actually pull their inspiration from Taisho Roman outfits, which are the perfect mix of classy, sweet and cute, as well as elements from the traditional kimono such as geta or obi ensembles!
MOCOLLE's indoor Taisho schoolgirl wear
and the Hanao shoes, inspired by the geta design!
If you're interested in traditional Japanese wear but aren't sure if you wish to invest several hundreds into getting a full set of kimono, there are thousands of other people like you. Build your confidence by starting small with these simpler everyday items!

~ Reina-rin

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