The kimono is more than just an instantly recognisable symbol of Japanese culture. It is an attire that encapsulates what it means to be Japanese and has been worn for centuries, dating all the way back to the Heian period (792-1192). Ever since the kimono has progressed into a variety of styles contingent on who chooses to wear it and for what occasion. And, because the kimono symbolises so many different things, the list goes on forever.
Let us begin with the origins of the kimono and why its symbolic importance has progressed into its modern-day applications in Japan.
The kimono, which was taken from the Chinese Wu Dynasty in the 8th century, was first seen with shorter sleeves and was known as the “kosode”.
Much of Japan’s history (before the Edo period managed to open the nation to the rest of the globe) was rife with internal strife, as it is in most feudal times. Tokugawa Leyasu was suspicious of foreign influence, colonialism, and Christianity as a result of constant warfare between rival daimyo (feudal lords). Tokugawa committed to enhancing the socioeconomic, diplomatic, and institutional fabric of a war-torn Japan after victory in The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and becoming Shogun.
Leyasu’s primary concern was Japan – and only Japan. The Tokugawa Era (or Edo period, as it is more commonly known) led the country to a state of peace and prosperity. For the following 200 years, with the exception of Korea and China, Japan’s ports were cut off from the rest of the globe. It wasn’t until the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa opened the borders to Commodore Matthew Perry and his American naval vessels.
During this timespan, the kimono as we know it was brought into the world. Until then, it was still referred to as a “kosode” and had undergone few stylistic changes. What remained constant was that it was worn by everyone, irrespective of age, gender, or economic class. Granted, during the four periods preceding the Edo and Meiji restoration periods, peons made up more than half of the social hierarchy (1868-1912).
Affluent daimyo classes inaugurated their kimonos in the same way that Renaissance Italy’s Borgias and Medici commissioned grand paintings for their opulent corridors. The kimono, made from a single bolt of fabric, was more than just a showy piece of clothing. It really was a true masterpiece. More pertinently, it depicted the wearer’s individuality. The kimono told a personal history with every embroidered flower, hand-painted scene, and flutter of colour. Fabric, pattern, and colour were vital because they represented a person’s status, gender, and age, which all bonded into their image within their social background.
The kimono is still a symbol of not just wearer, but also of Japan as a whole. Kimonos are worn at wedding ceremonies, memorial services, tea ceremonies, and a wide range of other events. For example, on Coming of Age Day, a day when boys and girls are accepted into society as adults for the first time, 20-year-olds wear kimonos to shrines. Girls wear furisode, a kimono with lengthy, cascading sleeves, whereas the boys wear haori half coats with hakama trousers embossed with their family crest.
Married women wear tomosode, kimonos with shorter sleeves and subdued designs that highlight their family crest, to formal events such as weddings and funerals. While Western suits and dresses are more commonly worn by attendees (due to Westernisation during the post-Edo Meiji Restoration), wearing a kimono is still very symbolic of Japanese heritage to this day.
Shichi-Go-San (seven-five-three), a Shinto-influenced ceremony that promotes the healthy development of children aged seven, five, and three, is another holiday where we see the kimono.
The geisha is perhaps the most famous and well-known kimono wearer. The role of the geisha has evolved over the centuries, but they now provide entertainment, food, and drink to both tourists and corporate executives. The length of the hem and the colour of the collar indicate the geisha’s rank; if her collar is red rather than white, she is a maiko (a geisha in training).
Amidst Japan’s rapid industrialisation following the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, the kimono is still deeply woven into their cultural fabric. By 1919, Japan had progressed from an isolated, feudal nation to one of the Big Five at the Treaty of Versailles. Despite their success (including becoming the world’s third-largest economy), they retained the kimono as a symbol of their roots in an ancient world.