The kimono may be a cultural marker as familiar as the baseball cap, and it has been adapted for continued use in a country that long ago adopted Western clothing by Imperial edict. The kimono is a simple visual shorthand that says “Japan” as strongly as do sushi or anime.
But the actual kimono, whether casual or formal, silk or polyester, is a much more complicated thing. It has the usual array of precise rules for wearing, storing and cleaning it, as well as a millennium’s worth of history of these deceptively simple pieces of clothing. The kimono is anything but simple.
The kimono – the word means simply “a thing to wear” – is also anything but cheap. One can buy an inexpensive kimono in any number of different fabrics, but a real kimono – made with hand dyed silk and painstakingly sewn together by hand – can cost upwards of $10,000, making a formal kimono one of the larger investments a Japanese woman or man is likely to make during a lifetime.
That’s just for the kimono itself. To properly wear a kimono is also to have a beautiful, wide belt (obi), the traditional footwear (zori or geta), with special, split-toe socks (tabi), as well as a dozen other undergarments and accessories that can easily double the price to well over $20,000.
On top of that, the actual upkeep of a fine kimono is an ongoing investment: Traditional silk kimono must be completely disassembled into their constituent parts – large panels cut from one original bolt of cloth – then cleaned by hand (a process called arai hari) and then re-sewn in a process that can take days.
The variety of styles of women’s kimono is wide, and can be specific to a particular social status. Those in the know can tell a woman’s social status and even marital status by the cut of her kimono. Examples include furisode kimonos, which feature long, swinging sleeves that denote an unmarried young woman, while a susohiki kimono is usually worn by geisha or other performers. The junihitoe is an elegant kimono worn by ladies of the Imperial court, and the uchikake kimono is a bridal costume. Other kimono are the less-formal homongi, which are meant specifically for visiting.
Kimonos are distinguished not just by function, but also by the materials used. The komon style features delicately patterned material, while the iromuji is a solid colored kimono worn mainly to tea ceremonies. The Edo komon type features tiny dots that create sweeping, pixelated patterns.
The kimono goes far back in Japan’s history, back a thousand years or more, but it came to be what it is now during the Edo period (1603-1867), and was common dress well into the 20th century. The transition to Western dress that began in the late 19th century, during the Meiji Restoration, with its conscious embrace of modernity in the form of Western styles, began the kimono’s long decline.
But subsequent attempts to preserve traditional Japanese culture, and the kimono’s place in such ceremonial traditions as weddings, funerals and various religious events has assured that a kimono is still standard to any Japanese woman’s (or man’s) wardrobe.
Even during a walk around Kyoto, a visitor will likely see many young women sporting kimono and traditional wigs and make up. However, an observant visitor will quickly discover that these are, in fact, other tourists, playing at being Japanese ladies. Any well-educated Japanese will be able to point out a half dozen flaws in these costumes.
Men’s kimono are much simpler, in lower-key fabrics and colors, and are considerably easier to coordinate and care for. On the other hand, women’s kimono come in a wide variety of fabrics, patterns and cuts, and are worn with a number of accompanying accessories. The finest kimono, made of fine silk with hand painted decoration, require great care.
Kimono are also, conversely, put together in such a way that they can not only be taken apart to clean, they can also be taken apart to repair a damaged panel, or to add material from another, older kimono. Each part, whether the eri (collar) or a sode (sleeve) or a maemigoro (front panel) can be removed and repaired or replaced.
Thus, a kimono can be maintained for many years, even down through generations. While their use has become somewhat constrained in recent years, as the country goes increasingly modern and international in its tastes, the kimono remains an ingenious invention of the Japanese creative mind, beautiful and practical at the same time.
Wearing the proper kimono, in the right fabric, of the right cut, for the right occasion, can be a daunting prospect even for Japanese women. But it also makes getting it right such an impressive accomplishment. The famous Japanese attention to detail, as well as a conscious desire to perpetuate timeless Japanese style, finds full expression in the kimono.