The kimono is perhaps the most iconic item of traditional Japanese clothing. Literally meaning "thing to wear" (着物), its roots can be traced back to the Nara Period (710-794), when aristocratic women of the imperial court wore clothes with stiff Chinese-style collars and long, cylindrical sleeves. As this attire adapted to the influences of the lifestyle and climate of Japan, it gradually became the kimono we see today, with interstitial variations including the highly ceremonial juuni-hitoe (十二単) and the simple kosode (小袖), a basic robe that can also be worn as an undergarment.
Although Japanese people now wear kimono when they have ceremonial occasions such as weddings, they rarely wear them in their daily lives. However, there has been a recent boom in re-embracing historical Japanese traditions, and young women will take to wearing kimono or yukata (浴衣, informal cotton kimono) when sightseeing in ancient towns such as Kyoto and Kanazawa, or going out to enjoy festivals and fireworks events.
There are a dozen classifications of kimono, with grades and ranks fixed by differentiation in design, material and pattern. The number of family crests on the garment is also a key factor in determining the formality of the garment. These may all look similar, but each presents a different fabric and design.
Let’s start with the most formal type of Japanese kimono, the furisode. Basically, furisode means swinging sleeves due to long sleeves that fall into 39 to 42 inches. They are decorated with color pattern that cover fully the whole garment. The longer the sleeve is, the more formal it is. It is the most formal clothes for unmarried women to wear in special occasions including coming of age ceremony, voting, wedding ceremony (unmarried female relative from the bride’s family) and tea ceremony.
Before the Meiji era, Hikizuri kimono was worn by wealthy women of high rank. Now, the chances you will see this kimono in public are very slim unless you are in Kyoto or the Asakusa area of Tokyo. Hikizuri means “trailing skirt” and the kimono got this name because of its length. Currently, this type of kimono is mainly worn by geisha, maiko or stage performers of traditional Japanese dance. With modern times, women had more opportunities to leave the house which resulted in the current style that requires folding the extra fabric around the waist.
This is the most formal kimono worn by married women. Specifically, the pattern of a Tomesode is always below the waist and has a beautiful design. In fact, it sometimes includes gold. It has either 3 or 5 crests. The latter is more formal, and they range from colorful to just black varieties. The Tomesode can be worn at formal events like weddings and tea ceremonies.
The literal meaning of Houmongi is “visiting wear”. Both married and unmarried women wear these semi-formal kimonos. The pattern flows over the shoulder to the seams in the back and is visible on the sleeves and under the waist.
Iro Muji (色無地)
These kimonos have a plain color without any patterns. Their formality depends on the amount of crests on the kimono and there is even a specific kind of Iro Muji kimono for tea ceremonies.
Japanese people know this kimono as the casual kimono. They have a repeating pattern that often with vertical stripes. Do not wear this kimono for a formal event! Instead, it is great for a stroll around the town, or small celebrations. In fact, this was the most common way to dress before Western clothes became popular in Japan.
This cotton kimono’s light weight and lack of undergarments make it perfect for summer. As a result, the yukata appears during festivals or on a hot day out. Though it is the most informal, the yukata is the most popular Japanese kimono. Geta, wooden shoes, are worn under this kimono and the obi is tied in a simple way.
This is a bride’s pure white kimono. The official name for the dress is ‘Shiromuki’. In fact, the white color of the kimono dates back to the days of the samurai. At that time, a woman would show her submission to the family she was marrying into. Being white, it meant she could easily blend into the family’s colors.
Japanese kimonos have evolved over time and the rules for wearing one became less strict. As a result, young people make kimonos out of modern fabrics and mix flashy colors with unconventional accessories.