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The History of Kimonos

The kimono is one of the most significant unisex garments in fashion history, growing from its origins in historical Japan to immense popularity across the globe. The kimono is a straight-line garment, usually made with silk or linen, strictly worn with the left side wrapped over the right and fastened by an ‘obi’ (a type of sash).

The term ‘kimono’ was coined in the mid 19th century, and translates as ‘the thing to wear’. However, kimonos stretch far back into history, beyond the invention of the word itself. Throughout, for ease of understanding, ‘kimono’ will be used as an umbrella term to refer to the historical garments from which the modern kimono is descended.



Kimono-like garments first emerged during the Heian Period (794-1192), planting the kimono’s deep roots in Japanese culture and history. Previously, during the Nara period (710-794), Japanese people wore separate upper and lower garments as influenced by Chinese fashion; envoys and immigration between Japan and China meant court styles emulated Chinese fashion and dyeing techniques. 


However, during the Heian Period, Japan stopped sending envoys to China, and exports such as clothing were prevented from entering the Imperial Palace. The court’s answer to this cultural vacuum was to develop fashions unique to Japan. While influences from the Tang dynastic envoys did remain, a disconnect allowed Japan to create more intensely stylised garments, taking small influences and developing into their own styles which came to represent a separated and independent cultural identity. The most enduring of these was the kosode: literally meaning ‘short-sleeved’. Previously this was considered an undergarment but quickly adapted into a new fashion worn by men and women. This is the garment that most closely resembles the modern-day kimono.

The Edo Period (1603-1867), widely regarded as Japan’s last traditional era, allowed Japanese culture to develop without external influence; this era was made distinctive by the universal fashion of the kosode, or the kimono’s ancestor. Japan experienced an explosion of culture, corresponding with a fast-growing economy. Art was popularly enjoyed, while a strict social order was also adhered to. Here, the kimono was utilised as a status symbol, as designs developed further into an art form. The kimono spread in popularity once adopted by the upper classes, and, against the popular assumption, was a garment of immense range. Throughout the Edo Period, it was the principal clothing item, worn by the richest and poorest in society.


At the time, Japan adhered to strict social order, divided into feudal domains ruled by lords. Samurais belonging to each feudal domain were identified by district colors and patterns on their respective kimonos. The kimono’s function as a uniform subsequently created a boom in demand and was key in the expansion of the industry. Due to the elaborate designs and often luxurious materials, the kimono was highly attractive to the wealthy, eventually becoming a symbol of riches and passed down the family as an heirloom. During the Edo Period, a single kimono could be worth the same as a house.

In the subsequent Menji Period (1868-1912), the influence of foreign cultures changed Japan’s relationship with the kimono. At this time, Japan encouraged men to adopt Western fashions, with all working government officials and military personnel required to wear Western clothing by law. In contrast, the Menji period also coined the name ‘kimono’, expressing that the ‘thing to wear’ was a traditional Japanese garment that symbolises Japan’s insular cultural development and rich artistic canon. The kimono was encouraged to be worn, instead, by the women; this move successfully preserved the traditional aspects of Japanese culture while integrating foreign influences. While the kimono is no longer an everyday garment, the preservation of it nods to the great importance of the garment in Japanese history as well as being a symbol of cultural integrity.


Despite the simplicity of the cut, making kimonos is an elaborate craft. Beyond the handling of specialist materials like silk, kimonos are adorned with complex patterns. The colour and decoration of a kimono is typically unique to the individual garment and can reveal the kimono’s original owner, origin, and purpose. The design of a kimono is an art form because it has distinct historical meaning and relevance. 


Motifs on a garment may relate specifically to the wearer, to express their virtues or rank within society, or relate to the special occasions a kimono is intended for. Blossom is an iconic motif, and is symbolic of springtime, revealing the garment’s intended season of wear.

Motifs on the kimono may hold cultural significance, such as the crane, symbolising good fortune and long life as it is said to live 1,000 years and inhabit the land of the immortals. They may also reference Japan’s poems and stories. A wooden cartwheel is visual shorthand to evoke The Tale of Genji, and while kimonos are unlikely to depict human figures, the presence of poetic subjects is alluded to. For instance, two dropped fans suggest lovers disturbed. While kimonos maintain as a symbol of tradition, during the 20th-century graphic prints can sometimes be found, depicting cars, trains, and skyscrapers to represent Japan’s modernity.


The kimono’s appealing universality is attributed to a few factors: the innovative straight-lined silhouette of the one-piece garment which is easily adaptable to all sizes by tying an obi around the waist; the elaborate designs making it worthy of heirloom status; the ease of movement created by its wrap style; the lack of historical gender-specificity; and its transcendence between all socioeconomic classes.

All these factors mean that the kimono has adapted and remained relevant to each time period across the globe. Enduring since its roots in the Heian Period, the kimono has universal appeal far beyond the fluctuation of fast fashion. The kimono is a timeless classic and perfect vintage buy; and, whenever you wear an authentic kimono, its connection to Japan’s rich cultural and artistic canon prevails.

Author: Emma Barclay

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