History of the Japanese kimono: art, fashion and modernity

 

Benjamin Fitzgerald

The Kimono is a symbolic dress for Japanese people and an exotic garment for foreigners - swept up in its flowing drape and tapestry of color. The robe, which means “thing to wear”, serves as symbol of feminine strength and vulnerability, made particularly sought after following the release of popular Japanese films and literature such as 'Memoirs of A Geisha'. But taking a closer look at the Japanese garb, the kimono and its intricate fabrication is so much more than its English translation depicts.

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The Japanese kimino is a symbolic garment for native people and an exotic dress for foreigners - swept up in its flowing drape and tapestry of color. The robe serves as symbol of feminine strength and vulnerability, made particularly sought after following the release of the traditional Japanese films and literature such as Memoirs of A Geisha. Taking a closer look at the Japanese garb, the kimono and its intricate fabrication is so much more than its English translation depicts - a “thing to wear”.

History

Pre-Kimono days, Japanese people typically wore ensembles consisting of separate trousers or skirts or one-piece garments. During the Heian period (794-1192) a new kimono-making technique, known as the straight-line-cut method, was invented. The artisans began to cut pieces of fabric in straight lines and sew them together, eliminating the need to worry about the shape of the wearer's body. The concept of one-size-fits-all was born. Meanwhile, the kimono's linen construction meant it was easy to fold and could be worn in hot and cold weather, due to the breathability and insulation properties associated with the cloth.

Fast-forward to both the Kamakura period (1192-1338) and the Muromachi period (1338-1573) and layers came into fashion. It was a time when Japanese people began paying attention to how kimonos in different colors looked together. Typically, color combinations represented seasonal moods or the political class to which one belonged. Meanwhile, the samurais during this time wore colored and pattern robes based on their fighting allegiances. The structure of their uniform was usually in three parts: a kimono; a sleeveless garment known as a kamishimo worn over the kimono; and a hakama, a trouser-like split skirt. The kamishimo was made of linen and was starched to make the shoulders stand out. As more people started to wear the robes, kimono makers got better at their craft, and suddenly the designs became a quasi-art form.

However, during the latter part of the Edo period (1615-1868) and the subsequent Meiji period (1868-1912) in the nation's history, Japan was heavily influenced by foreign cultures. Kimono designers and their Western counterparts began to exchange fashion ideas, made possible by the opening of Japan’s ports to international trade. Silk velvet evening coat kiminos, like those created by Jean-Charles Worth, were greatly sought after by fashionable Western women.

In addition, the Japanese government encouraged people to adopt Western clothing and habits, and government officials and military personnel were required by law to wear Western clothing for official functions. Corsets and bustles also found their way into the wardrobes of high-ranking Japanese women and most people wore kimonos on formal occasions.

Fabrication

Typical Kimono fabrics include silk and cotton; the former being the most luxurious. During the trade surge, materials and techniques were exchanged along with design. Wool traveled east and silk west, and a new, hybrid method of stencil dyeing, called kata-yuzen, evolved, leading to silk gauze kimonos is exotic patterns being produced. Synthetic Western dyes saw deep purple kimonos come to life in the Taisho period (1912-1926). Meanwhile, early Showa period robes, from the 1920s and ’30s, borrowed swirling patterns from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.

Present Day

Moving forward, the kimono played an integral part in the formation of the contemporary Japanese fashion design seen today, influencing the fabric choices and silhouettes of prominent brands from the 50s to now. Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto are just three designers who have taken style influence from the kimono and used it in their ready-to-wear collections in seasons past.

Now an art piece, the Met Museum in New York houses more than fifty kimonos in an exhibition that tells the robe’s story to the general public. Highlights include three examples of contemporary kimono created by designers designated by the Japanese government as Living National Treasures. According to the Met, “these T-shaped robes, decorated with a seemingly infinite variety of designs, not only reflect fashion trends but reveal much about Japanese culture, history, and society.”

Across the pond in Brisbane, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) is also running its ’30 Years of Japanese Fashion’ project. As well as showcasing the lifecycle of the kimino since the 1980s, the exhibition boasts the flamboyant tastes of the Harajuku – a viral, punk, street-art approach to Japanese fashion that goes against the symmetry and elegance of the kimono. And it is rather western-derived in its self-expressionism.

Westernization

It is the Japanese love for western fashion that has Kimono artisans fearing their industry is in crisis. Previously sustained by the need to dress an entire nation in traditional costume, the sector has severely shrunk. These days, even if a formal occasion does require a kimono be worn, the Japanese are much more likely to purchase a machine-made version - much cheaper than a traditional handmade kimono, which costs between 180,000 and 1m yen ($3,000 - $15,000).

Why so expensive? There are more than 1,000 processes involved in one kimono. From the silk cocoon to the final product, different specialist craftsmen carry out each part. And it can take 40 years to master a single technique.

Now leading figures in the kimono industry are warning that within a decade the art of traditional kimono making could die out altogether as a generation of Japanese craftsmen who have spent a lifetime using specialist skills inherited from their own parents are retiring. The number of companies making kiminos in Tokyo has also shrunk – dropping from 217 to 24 over the past 30 years. Even in Kyoto, the historic center for traditional Japanse culture, there are now just 64 kimono makers left.

However, artisans like Soichi Sajiki, whose family has made kiminos for 200 years, are now being backed by government subsidies. This means creators are passing on their techniques learnt from their own fathers to their sons, who in turn are training their sons how to make kiminos.

As the textiles market becomes increasingly globalized, it is important for Kimino retailers and designers to look beyond the local economy. The industry needs to seek customers abroad, believes Chie Hayakawa, communications director at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo's historic Nihonbashi district, who deals regularly with fashionable clients often seeking something interesting to take home as a souvenir.

"Kimonos are exquisitely beautiful, made from the finest silks in the world," she told The Telegraph.

"These handcrafted fabrics should be more widely used internationally, with more collaborations with high profile fashion designers. There is so much potential."