6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Kimono
Don’t Be Like Kim K—Do Your Research First!
Before you even think of wearing the iconic kimono, here are a few things you should know about it.
Recently, we’ve seen U.S. influencer and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian-West trademark the word “kimono” for her line of shape wear and then swiftly backtrack when social media criticized her lack of cultural sensitivity. Nobody doubted why it was such a big deal. After all, she did try to trademark a word that represents a national treasure in Japan. In fact, what Kardashian-West did smacked heavily of cultural appropriation—adopting something from a foreign culture and using it in an entirely different and wholly inappropriate context.
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Just like the article of clothing, the word itself is quite straightforward: a combination of the characters for “to wear” (着る) and “thing” (物). The minimalist garment has been synonymous with Japanese culture since it was first worn by aristocrats during the Heian period (794-1185). At the time, they wore several layers of clothing, including the kosode (小袖), a layer that was worn closest to the body. Over time, this underlayer evolved into the modern-day kimono.
How Japanese people have worn the kimono has changed significantly over the years. It became hugely popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), especially among the trendsetting geishas and kabuki actors. Then, in 1683, Tokugawa, the fifth shogun, banned people from wearing expensive and showy kimonos. However, this didn’t stop people from wearing the garment. Instead, they rebelled by donning pieces with designs that were only apparent if someone looked at the fabric very closely.
No matter who tries to capitalize on this artifact, kimonos are and will probably always remain an ingrained part of Japanese culture.
Kimonos then experienced a major comeback in the middle of the 19th century but again fell out of favor during the Meiji era (1868-1912) when the government wanted everyone to wear Western clothes in keeping with the country’s massive Westernization. Today, kimonos remain a mainstay in Japanese fashion. With that said, here are six things you probably didn’t know about kimonos.
1. A kimono is made from a single bolt of cloth.
Each kimono is made up of eight rectangular strips cut from a single bolt of cloth, also called a tanmono (反物). The bolt is standard size, measuring 38 centimeters by 12.5 meters. When a kimono is made, any excess length is hemmed rather than cut off. Wearing a kimono usually involves three essential pieces. Under the kimono, you usually wear a light underlayer called nagajuban (長襦袢). The kimono and the underlayer are then held in place with a wide belt called an obi (帯). When putting on a kimono, always remember to fold it left over right across your body. If you fold the garment right to left, you are actually dressing like a corpse so please don’t commit this major faux pas!
2. Kimonos differ according to the wearer.
There are different kimonos to match the age and gender of the person wearing them. For instance, men wear kimonos with a jacket and wide-legged pants called hakama (袴). Male kimono designs also tend to be in more subdued colors and patterns. Women wear different kimonos depending on what stage of life they’re in. For example, for formal events like the Coming of Age ceremony (成人式), young, single women often wear furisode (振袖)—kimonos with long, flowy sleeves and vibrant designs. On the other hand, for formal occasions, married women often wear tomosode (留袖)—kimonos with short sleeves, more subtle designs, and the family crest. All women, whatever their age, may also dress in a houmongi (訪問着) or visiting kimono when paying social visits or attending parties.
3. There are kimonos to suit every pocket.
Kimonos come in a variety of fabrics—ultra-plush silk, humble hemp, versatile cotton, and machine-washable polyester blends. Silk kimonos are usually reserved for ultra-formal occasions such as tea ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. On the other hand, men and women wear breezier yukata (浴衣) or cotton kimonos during the warmer months, especially for matsuris (祭り) or summer festivals. Because of lower production costs, cotton yukata tend to be more affordable than silk kimono, making them a perfect souvenir for visitors. However, if you’re hell-bent on getting a silk kimono, you can pick up secondhand ones in recycle shops and flea markets in almost any major Japanese city, particularly in Kyoto.
4. They make the perfect family heirloom.
If they are cared for properly, kimonos can last a very long time, even across three generations. Kimonos are often decorated with kamon (家紋) or the family crest, making them the perfect gift to pass from mother to daughter or father to son. Even the oldest kimono can be revived by kimono specialists to keep a piece of family history alive. These specialists will unstitch, wash, stretch, restitch, and restore the colors of the garment so that it looks brand new again. However, if you think a kimono is definitely on its last legs, you can still upcycle it in many ways. For instance, an obi can make a terrific table runner or be framed as a piece of art. Material can also be cut from torn or stained kimonos to make handbags and other accessories.
5. They are wearable pieces of art.
Believe it or not, kimonos are pieces of art that change with the seasons. For the colder months, kimonos are often lined and made of heavier fabrics such as silk. They may display motifs such as the plum and cherry blossoms of late winter and spring or the maple leaves of fall. On the other hand, for the warmer months, kimonos of lighter fabrics like silk-gauze, linen, and cotton are worn. These kimonos may feature summery bamboo leaves, dragonflies, and seasonal flowers like morning glories and irises.
6. You get to wear awesome accessories with a kimono.
Traditionally, kimonos are worn with several accessories that complement their elegance. With kimonos, you can wear wooden geta (下駄) clogs or zori (草履) sandals that show off tabi (足袋) or split-toe socks. However, the highlight of any kimono outfit is the obi. It can be as simple or as elaborate as the kimono is. A kimono can also have different looks depending on how the obi is knotted at the back. The design of the musubi (結び) or knot can indicate whether you’re single and ready to mingle or married and off-limits. Married women wear simple knots, young single women often wear complicated knots, and maiko (舞子) or apprentice geisha are known to wear beautiful, trailing obi.
No matter who tries to capitalize on this artifact, kimonos are and will probably always remain an ingrained part of Japanese culture. However, that doesn’t mean that kimonos have never transcended Japan. They have conquered international runways across the globe because they are so darn versatile—they can be as minimalist and understated as you’d like or as bold and lavish as you dare. So be bold and experiment with this iconic garment, but never ever forget where it originally came from.