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How the kimono changed over the centuries and what role it played in art: From the Nara period to the present day
How the kimono changed over the centuries and what role it played in art: From the Nara period to the present day

The kimono has always played an important role in the history of Japanese clothing. It not only fully embodies traditional cultural values, but also reflects the Japanese sense of beauty. Throughout history, the Japanese kimono has changed depending on the socio-political situation and developing technologies. The expression of social status, personal identity and social sensitivity is expressed through the color, pattern, material and decoration of the Japanese kimono, and roots, evolution and innovation are key to the garment's rich and long history, which has also played an important role in the art industry.

1. Nara period: First appearance of the Japanese kimono

Ladies of the Court, Zhang Xuan. \ Photo:

During the Nara period (710-794), Japan was heavily influenced by the Chinese Tang Dynasty and its dressing habits. At that time, Japanese courtiers began to wear the tarikubi robe, which was similar to the modern kimono. This robe consisted of several layers and two parts. The top was a patterned jacket with very long sleeves, while the bottom was a skirt that draped around the waist. However, the ancestor of the Japanese kimono dates back to the Japanese Heian period (794-1192).

2. Heian period (794 - 1185)

Kanjo: Lady-in-waiting, Torii Kiyonaga, c. 1790 \ Photo:

During this period, fashion flourished in Japan and an aesthetic culture was formed. Technological advances in the Heian period allowed the creation of a new technique for making kimono, called the "straight cut method". With this technique, kimonos could adapt to any body shape and were suitable for any weather. In winter, the kimono can be worn in thicker layers to provide warmth, and in summer, in a light linen fabric.

Over time, as multi-layered kimonos came into fashion, Japanese women began to understand how kimonos of different colors and patterns looked together. In general, motives, symbols, color combinations reflected the social status of the owner, political class, personality traits and virtues. One tradition was that only the upper class could wear the juni hitoe, or "twelve-layer robe." These clothes were made in bright colors and made from expensive imported fabrics such as silk. The innermost layer of the robe, called the kosode, served as underwear and represents the origin of today's kimono. Ordinary people were forbidden to wear colorful kimonos with colorful patterns, so they wore simple kosode-style clothing.

3. Kamakura period

Chieda Castle, Toyohara Chikanobu, 1895 \ Photo:

During this period, the aesthetics of Japanese clothing changed, moving from the extravagant clothing of the Heian period to a much simpler form. The rise of the samurai class to power and the total eclipse of the imperial court ushered in a new era. The new ruling class was not interested in accepting this court culture. However, women of the samurai class were inspired by the court formal attire of the Heian period and reformed it as a way to show their education and sophistication. At tea ceremonies and gatherings, ladies of the upper class, such as the shogun's wives, wore a white braid with five layers of brocade to communicate their power and status. They retained the basic braid of their predecessors, but cut off many layers as a sign of their frugality and practicality.Towards the end of this period, upper-class women and courtiers began to wear red trousers called hakama. Lower-class women could not wear hakama pants; instead, they wore half-skirts.

4. Muromachi period

From left to right: Outerwear (uchikake) with bouquets of chrysanthemums and wisteria. \ Outerwear (uchikake) with paper-folded butterflies. \ Photo:

During this period, layers with wide sleeves were gradually abandoned. Women began to wear only braids, which became brighter and more colorful. New versions of the kosode were created: the katsugu and uchikake styles. However, the biggest change in women's fashion during this period was the abandonment of hakama pants for women. To support their kosode tightly, they invented a narrow, decorated belt known as an obi.

5. Azuchi-Momoyama period

Two lovers, Hisikawa Moronobu, c. 1675-80 \ Photo:

This is the period when the Japanese dress takes on a more elegant shape. There is a dramatic change from the earlier attire of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, according to which each kimono was treated as a separate cloth. Artisans have mastered new skills in weaving and decorating without having to import fabric from China. By the beginning of the Edo period, these new silk-making and embroidery techniques were already prevalent, allowing the merchant class to support the nascent fashion industry.

Tagasode, or whose sleeves, Momoyama period (1573-1615). \ Photo:

6. Edo period

Women strolling in the garden of a teahouse in Edo, Utagawa Toyokuni, 1795-1800 \ Photo:

The early 1600s were a time of unprecedented peace, political stability, economic growth, and urban expansion. The people of the Edo era wore simple and sophisticated kimonos. Style, motive, fabric, technique and color explained the personality of the wearer. The kimono was custom made and handcrafted from natural fine fabrics that were very expensive. Thus, people used and recycled the kimono until it wore out. Most people wore recycled kimonos or rented kimonos.

Some people of the lower class never had a silk kimono. The ruling samurai class was an important consumer of luxurious kimonos. At first, these styles were only available to women of the samurai class living in Edo all year round. However, they did not create Japanese clothing styles during the Edo period - it was the merchant class. They have benefited the most from the increased demand for goods. Therefore, they demanded new clothes to express their growing confidence as well as their wealth.

Nakano Street in Yoshiwara, Utagawa Hiroshige II, 1826-69 \ Photo:

In Edo, the Japanese kimono was distinguished by its asymmetry and large patterns, in contrast to the kosode worn by samurai of the Muromachi period. Large-scale motifs have given way to small-scale patterns. For the Japanese dress of married women, the sleeves were sewn onto the kimono dress as a symbol of their fashionable taste. In contrast, young unmarried women had kimonos that were beaten very long, reflecting their "childish" status prior to adulthood.

Lower-class women wore their kimonos until they were tattered, while upper-class people could store and preserve theirs and order new ones. Kimonos became more valuable and parents passed them on to their children as family heirlooms. The kimono is associated with the floating world of pleasure, entertainment and drama that existed in Japan from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century. Yoshiwara, an entertainment district, became the center of the popular culture that flourished in Edo.

Pleasure boat on the Sumida River, Torii Kiyonaga, approx. 1788-90 \ Photo:

One of Yoshiwara's greatest events was the parade of the highest ranking courtesans dressed in their new kimonos. Famous courtesans and kabuki actors such as geisha, who also included Kabuki theaters in Edo. Courtesans were fashion icons, akin to today's influencers and trendsetters, whose styles were admired and copied by ordinary women. The most elite and popular courtesans wore special kimonos with colorful patterns.

Anna Elisabeth van Ried, Gerard (Gerard) Hoot, 1678. \ Photo:

During the Edo period, Japan pursued a strict isolationist policy known as the closed-country policy. The Netherlands were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan, so they brought fabric to the Rising Sun Camp that was incorporated into the Japanese kimono. The Dutch commissioned Japanese manufacturers to create robes specifically for the European market. In the mid-19th century, Japan was forced to open its ports to foreign powers, which led to the export of Japanese goods, including kimonos, to the West.The Japanese silk traders quickly benefited from the new market.

7. The Meiji era

Kimono for a young woman (Furisode), 1912-1926 \ Photo:

During the Meiji era, Japanese fashion adapted to Western standards following the development of Japan's trade with the West. The shift from kimono to a more Western way of dressing and the decline of men in Japanese kimonos began when major ports in Japan began to open. This led to the import of various technologies and cultures from the West.

Much of the adoption of westernized clothing has come from military clothing. The Japanese government wanted to move away from the samurai leadership of the past in favor of the professional military style of the British Empire. The government, in turn, banned the kimono as military clothing. Materials from the western trade such as wool and the dyeing method with synthetic dyes have become new components of the kimono. Elite women in Japanese society also wanted more expensive and exclusive clothing from Western societies.

Robe with a belt, 1905–15 \ Photo:

In the early twentieth century, the Japanese kimono really began to influence European fashion. Kimonos with bold new designs have appeared. The Japanese began to produce what were known as kimonos for foreigners. The Japanese realized that women in Europe would not know how to tie an obi, so they fitted the garment with a belt of the same fabric. In addition, they added additional inserts to the kimono that could be worn as a petticoat. In the middle of the twentieth century, Western clothing was adopted as the daily norm. The kimono has become a garment used only for important events in life.

The most formal attire for a married woman is the narrow sleeve kimono at events such as weddings. The lonely woman wears a one-sleeve kimono that catches the eye at formal occasions. The family crest adorns the upper back and sleeves. The narrow sleeves symbolize that the woman wearing them is now married. This type of slim-sleeved kimono became official in the early 20th century, indicating that this trend was inspired by Western formal wear.

8. Japanese culture and Western contemporary art

Lady with a Fan, Gustav Klimt, 1918 \ Photo:

Among many other artists, Gustav Klimt was fascinated by Japanese culture. He also loved to draw female figures. Both of these characteristics are found in his work "Lady with a Fan". How Japanese art has influenced Western art over the years can be seen in many other Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Pierre Bonnard.

9. Japanese kimono from the post-war period to the present day

Woodcut, Utagawa Kunisada, 1847-1852 \ Photo

After World War II, the Japanese stopped wearing kimonos as people tried to rebuild their lives. They tended to wear Western-style clothing rather than kimonos, which evolved into a codified costume. People wore kimonos for events that marked different stages of life. At weddings, it was still quite popular to wear white kimonos for ceremony and lavishly painted for later celebration.

Angela Lindwall in John Galliano kimono, Spring / Summer 2007 collection. \ Photo:

During the Allied occupation that followed World War II, Japanese culture became increasingly Americanized. This worried the Japanese government, which feared that historical methods would begin to decline. In the 1950s, they passed various laws that still protect their cultural values, such as special weaving and dyeing techniques. Kimonos, worn by women, especially young women, with luxurious jewelry, have been preserved in museums and private collections.

And in the next article, read also about which was the main reason for the disappearance of the samurai.

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