The ancient history making and wearing a kimono

The Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, FUREAIKAN

Explore the history and dyeing techniques pf japan's most beautiful garment

History of the Kimono
The first description of clothing worn by the Japanese people dates back to the 3rd century. It is recorded in the Gishi-wajin-den (literally, “Records of Wei: An Account of the Wa”). According to this Chinese document, Japanese men of that time wore kanfui, one piece of cloth wrapped around the body over one shoulder, and women wore kantoi, a sleeveless outfit. In fact, this kantoi was the prototype of kimono, and has gradually evolved into kosode (robe with small armholes).

Kofun period: 5-6th centuries

In 5th and 6th centuries (Kofun period), men wore a kind of trousers, and women were dressed in long skirts.

In the second half of the 6th century, clothes with collars and sleeves came into use under the influence of Chinese fashion.

Heian period: 8th century
In the second half of the 8th century (Heian period), garments and their sleeves became comfortably wider, eventually developing into juni-hitoe (twelve-layered kimono for women) and sokutai (ceremonial court dress for men). It was the time of elegantly layered clothes so representative of the culture of the nobility. At first, kosode was the first clothing beneath all the layers of aristocrats’ garments, but soon common people adopted the comfortable tsutsusode (tight-sleeved kosode) as their main dress.

Kamakura period: 12th century
In 12th century (Kamakura period), samurai warriors came to power. They preferred utility more than formality and used kosode as their everyday clothes. While women still prefered layered garments, they also started to wear kosode, even if it was covered with elegant uchikake (unbelted full-length outer robe worn over the kimono).

Edo period: 17th century
In 17th century (Edo period), even if officially warriors were the dominant social class, economically, merchants were more powerful. During that time, due to the creativity of combining 3 elements (cloth material, pattern and decorative techniques) kosode fashion has seen its greatest development. In Japan, 2 important concepts were applied to every aspect of life : omote (public side) and ura (private side). Men belonged to the world of omote, women -- to the world of ura. Therefore, men’s clothing was practical and comfortable without much change, while women had high degree of freedom to choose their garments which resulted in the evolution of different fashion styles.

When the 4 social classes (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants) became equal after Meiji restoration in 1868, kosode was renamed to kimono, and varied according to the time period and social background. Men started to wear Western-style clothes, and kimono hasn’t changed much since.


Did you know that each kimono is made from just one long roll of fabric?

The common size of a kimono fabric roll is 0.38m × 13m.

Kimono pattern = 8 parts

The kimono fabric roll is divided into 8 parts (2 sleeves, front body part, back body part, etc.), and each part is sewn using mainly straight line stitches.

Historical development of Kimono patterns

The basic design and pattern layout of the modern kimono derives from the design of kosode (short-sleeved kimono) popular during Momoyama and Edo periods.

Kosode of Momoyama period
The completion of the shape and design of kosode kimono took place in Momoyama period. This Noh costume is a typical example of kosode design and pattern layout of that time.

Kanbun era patterns (1661-1673)
In Edo period, dynamic composition of patterns arranged in semicircle from right shoulder to the left part of kimono hem appeared. They were named “Kanbun era patterns” and were usually finished with shibori dyeing technique or embroidery.

Genroku era patterns (1688-1704)
The features of Genroku era patterns are less prominent than those of Kanbun era, but as yuzen dyeing rose in popularity, they became larger and bolder.

Weaving and dyeing techniques

Nishijin-ori woven textiles

Nishijin-ori woven textiles are widely used in the production of kimono and obi sashes. The weaving industry in Kyoto originated between the 5th and 6th centuries. It prospered with government-operated factories following the construction of the Heian Capital in 794. The name Nishijin came from the Nishijin district in Kyoto, where many weavers established their workshops after the end of Onin War (1467–1477).

The richly decorative brocades were used for clothing for the Imperial Court and Buddhist and Shinto priests. Based on the design sketch, the dyed silk yarn is woven to produce the textiles which have elaborate patterns. Nishijin-ori has a wide variety of styles, such as gold brocade, damask, figured satin, and velvet. Today, it is said that there are no textiles that Nishijin weavers cannot weave.

Yuzen fabric dyeing

Kyo-Yuzen is one of Japan’s best known dyeing techniques. Yuzen dyed fabric is used for kimono and obi sashes. Its motifs feature themes such as seasonal birds, trees, and flowers, using designs similar in style to those in traditional Japanese painting. The beauty of nature is expressed on white fabric. Kyo-Yuzen has two dyeing styles: Tegaki-Yuzen, hand-painting, and Kata-Yuzen, stencil-dyeing. Hand-painting techniques were originally developed by Yuzensai Miyazaki in Kyoto in the middle of 17th century, therefore, the artform came to be called Yuzen. After that, stencil-dyeing techniques were developed by Jisuke Hirose in Kyoto in 19th century.

Kyo-kanokoshibori / Kyoto tie dyeing

The history of tie dyeing in Kyoto is an old craft. The tie dye used for a court costume in the 10th century was the origin of Kyoto Kanokoza. The name refers to it's three-dimensional pattern.

Currently, we refer to the tie dye of the silk fabric made in Kyoto and call it Kyo Kanokoza. It is characterized by complicated and elaborate pattern compositions such as the Hikida's diaphragm.

Kyo-komon / Komon dyeing

Small print dyeing with tiny patterns are said to have been invented at the end of the 16th century. Uesugi Kenshin, Tokugawa Ieyasu worn by the komon and kimono dresses are still in existence. They were primarily used as samurai's horseshoes. Although it is a small print that departed from astringent monochrome dyeing, Kyoto Komon is influenced by Yuzen Dye. Many patterns feature rich colors as in paintings, and are regarded an art in it's own right.

Kyo-kuromontsukisome / Black dyeing

It is said that the black dyeing technique was established in the early 17th century. In the Edo period (around the 17th to the 19th century), vegetable dyes called sandbags were used favorably among samurai. The tannin in the dye strengthened the silk like armour, and swords were unable to cut through the fabric. In modern times, it has become popular for ceremonialrobes including haori and hakama hakama used for female mourning. Kyoto's black crested dyeing has improved by the introduction of European dyeing techniques and chemical dyes since the Meiji era, and techniques such as Indigo, Red Red and "Three Black".

Kimono TPO (Time, Place and occasion)
Just like the rule of western style dressing, there are several different types of kimono and each has the appropriate TPO. Here are some examples.

The modern kimono "furisode" for young unmarried women

The furisode is the most formal kimono for young unmarried women, usually worn at the coming-of-age ceremony in January. The furisode has unique and brilliantly decorated long sleeves which appear in three lengths; short, medium and long.

Modern representative Kimono <furisode>

“Tomesode” is a formal Kimono for married woman compared to Frisode. The sleeve becomes shorter and 5 dyed crest are attached and the decoration also becomes quite calm with the Ebamoyo Pattern. Other than black Tomesode Kimono, there are colored Tomesode Kimono like this work. Hen is the motif and painted by “Jakuchu” in Edo Period.

The modern kimono ”homongi” for official visits

Homongi is less formal than the tomesode or furisode, but is worn at official ceremonies or parties like a vintage dress. The characteristics of homongi is the connected design on the chest, shoulders, sleeves and skirt. Generally, the owner puts 1 or 3 family crests on it.

The modern kimono ”tsukesage” for intermediate class between homongi and komon

Tsukesage is less formal than homongi. Unlike homongi, there is no connected design.

The modern kimono ”komon” for private and casual occasions

Komon is the kimono decorated by stencil dyeing with small patterns. There's no strict design rules and one can decorate the kimono to show of ones sense of fashion. Many use Yuzen dyeing and tie-dyeing to decorate their kimonos.

The obi sash

The obi sash is tied around the kimono to hold it in place. The obi sash has its own TPO for men and women. The obi sash for women are over 4m long.

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