Japanese style and aesthetic sense have undoubtedly influenced global fashion trends in big ways, primarily centered on the ancient philosophy of wabi sabi (which hinges on the Art of Imperfection, transience, and rustic simplicity), as well as on the nation’s rich heritage. To name just a few examples, top western designers and fashion houses like Giorgio Armani, Consuelo Castiglioni’s Marni label, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Zuhair Murad have, throughout their illustrious careers, presented luxurious fashion collections infused with Japanese design elements, patterns, and motifs.
Inarguably, however — in a long list of Japanese fashion influences — it is the kimono that has taken the world of style by sartorial storm.
The kimono’s early beginnings
Literally speaking, kimono means “wearing thing,” or “something to wear.” During the Heian era (794-1192), panels of straight-cut cloth were sewn together to make a garment that fit every body shape and size. This simple-to-wear and easily customizable piece of clothing quickly became a staple in Japanese wardrobe; originally worn as outerwear by commoners, and only as undergarments, by the aristocracy. By the Edo period (1603-1868), however, it had morphed into a unisex outer garment known as kosode. The kosode was distinguished by its smaller armholes and shorter sleeves, hence the literal meaning of the word, “little sleeves.” Around the end of the Meiji era (1868-1912), the robe-like garment gained even more popularity, as Noh actors incorporated its use as costumes in their plays. It was also around this time that the name evolved into its current label, kimono.
The overall design and fabric of the kimono disclosed much about the wearer, in early Japan. The choice of fabric, the quality of the fabric, the prints and patterns, colors, and even the thread used to embroider the garment revealed details such as societal rank, status, age, and gender of the wearer. Members of the upper class typically wore kimonos made of the most luxurious of silks, while the majority of the populace would use their silk kimonos only on special occasions.
The classic kimono, inextricably intertwined with Japanese culture and couture, is now beloved not just in Japan, but also across the globe.
A wealth of meaning and symbolism
Perhaps what makes the kimono even more special is the story and symbolism each robe embodies. In the early years of its emergence, kimono prints and patterns frequently contained multiple layers of significance and meaning. The crane, for example, is the most commonly-depicted bird in customary kimono designs. It is a sign of longevity and good fortune, rooted in legend and folklore, since cranes are said to live for a thousand years and to inhabit the country of the immortals.
Similarly, specific designs were employed to symbolize the qualities or traits of the wearer and to honor the season or a special event (such as weddings and festivals). During such events, the patterns of the kimono were meant to bestow good fortune on the wearer. Moreover, color choice conveyed rich symbolic meaning and cultural connotations, as well. The Japanese back then believed that the dyes used for the fabric and threads conveyed the spirit and therapeutic properties of the plants, leaves, flowers, or berries from which they were derived. These properties were thought to be imbued in the fabric, and, as a result, transferred to the wearer. For instance, because blue dye was largely sourced from the indigo plant — which was also employed to heal bites and stings — a kimono made from blue cloth was believed to ward off snakes and insects.
From classic culture to cult classic
The classic kimono, inextricably intertwined with Japanese culture and couture, is now beloved not just in Japan, but also across the globe. For its elegance, ease of wear, vibrancy, and versatility, the customary Japanese robe has found favor with fashion aficionados and couturiers, alike. It has evolved from its role in traditional culture to a cult classic in the realm of style, with a strong following amongst the fashion-savvy set the world over. Industry giants and icons such as French designers Paul Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Molyneux, Bertrand Guyon, among many others; Italian couture legend, Elsa Schiaparelli; American fashion designer and entrepreneur Eileen Fisher; and Japanese avant-garde designers like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo have all played a big part in bringing the kimono to the forefront of fashion consciousness.
From its ancient roots to its modern-day popularity, the kimono is here to stay — in all its silken, symbolic, sophisticated, subdued, and sultry glory.