The History of the Kimono

“I put my eye back to the hole in time to see a shadow crossing the wall, and then a woman came into view. Her hair was ornamented with the dangling green bloom of a willow, and she wore a soft pink kimono with white flowers like cutouts all over it. The broad obi tied around her middle was orange and yellow. I’d never seen such elegant clothing”.

As an American male adopting the perspective of a young Japanese girl, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) showcases just how much the kimono has captured both Japanese and Western imaginations. Attempting to fully understand the kimono’s place in Japanese history and its cultural importance puts in the position of Chiyo Sakamoto, the novel’s protagonist, as she catches fleeting but intoxicating glimpses of this soft pink kimono. The door which stands in our way is one which grows with time, and is made up of the cultural gap between the East and West. But if we do put our eyes to the hole, we can get an insight into the rich historical and cultural significance of the now iconic garment.

Anonymous painting of geishas

Anonymous painting of geishas

The development of the kimono is unique in how it has collapsed the boundaries between staple clothing and fine art. The word ‘kimono’ literally translates as ‘something to wear’, which looks back to its humble beginnings. In the Heian period (794-1192), garments were created for ease, made from straight cuts of fabric sewn together. This silhouette would later be transformed into the kimono as we know it today.

The garment was in everyday use during the Edo period (1615-1868), but the wealthier members of society would use luxurious materials and extravagant patterning as an indicator of their privilege. It was in the Meiji period (1868-1912) when, according to Dr. Christine Guth - a specialist in Asian design history - the kimono was placed “in a purely aesthetic realm beyond considerations of practicality”. It is this ‘aesthetic realm’ which is so influential in fashion today. What was once literally ‘something to wear’ is now heralded as an art form, inextricable from Japanese history and identity. 

Summer kimono, 1876

Summer kimono, 1876

Composition, colour theory and techniques such as embroidery, pasting and dying take centre stage upon the clean lines of the kimono. It is thought that the more detailed pieces could take longer than a decade to complete. In this way, the creation of a kimono is more akin to that of a painting than other types of clothing. Its fabric is the canvas and its patterning the paint. 

In a culture of fast fashion, this idea of preserving what is essentially a painting on clothing may be odd, but incredibly alluring. In fact, Western designers are now tapping into this artistry for their own designs. Christian Louboutin recently released the ‘May Wong’ shoe, which uses the woven, patterned material of the obi as its fabric. Pierpaolo Piccioli cited the history of the ‘elaborate but poetic’ kimono as one of his inspirations for the Valentino pre-fall 2019 show in Tokyo. Whether it is through the idiosyncratically intricate embroidery or the distinctive silhouette, elements of the kimono are permeating into the mainstream Western fashion industry.

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It is ironic that one of the traditional motifs seen on the kimono is the cherry blossom - a symbol of the ephemerality of human beauty. The kimono has an enduring aesthetic power which has spanned centuries. Inseparable from its aesthetic value is its rich history and centrality in Japanese culture. So not only are the past and present brought together by the kimono, but now, so too are the East and West. 

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