Despite being a symbol of Japanese culture to the rest of the world, the history of the kimono has its roots in Chinese fashion. Before Chinese influence, Japan’s common garments were in two parts, a set of shirt layers and a pair of loose trousers called the “hakama.” During the Nara period (700s AD), Chinese missionaries journeyed to Japan to spread Buddhism and Confucianism ideals. With them came a multi-layered, wrapped, and belted style of clothing. As Chinese style took root in the still-developing Japanese civilization, the first predecessor to the kimono arose: the “kosode,” a robe-like undergarment with short hanging sleeves paired with the hakama. Over time, it became more acceptable to wear the kosode as outerwear.
The Growth of the Kimono
During the Heian era (794-1185), Japan closed itself away from China and began to evolve as an isolated society. Direct influence by Chinese visitors waned, and Japan’s fragmented clans warred for years among each other.
The History of the Kimono grew with a straight-line pattern for cutting kimonos out of whole cloth made the robes’ production far faster than in the past. Techniques for decorating kimono cloth expanded to include new dye practices as well as elaborate embroidery. The artistic kimonos we think of today from history classes came into being during the Edo period. Some ladies of the court wore up to twelve kimono layers in a costume called “junihitoe.” This was one of the most elaborate garments in the world.
Western Influence and the Decline of Silk
In 1853, the US Navy sailed to Tokyo, and Japanese fashion was never the same. In contrast, the traditional kimono remained a stylistic staple for another century. Machine-woven cloth from the West began to dominate Japanese silk. And earthquakes at the turn of the 20th century destroyed entire collections of antique robes. Silk taxes during the two World Wars cemented the end of the silk kimono. This paved the way for its replacement in the form of cotton and then polyester garments. The new fabrics made formal and artistic kimonos more accessible to the average Japanese citizen and foreign buyers. Cotton was cheaper and easier to produce than silk, and the results, as they say, are history.