What interests me about the kimono (and the many accoutrements that attend the wearing of the garment), is the way it is always much more than just a covering for the body. As with all garments, it carries meaning beyond its mere functionality. Let’s look a little closer.
Many cultures are identified by their native dress. Scotland has the kilt, India the sari, and Thailand the sarong. In Japan, of course, it is the kimono. For many outside Japan the kimono signifies Japanese culture—a culture that is wrapped, layered, and seemingly bound. This concept of the kimono is represented in the titles of books that offer to teach outsiders something about Japan—The Kimono Mind, Kimono in the Boardroom, Christ in Kimono, and more.
Frequently, the kimono is associated with women and suggests the rigidity of a social system that keeps women constrained to antiquated gender systems. But it should be remembered that up until the twentieth century, men as well as women wore kimono. There is nothing in the garment itself that is particularly restrictive—certainly not when compared to the corsets, girdles, petticoats, and bustles once required of women’s western garments. Moreover, for many women even today, the kimono has been a mode for an astonishing variety of self-expression. The kimono—as simple as it appears—has a near encyclopedic diversity of applications depending on the age and financial means of the wearer, the social occasion, the season, and the wearer’s individual taste. The way a kimono is worn, as well, offers viewers specific insights into the character and mood of the wearer. In many respects, kimono stands in as a language of its own.
The word kimono literally means “a thing to wear.” And before “kimono” became the standard word (mostly in the west), to identify the Japanese garment, there were a variety of different words marking different aspects of Japanese dress.
The hitoe, for example, refers specifically to an unlined garment worn in the summer. The furisode refers to garments with long, fluttering sleeves typically worn by young, unmarried women. The kosode, literally short sleeved robe, was originally the garment worn underneath the voluminous twelve-layered robes enjoyed by noble women in earlier centuries (and still seen on occasion in the imperial court). The kosode eventually transition to outerwear in the middle ages.
It really wasn’t until the late 19th century, when Japan fell under the spell of the West and Western culture that the word kimono began to be used with any regularity.
Gradually the word, kimono, came to designate a very specific Japanese garment (as opposed to Western wear), a drapey kind of wrap with dangling sleeves and a belt or sash across the middle. And, as Japanese people move further and further from the everyday functionality of kimono, the various different words for kimono and the different ways they are enjoyed, are fading from everyday experience. And in many respects the kimono—this item that we think is so quintessential to Japanese culture—has become as foreign to Japanese wearers as it is to people from other countries.