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The kimono is still a kimono

Few items of clothing create such a clear image in your head as quickly as a kimono. As soon as you hear or read the word, you immediately think of opulent fabrics in countless bold colors – and not forgetting its distinctive shape. Apart from its recognition factor, the kimono is without a doubt also an item of cultural value with a long tradition. A very long tradition in fact: Strictly speaking, we are dealing with one of Japan's oldest garments here. Without getting bogged down in the details, it can be incredibly exciting to look back at the origin of this fascinating item of clothing.  

According to the Chinese document "Gishi-wajin-den“, in the 3rd century, the Japanese wore something known as a "Kanfuis“ – a piece of fabric wrapped around the body and one shoulder. However, this style of dress was reserved for the male members of the population. The female equivalent "Kantoi", on the other hand, was a sleeveless version of the garment. This Kantoi, which evolved into a "Kosode" (a gown with arm holes) over time, is regarded as the prototype of what we now know as a kimono: a T-shaped, knee-length gown with wide sleeves that, when the arms are extended, can reach as far as the hips or – in a few cases – even the floor. Today, about 18 centuries after it was first mentioned, the Japanese robe has become indispensable to the fashion industry and has undoubtedly earned its cult status over time.

The kimono and its obi

Each of these iconic gowns is a tribute to the craftsmanship in their production. The individual panels of fabric made from bolts of material are intricately sewn, tucked and draped. The straight-lined kimono is held together by the sash-like obi. This 3 to 4 meter-long fabric belt is hard to beat when it comes to its colorful design and serves as a clear contrast to the actual kimono. In addition to keeping the kimono together, it also has another function that is not quite as obvious: Similar to the bow on the apron of a Bavarian dirndl, it reveals the marital status of the wearer upon closer inspection. While married women wear a simple knot, you can spy particularly striking and elaborate knots among single female wearers. 

 

As diverse as they are demanding

To this day, the fabric, style and colors of kimonos still vary depending on the occasion and time of year and are therefore selected to suit the situation. There are virtually no limits to the variety of colors and patterns. Though this may sound a lot like our deliberations in front of the wardrobe every morning, in reality it is a lot more complicated. Japanese flora and fauna motifs are as numerous as they are spectacular. A popular example of one of these patterns is cherry blossom, which symbolizes loyalty and renewal. Kimonos decorated with this motif are therefore preferably given as gifts after a birth. Motifs such as bamboo lattices, dragonflies or butterflies are also particularly popular for female kimonos. The list of Japanese motifs and their long-standing, detailed meanings is practically endless and their complexity is very difficult to grasp to their full extent.

The same applies to the correct way to tie sophisticated kimonos, which are usually worn for special occasions. It's a science in itself. To complete the at least 20 individual steps necessary for this, most Japanese women require the support of specially trained assistants. To start, the wearer slips into an undergarment before the actual and much heavier kimono is used. However, there is one rule of thumb that we can all make a note of right now: When folding, it is important to fold the left half over the right half. The reverse style is reserved for the dead and should therefore be avoided as far as possible. 

 

Everyday wardrobe or an outfit for a special occasion?

Of course, there are still jobs in Japan, such as sumo wrestlers or geishas, that require a special kimono to be worn as "workwear", but the following applies to the general public: While the unique coat was originally used more as an everyday garment, it is now used primarily for festive and special occasions in Japan. Weddings are of course at the top of the list here. As is often the case in the fashion world, the choice of fabric also determines the elegance of the garment for kimonos, too. So, cotton or linen kimonos are more likely to be the right choice for casual occasions, the traditional wedding kimono,  a Shiromuku, must almost be made of silk. And it is! On the white silk brocade, you will also find woven motifs intended to bring luck, such as cranes or pine trees. With its quilted seamed train and comparatively long design, there is no doubting that a Shiromuku is a special sight to behold. A cultural asset that also has its price. Kimonos can cost up to 20,000 euros and are therefore often passed on from generation to generation.

A kimono is still a kimono

There is almost no other item of clothing that seems to have as much tradition and history in its DNA as the kimono. Nevertheless, or precisely because of this, it has experienced numerous variations in its design and function since its creation. In this way, the kimono has over time taken on an everyday status in the western hemisphere, becoming  a prêt-à-porter piece.

 

Starting as an enticing piece of clothing for wearing at home, today the kimono has also become a presentable look outside your own four walls. As beachwear or even in a casual street style combo, it has often surprised us and is also very capable of impressing. The kimono is definitely a real eye-catcher – and an extremely comfortable one at that. So, it's no wonder that the style once created in Japan can now also be found in many of our wardrobes. Even though fast fashion chains like Zara may not produce kimonos that come close to the aura of the Japanese originals, we are happy to be part of the fashionable tradition.

Admittedly: This type of kimono has little in common with the fascinating originals in terms of cut, but they are undoubtedly inspired by them and largely tolerated as a result. However, when US reality star Kim Kardashian West wanted to name her new underwear collection "Kimono" not long ago, the Japanese finally found their patience wearing thin. The reality star actually triggered a veritable wave of indignation, as a result of which the idea had to be discarded. Thank goodness is what we say! This ensures that the kimono will stay a kimono! 

References:

Ärger wegen Kimono, welt.de, 2019
Kimono: Ein Kleidungsstück im Wandel der Zeit, japandigest.de, 2019
Baum, Anna-Luise: Der Kimono ist der traditionelle Trendmantel aus Asien, hapersbazaar.de, 2018
Böker, Carmen: Seide für Salonlöwinnen, zeit.de, 2017