Japanese Kimono


Rich, beautiful silk. A vibrant, red color. Delicate patterns of flowers. Dazzling threads of gold.

Have you ever heard the saying, You are what you wear? The owner of this Japanese robe must have believed this was true. Through fabric, color, and design, the young woman who wore this outer coat on her wedding day was trying to tell us something about herself.

Robe with wisteria and stylized waves, Tokugawa (Edo) period, 18th-early 19th century Silk, couched gold threads, silk embroidery, shaped-resist dyed The John C. Weber Collection


Ever-changing styles

Originally, the Japanese word kimono meant the thing worn, referring to many types of Japanese clothing. Today, we think of a kimono as a T-shaped robe that wraps around in the front and is tied with a sash, called an obi. Although historically both men and women wore these robes, today women are most likely to wear them. And instead of wearing kimonos as everyday attire, women most often wear them at special ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies, and children’s festivals.

Clothing styles changed throughout Japanese history. Fashion of the Nara period (645-794) was highly influenced by Chinese styles, especially in the use of silk. During the Heian period (794-1185), it was popular to wear many layers of clothing in fact; women of the elite class would wear as many as 15 to 40 layers! The practice of wearing these layers was later discarded during the Kamukura period (1185-1333), when people wore just the under-robe, called the kosode, which means small sleeve, referring to the opening at the wrist. The kimono style we know today is derived from the kosode. One of the most important fashion eras in Japan was the Edo period (1615-1868). During this time a new dyeing process was developed and detailed patterns became popular.

In the late 1800s, Japanese dress was increasingly influenced by the West. Many Japanese men and women combined their traditional clothing with Western apparel. For example, a man wore his short coat (haori) with Western-style trousers. Some women wore American-style blouses or European-style shoes under their kimonos.

While Japan embraced Western fashion, the fashionable society in both Europe and the United States became interested in Japanese arts and culture. Stylish Western women began wearing Japanese kimonos to society functions.

Robes during the Heian period were voluminous and multi-layered.
Utagawa Kunisada; Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige; Publisher: Maruya Kyūshirō; Carver: Yokogawa Takejirō, Chiryu, April 1855, color woodblock print, Gift of Louis W. Hill Jr.

The octagons on this robe were inspired by a popular Chinese design.
Kariginu, brocade on a dark blue twill-weave ground, Edo period, Gift of the Harriet Hanley Estate and Kathryn Glessing

Europeans were intrigued by Japanese culture during the late 1800s.
Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876, oil on canvas, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Tell us about yourself

Each traditional Japanese garment provided clues about its owner. It could reveal the age and social or marital status of the wearer. For example, a married woman wore a robe with short sleeves and small patterns, while an unmarried woman, who wanted to announce her single status, wore a vibrantly colored, boldly patterned, long-sleeved robe that would attract admirers. Colors were important indicators of status. Because red dye was expensive and labor-intensive to produce, a brilliant red robe announced the financial status and high social rank of its owner.

Specific garments and styles were associated with particular professions and activities. A fireman would often wear a quilted coat that would be soaked in water before he attacked a fire. Warriors, too, had specific sets of clothing. During the Edo period, a samurai would wear a three-part outfit called a kamishimo, which included an outer coat, inner kimono, and a long split skirt. Kabuki actors would wear outrageously patterned kimonos that would establish a dramatic tone and complement the stage set.

The designs themselves were symbolic. On a fireman’s coat, the design connoted the bravery of the man who wore it. Family crests, usually derived from nature, designated the robe wearer’s clan. A kimono decorated with auspicious motifs, such as cranes, tortoises, plum blossoms, and bamboo, reflected a new bride’s hope for a long and happy life. Other designs, such as fishing scenes or maple leaves, indicated the season in which the robe was to be worn.

Samurai outfits (kamishimo) usually had three distinct parts. Harunobu Suzuki, Young Samurai Looking at the Cherry Blossoms, c. 1767-68, color woodblock print, Bequest of Richard P. Gale

Kabuki actors were fashion trendsetters. They wore elaborate costumes on-stage to add more drama to their performances. Hiroshige Utagawa and Seiemon Aritaya, Prologue, Edo period, color woodblock print, Gift of Louis W. Hill Jr.

Kimonos worn in the summer were made of lighter fabrics; patterns reflected the season, comprising flowers, butterflies, or fishing scenes. Goyo Hashiguchi, Woman in Summer Kimono, 1920, color woodblock print, Gift of Ellen and Fred Wells


Rules were meant to be broken

Traditional Japanese society was divided into four distinct groups: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. At the top, the samurai were the military elite who possessed the most power and wealth. At the bottom, the merchants were low in status because they did not produce any goods or materials, as the farmers and artisans did.

The Edo period a was prosperous time in Japan, with much economic growth and urban expansion. Although the samurai were still considered the privileged class, merchants benefited the most from the booming economy. However, their newfound wealth could not change their low social standing. So they lavishly spent their money on the latest trends, including fashion.

The extravagant garments worn by members of the lower class troubled the Japanese government. In order to maintain the social order, the government imposed strict laws (“sumptuary laws”) prohibiting the use of expensive fabrics, certain colors, ornate embroidery, or silver and gold in the merchants clothing.

The merchants were quite creative in finding ways around these restrictions. While they used simple cotton to make their outer robes, they lined these garments with the richest silk, in the boldest colors, to show off their wealth. A new style, known as iki, emphasized the refined elegance of subtle details and muted colors in clothing.

During the Edo period, both Kabuki actors and courtesans greatly influenced Japanese fashion.
Harunobu Suzuki, Courtesan with Attendants on Parade, c. 1766, color woodblock print, Bequest of Richard P. Gale

Because of sumptuary laws, members of the lower classes became creative with their kimono designs.
Kunisada Utagawa, Making Paper Patterns for Dresses, Edo period, color woodblock print, Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr.

Related activities

Kimono at Mia

Search the word kimono on MIA’s Website to discover hundreds of fabulous kimono and Japanese prints and paintings of people wearing them. Because the kimono are textiles (made of cloth), only one or two are on view at the museum at any given time. Visit often to see different kimono and Japanese prints! To request a school group tour, use our easy online form

Fashion through the Generations

Fashion trends change continuously. Interview your parents and grandparents to learn about the clothing they wore as children. Compared to modern dress, what things have remained the same? What things are different? Did social or economic factors affect what your older relatives wore? Write a short essay about your findings.

Your Personal Style

How does your clothing reflect your personality? Make a list of five things your clothing can tell us about you. Then write a poem based on your list.