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The Art & History of the Kimono

Although originally from Japan, the world has fallen in love with the kimono thanks to its long, graceful lines, gorgeous colors and stunning patterns. The word "kimono" literally means "thing to wear." The term was first adopted in the mid-19th century; before that it was known as a kosode, which means "small sleeve."

Kimono are T-shaped, straight-lined robes that fall to the ankle when sashed, with attached collars and 399px-TokioShibuya-Kimono long, wide sleeves. They’re always wrapped around the body with the left side over the right (except when dressing the dead for burial), and secured by a sash called an obi, which is tied at the back. Usually, kimono are worn with traditional footwear, especially zōri or geta, and split-toe socks called tabi. Kimono can be made of silk, cotton, wool, linen or synthetic materials.

Etiquette plays an important role in choosing a kimono. The wearer must take several aspects into consideration, including age, marital status, season and taste. Traditionally, unmarried women wear a style of kimono called furisode, with long, swinging (sometimes almost floor-length) sleeves, vibrant colors and complex patterns. The younger the woman, the higher the pattern would reach on her kimono. Married women wear tomesode, which have short sleeves, fewer patterns and more subdued colors.

Kimono Symbolism

Kimono designs often come from the natural world and have great significance and complex meanings. The crane, for example, is one of the most revered and auspicious animals in Japanese art, representing longevity and good fortune. The crane kimono below, for example, is a wedding kimono created during the Showa period between 1926-1989 (photo courtesy of the Textile Museum). The phoenix represents benevolence, Crane kimono wisdom and feminine energies, while the koi symbolizes vigor and endurance. Some motifs, like certain flowers and plants, have seasonal significance. Bamboo, pine and plum blossoms—some of Japan’s most popular winter motifs—are known as the "three friends of winter" when combined together in a single design, symbolizing longevity, resilience and renewal.

Colors also have strong connotations and often correspond to the characteristics of the specific plant dyes themselves. For example, purple—which represents undying love—was traditionally created from the gromwell plant, which has very long roots. Red, which symbolizes glamour, passion and transient love, is derived from the safflower plant, a dye that easily fades over time.

Kimono in History

Kimono as we know them came into existence during the Heian period (794 – 1192 AD). At this time a new garment-making technique was developed, known as the straight-line-cut method. This involved cutting pieces of fabric in long straight lines and sewing them together to create a long robe, or kimono. Kimono makers liked them because they didn’t have to worry about the shape of the wearer’s body. In addition, these straight-lined garments were suitable for all weather: They could be layered in winter for warmth and made of lightweight fabrics, like linen, in summer.

Kimono were originally worn by commoners, or as undergarments by the aristocracy. During the 16th century, the kimono became the principal garment for all classes and both sexes. By the end of the 17th century, during the Edo period (1615–1868), differences became more pronounced; patterns on women’s kimonos were more intricate and vividly colored. At this time, the kimono became an important indicator of class and wealth. Despite the sumptuary laws put in place by the ruling samurai class (which restricted use of certain fabrics and colors), wives of wealthy merchants would try to outdo each other with lavish displays of kimono design, each one more stunning, vibrant and complex than the next.

By the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan was opened to the West, and for the first time, kimono were exported to Europe. Also at this time, Japan’s textile industry began to adopt western technology; new techniques and the end of sumptuary laws made silk kimono affordable and thus more available for popular use.

During the prosperity of the Taishō period (1912-1926), western-style clothes gained popularity among women, though the kimono continued to be worn. Motifs inspired by western designs—such as Art Deco and Art Nouveau, began to appear—while chemical dyes allowed for the production of even more vibrant colors. The development of innovative machinery, like power-operated spinning machines and jacquard looms, sped up production and continued to lower costs, making high-fashion kimono more readily available than ever.

Since the end of World War II, western-style clothes have become the norm in modern Japan. Some older Kimono3 women and even fewer men still wear kimono on a daily basis, as well as geisha or people engaged in traditional activities, like tea ceremony. But most often they are worn on special occasions, like weddings or celebrating the New Year. Interestingly enough, the 21st century has seen a sort of rebirth of the kimono, and beautiful contemporary designs as well as vintage kimono are being seen again on younger people, who wear them in more modern ways.

At Peruvian Connection, we continue to find inspiration in the artistry and design of traditional kimono silhouettes. Our interpretations often merge Eastern and Western themes: Japanese florals grow lush on skirts and sweaters, while Turkish geometrics, Indian paisleys or even Andean manta stripes grace contemporary kimono shapes. This season, our newest designs include the Parisian Kimono (adorned with Art Nouveau scrolls) and the Catoga Kimono (patterned with graphic paisleys). And don’t forget our luxurious Leather Obi Sash… a versatile, seasonless standby that no wardrobe should be without.

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