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The History of Kimono

The history of Kimono inevitably combines not only a social history of Japan but also the development of artistic processes and techniques that have led to Japan being world renowned for exquisite textiles.

The Kimono is the traditional garment of Japan, worn by both women and men and also by children. The actual word “Kimono” means “thing to wear” from Ki “wear” and mono “thing”. The word Kimono has come to denote a Japanese full-length robe in an exciting variety of fabrics, textures, designs and colours.

Historically, the Kimono was also known as “gofuku” and early Kimono were influenced by Chinese Han Dynasty clothing (Hanfu) ( 202 BCE – 220 CE ) known today in Japan as “Kanfuku”.

During the Heian Period (794 – 1192) a half apron overgarment called a “mo” was worn over elaborate stylized Kimono and Hakama, often chosen to be in harmony with the season, in both colour, motif and fabric.

During the Muromachi period (1392 – 1573 ), the garment was simplified into a “Kosode” single garment, previously considered an undergarment and worn without the traditional “Hakama” (divided-skirt/Culotte) over it. This liberated “Kosode” design from often plain white to a multitude of seasonally harmonious colours, patterns and elaborate motifs.

These changes gave rise to the need for a sash or “obi” to close the Kimono and led in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) to the obi becoming not only wider but more sumptuous.

From the 16th century, new techniques were learned from Chinese artisans. These included “Surihaku” – metallic foil on fabric, “ginran (silver)” and “kinran” (gold) woven as metallic paper strips, “chirimen” woven crepe and “rinzu” figured silk with a satin weave. These were combined with hand painted and wood blocked motifs as well as (shibori) dappled tie-dyed silks, using sophisticated dyeing processes long used in Japan and exploring a wide variety of vegetable dyeing processes.

These techniques were fused into a uniquely Japanese decorative technique, “yuzen”, in which a resist made from rice paste was combined with sophisticated dyeing and painting techniques, a uniquely Japanese fusion that took place in the second half of the 17th Century. The name “yuzen” is derived from Miyazaki Yuzensai (d 1711), a famous Kyoto artisan, known for his painting of exquisite fans, “Yuzen” transformed the decorative potential of Kimono and designs became ever more sumptuous and elaborate.

The Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868) led to the increasing imposition of Sumptuary Laws in an attempt to maintain class distinction and attempt to suppress the “chomin” merchant classes and prevent them from displaying their wealth in the form of ostentatious clothing. Thus the Samurai Aristocracy sought to maintain visual class distinctions.

The Laws were often circumvented by the innovative use of elaborate linings or exquisitely woven plain fabrics and led to a subtlety of design which has ultimately fused in the present day with all previous influences and techniques.

Modern Japan therefore is home to some of the most beautiful and innovative textiles in the world.


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