A disaster for kimonos in general happened in 1923 when a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo. Since the vast majority of structures were wooden/bamboo/paper arrangements they collapsed with the result that many of the old kimonos were lost or destroyed.
During the late 1920’s the Japanese government reduced production of silk in order to support their military buildup, leading to simpler designs and conservation of material. Kimono production increased after World War II but by this time Western dress had replaced the kimono in popularity.
The actual meaning of the word kimono is pretty plain and straight forward. The ki in kimono is the shortened form of kiru which means to “put on” or “to wear”, and mono means “thing.” So in essence, kimono means “a thing you wear”. Before that it was known as a kosode, which means “small sleeve.”
The kimono looks like it was influenced by the colorful garb of the Chinese court. As with many Japanese arts, a Chinese idea was taken and refined until it became a Japanese symbol all its own.
The style of the kimono has changed frequently over its long history – and yes even men wore kimono. During the Heian period (794-1185) the Japanese court was filled with long flowing kimonos. The Japanese men sporting their sokutai robes with long trailing trains of fabric, and the Japanese women putting on layer after layer of unlined kimono in what was called juni-hitoe, meaning “twelve layers”, which could weigh 40 pounds! You could imagine the court may have looked like big balls of fabric slowly walking up and down the tatami covered corridors.
As time went on the kimono became less formal and more practical. The sizes of the sleeves were reduced and the overall volume of the fabric was lessened. This didn’t mean however, that the beauty of the kimono was diminished, as plenty of new designs and techniques were perfected during the Kamakura to Meiji period (1185-1912), culminating in the taiko musubi or “drum bow” kimono which is still popular today.
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 complex 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.
There’s a lot more to choosing which kimono to wear than just pulling one out of the closet. Many styles and colors of kimono should only be worn for special occasions, including weddings and funerals. But there are also many considerations in choosing even the day-to-day kimono – there are some 200 rules to govern which colors and combinations go together – it’s all very Japanese. Age, marital status and season are among these rules.
The color of the kimono is often based on the season. November to February is the “shades of the plum blossom” season, so you’ll see kimono with white outsides and red lining. March and April is “shades of wisteria”, which makes for the wearing of lavender kimonos with blue lining. Other seasons and styles include red lined kimonos for summer, and yellow and orange for winter and spring.
Special patterns will emerge during special seasonal events. For example, light pink and white cherry blossom patterned kimono can be seen during sakura season, plum blossom and snow scenes will go with winter, and red maple leafs will often be seen during the fall season.
These days, silk kimonos, which sell for thousands new, are reserved for special occasions like the Shichigosan Festival (traditional festival day for three- and seven-year-old girls and three- and five-year-old boys, held annually on November 15 to celebrate the growth and well-being of young children) and New Year’s Day, and for older people, Noh and Kabuki performers, geishas, and others involved in the traditional arts of tea service and flower arrangement. Used kimonos can be found for about $300 at Japanese flea markets.