Japanese clothing

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Photograph of a man and lady wearing traditional clothing, taken in Osaka, Japan.

There are typically two types of clothing that the Japanese wear: the Japanese clothing (和服, wafuku), such as kimonos, and Western clothing (洋服, yōfuku). Japanese traditional fashion combines multiple styles that reflect early Japan's visual culture. It represents the culture's visible artistic and traditional values and joins them together to create a form of fashion recognizable to foreign cultures. The most well known form of Japanese traditional fashion is the kimono (translates to "something to wear"),[1] but other types include the yukata and the hakama.[2] The different styles have been produced, expressed, and transformed by artists well known in Japan, including fashion designers Issey Miyake , Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo. Their works have influenced numerous designers outside of the country that showcase their designs in fashion shows exposed internationally.[3] From the intricate patterns to the layers of fabric, the essence of beauty that was found in traditional wear has influenced the modern fashion that is immersed in Japan's community on a daily basis, specially found in Tokyo, the capital of Japan.[4]

Although the traditional wear for Japan became popularized during the Heian period (794-1185)[5] and was worn casually at the time, it is now rare to find people doing so due to the difficult process associated with the wardrobe. Each type of garment corresponds to a special occasion, such as festivals, ceremonies, or weddings. The materials, colors, and layers used for the clothing differentiate them and their significance, as the looks are also often worn seasonally. The clothing that embodies the culture represents Japan's traditional values that remain in their community to this day.[5] As it became popular in the Western world, there has been controversy regarding cultural appropriation with the costumes of the culture, specifically the "Kimono Wednesday" event held at the Boston Museum of Arts.[6]

Traditional garments are now mainly worn for ceremonies and special events. In more recent years, western clothing is worn often in day-to-day life.


Nara Period (710-794)[edit]

Social segregation of clothing was primarily noticeable in the Nara period (710-794), through the division of upper and lower class. Women of higher social status wore clothing that covered the majority of their body, or as Svitlana Rybalko states, "the higher the status, the less was open to other people's eyes". For example, the full-length robes would cover most from the collarbone to the feet, the sleeves were to be long enough to hide their fingertips, and fans were carried to protect them from speculative looks.[5]

Heian Period (794-1185)[edit]

When the Heian Period began (794-1185), the concept of the hidden body remained, with ideologies suggesting that the clothes served as "protection from the evil spirits and outward manifestation of a social rank". This proposed the widely held belief that those of lower ranking, who were perceived to be of less clothing due to their casual performance of manual labor, were not protected in the way that the upper class were in that time period. This was also the period in which Japanese traditional clothing became introduced to the Western world.[5]

1185 - Present[edit]

As time passed, new approaches to the costume were brought up, but the original mindset of a covered body lingered. The new trend of tattoos competed with the social concept of hidden skin and led to differences in opinion among the Japanese community and their social values. The dress code that was once followed on a daily basis reconstructed into a festive and occasional trend.[5]

Western influence[edit]

A young woman wearing kimono

In Japan, modern fashion history might be conceived as the very gradual westernization of Japanese clothes. The woolen and worsted industries were completely a product of Japan's re-established contact with the West in the 1850s and 1860s. Before the 1860s, Japanese clothing consisted entirely of a great variety of kimono. These first appeared in the Jōmon period (14,500 B.C. – 300 B.C.), with no distinction between male and female.

After Japan opened up for trading with the outside world, other clothing options started to come in. The first Japanese to adopt western clothing were officers and men of some units of the shogun's army and navy.

Sometime in the 1850s these men adopted woolen uniforms worn by English marines stationed at Yokohama. To produce them could not have been easy. The cloth had to be imported. Perhaps the most significant of this early adoption of Western styles was its public origin. For quite a while, the public sector remained as major champion of the new garb.[7]

The style only grew from there, moving out from the military to other lifestyles. Soon, courtiers and bureaucrats were urged to adopt Western clothing, which was thought to be more practical.

The Ministry of Education ordered that Western-style student uniforms be worn in public colleges and universities. Businessmen, teachers, doctors, bankers, and other leaders of the new society wore suits to work and at large social functions. Although western-style dress was becoming more popular for workplaces, schools, and streets, it was not worn by everybody.[8]

Since World War II most areas have been taken over by western clothing. Thus, by the opening of the twentieth century, western dress was a symbol of social dignity and progressiveness. However, the vast majority of Japanese stuck to their fashions, in favor of the more comfortable kimono. Western dress for street wear and Japanese dress at home remained the general rule for a very long time.[7]

An example of Eastern influence from Japan that spread to the rest of the world is evident in the late 1880s. An ordinary wool blanket was used as a shawl for women, and a red blanket was featured in Vogue for winter wear.

Until the 1930s, the majority of Japanese wore the kimono, and Western clothes were still restricted to out-of-home use by certain classes. The Japanese have interpreted western clothing styles from the United States and Europe and made it their own. Overall, it is evident throughout history that there has been much more of a Western influence on Japan’s culture and clothing. However, the traditional kimono remains a major part of the Japanese way of life and will be for a long time.[7]

Types of Traditional Clothing[edit]

Japanese Woman in Traditional Dress Posing Outdoors by Suzuki Shin'ichi, ca. 1870s.


Kuro-Tomesode (black Tomesode)

The Kimono (着物), labeled the "national costume of Japan",[1] is the most formal and well-known form of traditional fashion. Japanese kimonos are wrapped around the body, sometimes in several layers, and are secured in place by sashes with a wide obi to complete it.[9] There are accessories and ties needed to wear the kimono correctly.

After the four-class system ended in the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the symbolic meaning of the kimono shifted from a reflection of social class to a reflection of self, allowing those to incorporate their own tastes and individualize their outfit. The process of wearing a kimono requires a knowledge of multiple steps and layers that must precede the final thick layer of the outer robe. Kimono schools have been built specifically to teach those interested in learning about the garment and the proper method of wearing it.[1]

The uchikake is a type of kimono coat worn by Japanese brides on their wedding day. Unlike Western styled wedding gowns that include a train solely following the back of the bride's dress, the uchikake features a long train of fabric encircling the bride's entire body. Traditionally, it was typically a red coat with cranes printed on the design, but in modern times, many brides opt to wear white. This characteristic requires brides to be accompanied by people to hold onto all ends of the gown as she transports between locations.[10]

In modern Japan, kimono are a marked feminine costume and a national attire. There are multiple types and subtypes of kimono that a woman can wear: furisode (a type of kimono with longer sleeves worn by single women, worn mostly for coming of age celebrations), uchikake and shiromuku, houmongi, yukata, tomesode, and mofuku, depending on her marital status and the event she attends.[9]

Dressing in kimono[edit]

The word kimono literally translates as "thing to wear", and up until the 19th century it was the main form of dress worn by men and women alike in Japan.[11]

Traditionally, the art of assembling the kimono was passed on from mother to daughter. Today this art is also taught in schools, and the technique is the same.[9] First, one puts on the tabi, which are white cotton socks.[11] Then the undergarments are put on followed by a top and a wraparound skirt.[11] Next, the nagajuban (under-kimono) is put on, which is then tied by a datemaki belt.[11] Finally, the kimono is put on, with the left side covering the right, and then tied with an obi. (It is important to not tie the kimono with the right side covering the left because this signifies the dressing of a corpse for burial.[11]) When the kimono is worn outside, zori sandals are traditionally worn on the feet.[11]

A couple wearing kimonos on their wedding day

There are types of kimonos that are worn for different occasions and seasons. Women typically wear kimonos when they attend traditional arts, such as a tea ceremonies or ikebana classes.[7] Girls and young single women wear furisode: a colorful style of kimono with long sleeves that are tied with a brightly colored obi.[9]

During wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom will often go through many costume changes. Shiromuku or uchikake are worn by brides, which are heavily embroidered white kimonos.[9] Grooms wear black kimonos made from habutae silk.

For funerals, men and women wear plain black kimonos. (It is acceptable to wear black suits for weddings and funerals.)

The "coming of age" ceremony, Seijin no Hi, is another occasion where kimonos are worn.[12] At these annual celebrations, women wear elaborately colored kimonos, often with boas. Other occasions where kimonos are worn today include New Year, graduation ceremonies, and Shichi-go-san, which is a celebration for children.


Kimonos are matched with seasons. Awase (lined) kimonos, made of silk, wool, or synthetic fabrics, are worn during the cooler months.[7] During these months, kimonos with more rustic colors and patterns (like russet leaves), and kimonos with darker colors and multiple layers, are favored.[7] Light, cotton yukata are worn by men and women during the spring and summer months. In the warmer weather months, vibrant colors and floral designs (like cherry blossoms) are common.[7]


Formal "tateya musubi" obi knot

Up until the fifteenth century kimonos were made of hemp or linen, and they were made with multiple layers of materials.[13] Today, authentic kimonos are made of silk, silk brocade, silk crepes (such as chirimen) and satin weaves (such as rinzu).[13] Modern kimonos that are made with less-expensive easy-care fabrics such as rayon, cotton sateen, cotton, polyester and other synthetic fibers, are more widely worn today in Japan.[13] However, silk is still considered the ideal fabric for kimonos.[7]

Kimonos are typically 39-43 inches long with eight 14-15 inch-wide pieces.[14] These pieces are sewn together to create the basic T-shape. Kimonos are traditionally sewn by hand.[14] However, even machine-made kimonos require substantial hand-stitching.

Kimonos are traditionally made from a single bolt of fabric called a tan.[7] Tan come in standard dimensions, and the entire bolt is used to make one kimono.[7] The finished kimono consists of four main strips of fabric—two panels covering the body and two panels forming the sleeves—with additional smaller strips forming the narrow front panels and collar.[14] Kimono fabrics are frequently hand-made and -decorated.

Kimonos are worn with sashes called obi, which hold it in place and keep the front closed.[13] Obi serve this practical function and are aesthetically pleasing.[13] Obi are about 13 feet long and 12 inches wide.[13] There are two types: fukuro-obi, which have a design only on one side, and nagoya-obi, which are narrower in the middle to make them easier to tie around the body.[13]


The Yukata (浴衣) is a kimono-like robe that is worn specifically in the spring and summer, and it is generally less expensive than the traditional kimono. Because it was made for warm weather, the fabric is often lighter in weight and brighter in color in order to correspond to the seasons. It is worn for festivals and cherry blossom viewing ceremonies, but is considered to be informal.[2]

Hakama, Obi, Zori[edit]

The hakama, which resembles a long, wide pleated skirt, is generally worn over the kimono and is considered formal wear. Although it was traditionally created to be worn by men of all occupations (craftsmen, farmers, samurai, etc.), it is now socially accepted to be worn by women as well.

The Obi is similar to a belt as it wraps around the final layer of the traditional robe to help in keeping all of the layers together for a long period of time. It is often bright, extremely thick, and bow-shaped, and it serves as the final touch to the costume.

A zori is a type of sandal worn with a traditional outfit that resembles flip-flops by design, with the exception that the base of the shoe is a block of wood, rather than rubber or plastic. These shoes are typically worn with white socks that are usually covered by the gown. The geta is a sandal similar to a zori that is made to be worn in the snow or dirt, featured with wooden columns underneath the shoes.[2]



Multiple designers use the kimono as a foundation for their current designs, being influenced by its cultural and aesthetic aspects and including them into their garments.

Issey Miyake is most known for crossing boundaries in fashion and reinventing forms of clothing while simultaneously transmitting the traditional qualities of the culture into his work. He has explored various techniques in design, provoking discussion on what identifies as "dress". He has also been tagged the "Picasso of Fashion" due to his recurring confrontation of traditional values. Miyake found interest in working with dancers to create clothing that would best suit them and their aerobic movements, eventually replacing the models he initially worked with for dancers, in hopes of producing clothing that benefits people of all classifications.[3] His use of pleats and polyester jersey reflected a modern form of fashion due to their practical comfort and elasticity. Over 10 years of Miyake's work was featured in Paris in 1998 at the "Issey Miyake: Making Things" exhibition. His two most popular series was titled, "Pleats, Please" and "A-POC (A piece of Cloth)".

Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo were Japanese fashion designers who shared similar tastes in design and style, their work often considered to be difficult to differentiate by the public. They were influenced by social conflicts, as their recognizable work bloomed and was influenced by the post war era of Japan. They differed from Miyake and several other fashion designers in their dominating use of dark colors, especially the color black. Traditional clothing often included a variety of colors in their time, and their use of "the absence of color" provoked multiple critics to voice their opinions and criticize the authenticity of their work. American Vogue of April 1983 labeled the two, "avant-garde designers", eventually leading them to their success and popularity.[3]


The Japanese are often recognized for their traditional art and its capability of transforming simplicity into creative designs. As stated by Valerie Foley, "Fan shapes turn out to be waves, waves metamorphose into mountains; simple knots are bird wings; wobbly semicircles signify half-submerged Heian period carriage wheels".[15] These art forms have been transferred onto fabric that then mold into clothing. With traditional clothing, specific techniques are used and followed, such as metal applique, silk embroidery, and paste- resist. The type of fabric used to produce the clothing was often indicative of a person's social class, for the wealthy were able to afford clothing created with fabrics of higher quality. Stitching techniques and the fusion of colors also distinguished the wealthy from the commoner, as those of higher power had a tendency to wear ornate, brighter clothing.[16]

Influence on Modern Fashion[edit]

Tokyo Street Fashion[edit]

Traditional fashion gradually transformed to best suit Japanese people lifestyles, as their clothing became more practical, light, and self-expressive.

Japanese street fashion emerged in the 1990s and differed from traditional fashion in the sense that it was initiated and popularized by the general public, specifically teenagers, rather than by well known fashion figures/designers.[4] It took the styles of traditional design and revised it to dissociate the general whole into individuals. Different forms of street fashion have been socially categorized based on geography and style, such as the Lolita in Harajuku (原宿) or the Ageha of Shibuya (渋谷), all of them being based in the popular shopping districts of Tokyo, Japan.

Lolita emerged in Harajuku, Japan in the late 1990s and became popular in the mid 2000s. It is characterized by "a knee length skirt or dress in a bell shape assisted by petticoats, worn with a blouse, knee high socks or stockings and a headdress".[4] Different sub-styles of Lolita include casual, gothic, and hime. Ageha (揚羽), which translates to "swallowtail butterfly", roots from a club-hostess look, as the club culture is prevalent in the nightlife of the Shibuya district. Those who follow the Ageha trend are often seen wearing dark, thick eyeliner, false eyelashes, and contact lenses specially worn to transform the appearance of eyes to make them appear larger. The style is also characterized by lighter hair and sparkly accessories. The Kogyaru trend is found in both Shibuya and Harajuku, and is influenced by a "schoolgirl" look, with participants often wearing short skirts, oversized knee-high socks. It is also characterized by artificially tanned skin or dark makeup, pale lipstick, and light hair.[17]

The fast paced businesses that dominate modern Tokyo reflects the city's working class and their social values of hard work and determination. Its styles have transformed to idealize their active lifestyles, while providing them a method of self-expression that may be omitted in their daily working lives.


The "Kimono Wednesday" Protests[edit]

Differences in opinion escalated over the cultural and symbolic significance of the kimono after The Boston Museum of Fine Arts hosted a "Kimono Wednesday" event, allowing customers to try on a displayed kimono every Wednesday from June 24 to July 29, 2015.

The featured display added to Claude Monet's painting of his wife, Camille Monet, dressed in a kimono (titled, "La Japonaise") while holding a fan displaying the French tricolore with the background depicting uchiwa fans. The museum stated that the exhibit provided visitors a method to "engage with the painting in a different way" and that its goal was to "channel your inner Camille Monet".[6]

As the event grew more popular, a group of people self-identifying as Asian Americans began to stand beside the display, protesting against what they believed exemplified cultural appropriation and orientalism. Opposers also expanded on social media, expressing their views on the museum's Facebook and forming a Facebook page of their own under the title "Stand Against Yellow Face" and a Tumblr page titled, "Decolonize Our Museums".[6]

Counter-protesters also began to appear at the museum with opposing viewpoints on the exhibit. As it was enabled by the NHK, a national Japanese broadcasting company, those who opposed the protests felt it was justified, standing alongside the original protesters with signs proclaiming, "I am Japanese. I am not offended by Kimono Wednesday".

Although Director Malcolm Rogers initially stated that "a little controversy never did any harm", The Boston Museum of Fine Arts eventually cancelled the event, issued a formal apology, and altered the regulations so visitors could touch the traditional costume but no longer wear it.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Assmann, Stephanie. "Between Tradition and Innovation: The Reinvention of the Kimono in Japanese Consumer Culture." Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 12, no. 3 (September 2008): 359-376. Art & Architecture Source, EBSCOhost (accessed November 1, 2016)
  2. ^ a b c Spacey, John (July 11, 2015). "16 Traditional Japanese Fashions". Japan Talk. Retrieved November 15, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c English, Bonnie. Japanese fashion designers : the work and influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. n.p.: Oxford ; New York : Berg, 2011., 2011. Ignacio: USF Libraries Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed November 2, 2016).
  4. ^ a b c Aliyaapon, Jiratanatiteenun, et al. "The Transformation of Japanese Street Fashion between 2006 and 2011." Advances In Applied Sociology no. 4 (2012): 292. Airiti Library eBooks & Journals - 華藝線上圖書館, EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2016).
  5. ^ a b c d e Rybalko, Svitlana. "JAPANESE TRADITIONAL RAIMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF EMERGENT CULTURAL PARADIGMS." Cogito (2066-7094) 4, no. 2 (June 2012): 112-123. Humanities Source, EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2016).
  6. ^ a b c d Valk, Julie. "The 'Kimono Wednesday' protests: identity politics and how the kimono became more than Japanese." Asian Ethnologyno. 2 (2015): 379. Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 31, 2016).
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jackson, Anna. "Kimono: Fashioning Culture by Liza Dalby". Rev. of Kimono: Fashioning Culture. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 58 (1995): 419-20. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
  8. ^ Dalby, Liza. (Mar 1995) "Kimono: Fashioning Culture".
  9. ^ a b c d e Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (1999). Kimono and the construction of gendered and cultural identities. Ethnology, 38 (4), 351-370.
  10. ^ Whiting, Connie. Types of Clothing in Japan. Demand Media Incorporated, 2016 (accessed November 2, 2016).
  11. ^ a b c d e f Grant, P. (2005). Kimonos: the robes of Japan. Phoebe Grant’s Fascinating Stories of World Cultures and Customs, 42.
  12. ^ Ashikari, M. (2003). The memory of the women’s white faces: Japanese and the ideal image of women. Japan Forum, 15 (1), 55.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Yamaka, Norio. (Nov 9 2012) The Book of Kimono.
  14. ^ a b c Nakagawa, K. Rosovsky, H. (1963). The case of the dying kimono: the influence of changing fashions on the development of the Japanese woolen industry. The Business History Review, 37 (1/2), 59-68
  15. ^ Foley, Valerie. "Western fashion, Eastern look: the influence of the kimono and the qipau." Surface Design Journal 24, no. 1 (September 1, 1999): 23-29. Bibliography of Asian Studies, EBSCOhost (accessed November 3, 2016).
  16. ^ Carpenter, John T. "Weaving Kimono Back into the Fabric of Japanese Art History." Orientations (October 2014): 1-5. Art & Architecture Source, EBSCOhost (accessed November 9, 2016).
  17. ^ Black, Daniel. "Wearing Out Racial Discourse: Tokyo Street Fashion and Race as Style." Journal of Popular Culture 42, no. 2 (April 2009): 239-256. Humanities Source, EBSCOhost (accessed November 16, 2016).

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