How Japan’s Kimono Has Attracted Fashion World?

The journey to conquer the global fashion trend of the Kimono started in the 1890s.

We are now too familiar with fashion designs that borrow ideas from the national dress of Asia. In particular, the design borrowed the vibe from the kimono is always popular with fashion. However, did you know the history when kimono became popular to global fashion?

What is a kimono?

In Japanese, kimono ( ) means something to wear. This is a variation from the ancient costume (hanfu) of China, similar to Giao Linh shirt of Vietnam or hanbok of Korea. The characteristics of these costumes are cross-necked with low-necked mouth that reveals the inside.

In Japanese culture, kimonos have many versions for different occasions. For example, kosode was a simple kimono type, before the 1700s it was an undershirt. Yukata is a lightweight cotton summer kimono, with few layers of fabric to make it cool for the wearer. Furisode is an extremely solemn kimono, long sleeves close to the ground, exclusively for girls who are about to get married. Uchikake has a bulging shape like silkworm cocoon, woven from excellent silk, is a traditional Japanese wedding dress Thus, it can be seen that the traditional kimono is an outfit with many different styles.

Left: Maiko wears a furisode kimono with long sleeves. Thick woven silk fabric, obi belt with embroidery thread. Right: Girls walking around in yukata, a light summer kimono. The fabric is usually cotton or polyester, elegantly printed. Yukata obi belt is not too thick.

The special style of traditional kimono sewing

The traditional Japanese kimono is a fabric-saving outfit. To make a kimono, the craftsman only uses one cloth, size range from 0.5-1m x 12m. This fabric is cut to make a complete kimono without any extra fabric.

Depending on the seriousness needed, the kimono will have many different layers. The innermost lining is a bra, made of plain white cloth. The outer layer is made from the most sophisticatedly woven fabric. The geisha kimonos, for example, are made from 12 different layers! Not to mention the obi belt wrapped around to neatly dress.

Therefore, traditional kimono is a very “difficult to wear” outfit. Many kimonos require 1 to 2 assistants to wear them. Not to mention, thick and heavy multi-layered costumes made it difficult for the wearer to move. This is also one of the reasons why traditional kimono is not popular in modern times.

How to sew a traditional kimono. A cloth is used to cut the entire sleeve (sode), body (migoro), flap (okumi) and collar (eri).

Kimono became national costume

Japan was once a closed nation. It was not until 1852-1854 that Japan opened its doors to contact with the West, due to the United States intervention. This development led to a series of changes in political policy in Japan, the most important of which was the Meiji Reform in 1866. This was a period of drastic renewal in Japan. The whole country receives the influence of the West in education, technology, cuisine, fashion …

Before the Meiji period, kimonos were casual clothing for both men and women. The opening of Japan to the West led to an explosion of Western Europe in Japan. Men started wearing suits and trousers to facilitate travel and communication. Japanese women also choose skirts for daily activities. In this context, kimono gradually became an outfit for special occasions.

Began to extend beyond the Japanese border

In parallel with the adoption of Western culture by Japan, the Japanese culture itself also spread strongly throughout Europe. In 1867, at the World Exhibition in Paris, Japanese hand-made items fascinated the people. Ceramics, lacquer, wood prints … show the subtlety of Japanese art and culture.

Among them, the eye-catching is the sophisticated silk weaving kimono.

A painting depicting the attraction of Japanese culture at the 1867 World Exhibition in France. On the left: People go to visit Japanese halls at the fair. On the right: Japanese women dressed in kimono speak at the exhibition. Image source: Eastern Impression Blog

The kimono immediately attracted the curiosity and love of Western art. The smooth shape of the kimono creates a sense of relaxation, different from the bulky corset skirt of Europe. Intricate and thick woven silk fabric, with glittering embroidery detail, creates a luxurious look. The Asian patterns such as storks, bamboos, mountains, rivers, clouds, etc. are strange, creating an attraction to foreign markets.

This enchantment is called Japonism dans la mode, which is basically Japanese love in fashion.

On the left: Oil painting “Young girls see Japanese goods” by Jacques Joseph James Tissot (drawing 1869). He is a famous French painter with paintings of Asian items. On the right: William Merritt Chase’s “Green Kimono Girl” oil painting (drawing 1898). He is an American artist who founded Chase Art School, the precursor of the famous Parson Fashion School today. Image source: WikiArt

Japanese beauties fascinate the Western public

The kimono became even more attractive when the actress Sadayakko Kawakami (transliterated: Sada Yacco) showed hers on tours in Europe. She was originally a geisha who loved acting and dancing. Japanese customs do not allow women to perform on traditional theater stages. Therefore, Sadayakko has found success abroad, where the stars are favored beauties. Image Sadayakko entered the hearts of the Western public with a brilliant kimono on the stage.

On the left: Sadayakko from gouache from Picasso, 1901. On the right: Lithographe poster for Sadayakko’s tour, designed by Raymond Tournon, 1901.

Journey to conquer the fashion world of kimono

Stage 1: European dress borrowed kimono silk fabric

When the kimono first appeared in the West, many people bought kimonos just to reuse the fabric. High-class kimono silk is very suitable for sewing skirts, jackets and European style. At the same time, the weaving workshops in Lyon, France have woven themselves new strips of fabric that imitate the Japanese pattern. The first interference between the two European and Japanese uniforms began with the borrowing of cloth and pattern.

On the left: Diagonal silk jacket, embroidered with Japanese motifs, feathered. French design in the 1890s. The coat is woven from French fabric simulating Japanese patterns. On the right: A reusable silk satin dress skirt. Misses Turner brand, United Kingdom, 1870. Image source: Kyoto Costume Institute.

Stage 2: Transforming a kimono for everyday dresses

In the early 20th century, European and American women began to prefer kimono-style home wear. Japan itself also produces a variety of home-wear kimonos dedicated to the European and American markets. This was the first step of incorporating a kimono into Western clothing.

On the left: Japanese-made silk nightgown for Europe and America. Takashimaya brand, circa 1906. On the right: Velvet nightgown simulated kimono style. Design by Spanish fashion house Mariano Fortuny, circa 1910. Image source: Kyoto Costume Institute.

Stage 3: Fashion borrowed a kimono shape

Kimono designs were very welcomed in the 1920s, the era of fashion flapper. At that time, the feminist movement called on women to boycott the corset. The smooth designs of the kimono are very suitable for free-fashion flapper fashion. From there appeared the type of shirt with a large Obi-like harness, a cross-neck with a wide open back neck, and a puffer coat like Uchikake. Some famous designers who have taken ideas from the kimono include Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Callot Soeurs …

On the left: Kimonos, with haori coats and silk skirts. Paul Poiret’s design for his wife, 1920. This design was shocking at the time because it was a luxurious dress without corset. Right: The design of Callot Soeurs, 1922. The dress combines the late waist flapper style with the Japanese obi belt. Image source: Kyoto Costume Institute.

Left: Silk-styled silk jacket of Kimono Uchikake. Designed by Amy Linker, Paris, 1913. Right: Haute couture fur-lined vests. Advanced sewing techniques allow the customers to use both sides of the design, one side of black velvet, one side of gold silk jacquard. Madeleine Vionnet jacket, Paris, 1925. Image source: Kyoto Costume Institute.

Stage 4: Maximum harmony between the two Asian and European cultures

With the development of the fashion industry, kimono-based designs are increasingly appearing on the international stage. Some typical examples come from big fashion houses such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano … Contemporary fashion designs blend from fabric to motifs, patterns and designs of Japanese national costumes.

On the left: A design by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Spring Summer 1960. This is a dress of the Dior collection exclusively for Salon Daimaru in Japan. On the right: A design by John Galliano in the Fall-Winter Collection 1994. Image source: Kyoto Costume Institute.

On the left: Christian Louboutin boots, Fall / Winter 2017. On the right: Silk kimono. Tom Ford’s design for Gucci, Spring Summer 2003


On the left: Rei Kawakubo evening dress designed for Comme Des Garcons Noir, Fall Winter 1991. On the right: Jumpsuit and strap Sarah Burton designed for Alexander McQueen brand, Spring Summer 2015. Image source: Asian Art Museum

Kimonos also change in the country itself

In contrast, the kimono in Japan are also innovated with the introduction of Western culture. The biggest changes are in fabric material and printing techniques. Kimonos now use not only silk, but also new materials such as polyester and viscose. Advanced fabric dyeing allows creating colorful designs without embroidery.

In addition, many Japanese designers have applied European and American art to the bold Japanese design. Examples are Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, or Issey Miyake.

On the left: Cotton skirt, designed by Yohji Yamamoto, Spring Summer 1983. The outer kimono pattern of the outerwear is obvious, but more feminine when combined with the cutout skirt inside. On the right: Design Issey Miyake in conjunction with Reality Lab, Spring Summer 2011. The dress is based on origami fold inspiration.

Harper’s Bazaar


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