The History of the Kimono

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News just in: The Kimono is our new summer must have. If the blazer has been your go-to winter cover-up, it's time to make the switch to a warmer-weather alternative. A bit of travel does us all good and with this one we're throwing all the way back to oriental influences.

Gone are the heavy fabrics, rigid edges and fixed lapels of the boyfriend jacket. This season we're falling for the kimono's liquid-silk allure.

Words by kirsty Lee

The Origins of The Kimono

The Kimono has gone full circle; standard dress since the 1300s right up until the end of World War II, uniforms soon dominated traditional habits following the outbreak of war. Once an everyday garment, over time, the piece became a ceremonial one-it's the traditional dress of Japan. The word Kimono means literally, "thing to wear". Kimono's are T-shaped and wrapped around the body, always with the left side over the right, except when dressing the dead for burial.


Get the look: Shop Kimonos

Before they were known as kimono, Japanese robes were known primarily as kosode, or "small sleeves," and osode, "long sleeves." These distinctions did not refer to the sleeves themselves, but rather the size of the armholes. Eventually, the kosode superseded the osode as the main garment worn by the rich and powerful, and before long, became the main item of dress for all classes and both sexes in Japanese society. When the Kimono and obi (belt) are laid out, they show straight lines, with a clean cut air. Yet when they are effortlessly draped over the wearer, they transform and radiate a timeless beauty. The fainting of the fabric on the floor and revealing of the neck brings back a certain sensuality. The new kimono offers a welcome shot of lightweight glamour to balmy summer days and nights and has hopelessly strayed from its traditional roots.

Get the look: Shop kimonos

Today we think of Kimonos adding a feminine-meets-grunge lingerie touch to an ensemble that can segue seamlessly. If we take a look back at the kimono's history we see that it has an illustrious past. The tale begins in the Edo period (1615-1868) which was one of unprecedented political stability. Whilst Kyoto (the old capital) remained the base of aristocratic culture and luxury production; Edo became the new headquarters appointed by the militant rule (the Tokugawa shōgun) where fashionable dressing took over and urban culture emerged. The pioneers of the ornamental artworks were the Samurai, the ruling military class, but the working class created popular culture on the basis of their economic power.


The rigid hierarchy of Tokugawa Japan meant that one could not use their wealth to improve their social status. So cue human nature and the emergency of urban culture…. Enchanting clothes became the release. This new market stimulated the growth of the textile art and the Kimono evolved into a highly expressive personal display. Every time a Kimono was washed it had to be disassembled into seven basic parts, then air dried and re-stitched back together. The obsession with domestic and sartorial duties became so intense that a woman's perceived worth was often bound up in her ability to sew. The eccentric housewives of wealthy merchants took this to a new level and would compete to see who had the most extravagant and dazzling display of costume, which naturally caused a shift in the restrictions of the kimono. The kinds of fabric, techniques and colours used for the kimonos delicate, intricate design were restricted periodically. This lead to regular shifts between opulence and restraint in excess! Subdued colours and new techniques emerged as a result of the restrictions - part of a new aesthetic known as iki (elegant chic) where the subtle details were coveted. Social order and class was of the upmost importance, dressing out of your designated ranking was an outrage! Red kimonos were forbidden, but fashion provocateurs would skirt the rules, wearing red undergarments or a lining that they could cheekily flash to catch the wondering eye of passersby.


The Meiji period (1868-1912) took reign changing the kimono once again, the restoration of the Meiji Emperor occurred when an American naval squadron arrived off the coast of Japan demanding entry to their ports. The new government realized that Japan would only be able to compete with the external western pressure if it was to transform itself along western lines. Clothing was one of its major transformations; it was at this point that the word 'kimono'- 'the thing worn' was coined to define T-shaped garments as opposed to western ones. The beginning of Japanese modernity brought many changes to the nation, including the way its citizens experienced time. The Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1873, replacing the tradition of inaugurating a new era with every new emperor. This new calendar had implications for kimono styles, which became coordinated in sync with the changing seasons and styles. Dress began to diverge along the lines of gender as men began adopting business suits and leaving their kimonos for behind closed doors. With the rise of the economy, loss of restrictions and new techniques in the production of silk, many women were now able to purchase a silk kimono…..the once coveted symbol of elegance and style.

Emperor Meiji's rapid change in style in just one year, from 1872-73 PHOTO CREDIT: PINTEREST

In the Taisho era, from 1912-1926, a new model of femininity arose in the form of the moga, the modern girl. Unlike the innocent country girl of yesteryear, the moga was dissident and rebellious, albeit in a bourgeois bubble, experimenting with smoking, drinking, wearing Western clothing and exceptionally daring kimonos inspired by Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The striking patterns reflected the confident spirit of the age and provided an exuberant visual statement for the modern independent urban woman. These vibrant kimono styles remained popular until the 1950's. The embellished garments became the most prominent and impactful mode of art in the early 20th century.


The Kimono in Popular Culture

If you hadn't noticed, the 21st century, however, has witnessed something of a kimono renaissance.


Today's incarnations may still evoke the traditional Eastern romanticism of the adored characters in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, but these modern T-shaped garments have traveled a long way since Paul Poiret first cut a maverick Oriental-inspired cloak back in 1911, even since Christian Dior showed Madame Butterfly couture in 2007.

Christian Dior Couture 2007 PHOTO CREDIT: VOGUE

While those designs were fit for nothing less than a high-octane opera outing or a black-tie charity blow out, today we are taking a re-imagined version of this age-old robe and transforming it into a modern wardrobe staple. In fact, the kimono-style jacket is fast overtaking the borrowed-from-the-boyfriend white shirt as the essential cover-up.

Have you ever found yourself swooning over David Bowie's Aladdin Sane tour and thought to yourself 'David's looking a bit keen on the Kimonos? You were right! There's a lot to be said where that's concerned!


Bowie in particular was influential in bringing Japanese fashion to the West. He sought out contemporary Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto to create the costumes for his 1973 Aladdin Sane tour, resulting in a series of now-iconic pieces. With his bright red hair, Bowie shimmied on stage in a short satin kimono and matching cloak adorned with Kanji characters spelling out phonetically David Bowie, translating literally to 'Fiery vomiting and venting in a menacing manner!

How to Style


Traditionally the art of putting on a kimono was passed from mother to daughter, today there are specific schools for learning the age old technique. If you ever find yourself needing to drape a kimono traditionally, we've got you covered:

Step 1: The first thing to go on are the tabi (white cotton socks), followed by the undergarments - flash a bit of red if you're daring! Then a top and a wrap around skirt.

Step 2: The next layer is the nagajuban (an under-kimono) tied with a detemaki belt.

Step 3: Finally the kimono with the left side over the right…(with the exception of burial preparation) and the finishing touch is the obi (belt).

About an inch of the haneri (collar) of the nagajuban shows inside the collar of the kimono. The loose design of the collar allowed for a glimpse of the neck, which was considered the most sensual part of the kimono-wearing-woman. Something we rokiteers appreciate!


If you're a vintage junkie, you couldn't find a piece more rooted in its vintage ancestry. You can take inspiration from the classic kimonos and put your own individual twist. The beauty of the kimono is that they aren't so trend-led, they key is in the styling!

Don the kimono in lieu of a blazer with jeans and slip dress or over shorts and a tank top. If you're drawn to the seductive glamour that exudes from the kimono, wear it lounging in your underwear of over a bikini. It is what it is, you're taking a piece that has existed for years and reinterpreting it in a way that you choose - the kimono derives from the freedom to evolve. Superpowers don't make you superhuman but a gust of wind could have you feeling like a superhero in your beautifully billowing kimono.