Kimonos are one of Japan's traditional handicrafts, and are very profoundly crafted one by one by craftsmen using traditional methods passed down from generation to generation. However, in recent years, due to the influence of anime and manga, there has been an increase in the number of kimonos of new genres such as retro, modern, and Taisho-roman, which are different from the classic patterns. As a result, there are fewer opportunities to learn about the real meanings behind the patterns in kimono and kimono in general. Here is a detailed introduction to various patterns of kimono for your guide to help you pick one when you visit Japan next to rent one before exploring historical areas like Kyoto and Kanazawa.
Kimono is a traditional Japanese dress that was worn until Western clothing culture was introduced in the Meiji period. Over time, kimono has changed in its style and the most flamboyant and intricate costumes were those worn by the aristocracy during the Heian period (794-1185). The Heian period style kimono can be seen today mainly worn by the imperial family and in traditional events usually held in Kyoto. The current kimono style was said to be established during the Edo period. During this period, kimono developed in a variety of ways, such as dyeing, weaving, and embroidery, to meet the demands of customers, especially in terms of decoration. It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of Japanese traditional crafts related to clothing was created by the kimono, as craft techniques with rich characteristics developed in various parts of Japan, such as Nishijin-ori weaving and Yuzen dyeing in Kyoto, Kaga Yuzen, and Echigo Chirimen (Echigo crepe).
With the influx of clothing in the Meiji era (1868-1912), kimono gradually became an outfit worn on special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and other special occasions.
Types of Kimono
The most formal and elegant black kimono worn by married women only at celebratory occasions (such as a wedding of a relative). This kimono has a crest and hem pattern on a black background. Usually, the crest is a family crest passed down.
A formal dress for unmarried women, often seen at coming-of-age ceremonies. It can be worn at graduation ceremonies, and even for formal occasions such as weddings. The main characteristics of this kimono is that its sleeves are long and reach around the ankles.
In recent years, Irotomesode has been a formal wear for women regardless of whether they are married or not. Unlike kurotomesode, irotomesode comes in a variety of colors such as soft pink, bright green, and cool blue to bring “colors” to happy occasions like weddings. This kimono is worn for auspicious events.
Houmongi and Irotomesode look so similar however, the main difference is whether or not there is a pattern on the upper half of the body. Houmongi doesn’t have a pattern on the upper half of the body and it is a semi formal attire worn by women regardless of whether they are married or not. This type of kimono is worn on occasions such as weddings and somewhat formal dinner parties.
Just as simple it can be, yukata is a type of thin kimono worn in summer often seen at rental kimono shops and people wearing it to go see fireworks.
Kimono come in a variety of colors and patterns, and wearing the right one for the season has always been a part of the Japanese culture.The material and tailoring of the kimono changes with the season, such as thick lined fabric in winter and light transparent fabric in summer. Just as clothes have colors and patterns that are appropriate for different seasons, kimono also has variations and patterns that are seasonal.
Pastel color kimonos, especially pink, are a favorable color worn in spring.
Cherry blossom patterns is a staple of spring, and are generally worn from the end of winter until late March, when the flowers are still in their third bloom. Wearing a kimono with a cherry blossom pattern when the flowers are in full bloom gives the impression that the kimono is competing with real cherries and won’t be able to stand out so it is not recommended. Instead, wearing a kimono with wisteria or peony is said to be better when the flowers are in full bloom to get a head start of the next season. Also, from its beautiful pattern, many tend to choose it regardless of the season, however, this pattern is considered a seasonal pattern only worn during the limited early spring. There is an exception to this, and if the cherries are depicted with other seasonal flowers such as autumn leaves, maple leaves, or chrysanthemums, or not drawn realistically it can be worn all year round.
Wisteria flowers are in full bloom from April to May depending on the types. This wisteria patterned kimono is usually worn from the end of March to April starting from around when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Since the clusters of wisteria flowers look like ears of rice, there has been a saying that the wisteria flowers symbolize a flower to wish for a good harvest.
The large flowers of peony have been a popular pattern since ancient times. Peonies are often used for celebratory occasions, formal wear, and furisode (long-sleeved kimono) because of their beautiful and strong presence which creates a sense of glamour.
Spring peonies bloom from April to May, and winter peonies bloom from January to February, so if it is depicted abstractly in combination with other patterns, then, peony patterned kimono can be worn in any season.
As early as mid June and no later than July, kimono are replaced with yukata (thin kimono worn in summer). Light pale and cold colors that look cooling during the hot summer months are the most popular colors chosen by many during this season.
There is a term in Japanese that describes the epitome of pure, feminine beauty known as Yamato Nadeshiko. This term is said to have originated from the appearance of a flower, Japanese Dianthus which is called Yamato Nadeshiko in Japanese. This flower is quite often used as a pattern for yukata and worn between July and August to draw out such “elegant” inner beauty of a woman just like its flower.
Hydrangea is a flower native to Japan, and has been used in many yukata and kimono patterns since ancient times. Since they bloom during the rainy season, single patterns are often worn in the summer, especially before the midsummer season around June and July. Just like the real hydrangea, there are varieties of colors, such as white, light blue, and purple which are all attractive and give a different impression depending on the color chosen.
Generally speaking, yukata can be worn till the end of September and will be replaced with kimono to prepare for the winter. Starting from the end of September, to give a “warm” look, warm colors such as vermilion, brown, red pepper like red and autumn leaves colors are favored to be worn during this season.
Bush Clover is one of the seven plants of autumn in Japanese culture with many small reddish purple or white colored flowers. Kimonos with bush clover patterns are usually worn during autumn.
Like bush clover, balloon flower is also one of the seven plants of autumn in Japanese culture, and is recommended to wear a kimono with this pattern from early autumn until October. To get a head start of the season, some choose to wear this pattern in mid summer.
Winter is the time of year when natural colors such as flowers and grasses diminish, so adding gorgeous colors will look beautiful in the winter landscape. For New Year's and other festive occasions, kimonos with auspicious patterns such as pine, bamboo and plum are popular. While there are others who prefer kimonos with elegant and quaint patterns of winter flowers against snow.
The green color of the pine tree is called "evergreen" literally because of its evergreen color, and the kimono with pine tree patterns can be worn on auspicious occasions but also throughout the year.
Camellia have different types that bloom at different months of the year, but relatively during winter months between late autumn to mid spring. Since the flower is known as "the tree that heralds the coming of spring”, the most suitable timing of the year to wear a kimono with this pattern is between December to February. If camellia is combined with other motifs, it can be worn all year round.
Chrysanthemum have long been used as a flower with medicinal benefits. For this reason, the chrysanthemum pattern is associated with the wish for longevity. Kimono with this pattern can be worn throughout the year, but is recommended to be worn in fall and winter.
Retro・Retro Modern・Modern Patterns
There is no specific definition that distinguishes retro, retro modern and modern kimono but the style of this kimono is usually said to have had influences from the Meiji Restoration to the pre-Pacific War era. In contrast, the classic styles are said to come from the Edo period or even periods before. In terms of “retro” patterns, pop colors such as light green, blue and yellow are the most commonly seen colors with motifs like peony, hydrangea, goldfish, plum, cherry blossom etc. The patterns of retro kimonos are basically simple in design, so there may be relatively few kimonos that have a variety of patterns mixed together when compared to modern and retro-modern kimonos. Retro patterns are characterized by many subdued colors that convey a nostalgic atmosphere. The key to combining kimono colors is to incorporate austere, dark accent colors and light colors such as white and beige. This will give a mature and gentle impression and make the whole retro kimono look more balanced. Also, combining colors with opposite tones of the same color will highlight the unity of the colors and give a calm impression.
On the other, modern patterns often refers to colorful kimonos incorporating patterns that were rarely used in classic kimonos like dots and roses. And retro modern patterns are in a sense, in between those two styles with boldly placing large classic patterns using pop colors.
Taisho-roman is a general term for a style of dress fusing Japanese and European designs which was popular during Taisho and early Showa period. The period from the Taisho era to the early Showa era saw the introduction of Western culture in various forms including the introduction of chemical dyes. This led to the creation of kimonos influenced by Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Geometric Art Deco-influenced kimonos were produced along with Meisen kimono which were worn as everyday wear. The western influenced kimonos featured many Western flowers such as roses, tulips and sweet peas combined with geometric patterns as well as rare and vivid colors from chemical dyes. On the other, the Meisen kimono had a soft-edged pattern. This Meisen kimono was made by pre-dyed threads in which as the fabric is woven, the surface creates a soft-edged pattern. Kimonos and clothes with a blend of Japanese and Western styles became the center of fashion in the Taisho era and continued until the early Showa era and was popular to wear kimonos in a style that showed a large, ornate patterned half collar with long haori jacket.
Classic kimono patterns use motifs unique to Japan. While these are not everything, here are some of the notable patterns that are often seen.
Temari balls has been a toy since ancient times. They are slightly larger than today's softballs, and are said to have been popular among the general public since the mid-Edo period. The round shape was also used as an amulet to ward off evil, with the hope that "everything will turn out all right.
Tanzaku (small pieces of colored paper) is used to write haiku and tanka poems and by using it as a pattern on kimono, it is a symbol to wish for academic success and success at work. Kimono with tanzaku patterns are usually worn between summer to fall.
Auspicious Patterns like pine, bamboo, plum, crane, turtle and phoenix which all symbolizes longevity are a pattern on kimono worn on occasions like weddings.
The shape of a folding fan expanding outward is considered a representation of growing prosperity and signs of good luck. Kimonos with this pattern are usually worn on auspicious occasions.
Tsuzumi (hand drum)
The Japanese word "tsuzumi" conjures up images of a joyful atmosphere during festivals and banquets. This tsuzumi (hand drum) has been used in traditional folk music like Noh and Kabuki. Because the drum makes a beautiful loud sound, it is a motif for wishing for good harvest and success.
Yusoku Monyou is a traditional pattern used in the costumes, furnishings, carriages, and architectural interiors of noble families from the Heian period and later periods. However, it was not until the early modern period that the term was made. This pattern originally came from China and evolved in Japan. Many of them are derived from weaving patterns, and can be worn throughout the year because of their design. Typical patterns include Tatewaku (motif for rising stream), Shippo (literally translated as seven treasures and a motif for prosperity of descendants, good relationships, and for bringing harmony), Ichimatsu (checkered pattern which got popular due to Demon Slayer and also Tokyo Olympics logo) and so on.
Antique kimonos are kimonos tailored from the late Edo period to the early Showa period before World War II, although there are various theories. In the past, many women were short in height and small in size. Because of that, antique kimonos tend to have shorter length with shorter sleeves than the ones sold now. In the pre-war period, obi belts were put in a higher position than now so antique kimonos are tailored with the sleeves in a higher position to balance out the looks. As a result, if antique kimonos are worn with the current juban (undergarment), the juban which is supposed to be covered are revealed. Of all these characteristics that distinguish the term for antique kimonos, the most and the easiest way to find one is that it has a reddish lining on its back. This reddish lining was made of "red silk" and was often used to keep women's bodies warm. If the lining is white but has slight red in just the sleeves, then it is not considered antique kimono. There is no specific reason behind why red was used, but it may be just that red silk was easily available during that time.
In short and simple, hakama is like a pants where it is worn over a kimono to cover the body from the waist to the feet. Hakama has a long history way back to the Kofun Period (ca. 300–710) and first seen on Haniwa (Hollow Clay Sculpture). By the Heian period (794-1185), hakama were worn by women of high rank at the court. But in the Edo period (1603-1868), women were forbidden to wear hakama because of the strict dress code based on gender and status. The only exceptions to this were the court ladies.
Eventually, the dawn of women's education arrived during the Meiji period with few schools for girls opened. At these schools, there was a debate about the dress codes since these schools were Western style with chairs. The traditional kimonos were not meant to be sat on chairs as it makes the kimono loosen easily. For this reason, the government once again allowed women to wear hakama. Afte repeating banning and allowing hakamas for several more times, the Hakama style became a standard by the late Meiji period, from around 1897. One type of hakama called Andon-Hakama, a reddish brown with a hint of purple skirt like hakama was a popular attire for school girls at that time. These school girls had a huge ribbon on their half up pompadour hairstyle and wore leather shoes with this hakama. These school girls walked briskly in their hakama, rode bicycles, played tennis, etc. These active and lively women in hakama became a symbol of women in the Meiji Period. Having such a history, nowadays, some girls tend to wear hakama at their graduation ceremony.
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