20th cent


TGIFRIDAY FASHION FACT! I’m very excited about today’s topic. The vast majority of the questions I receive are about Western fashion, but this week we’re focusing on the opposite side of the globe and talking about kimonos! Kimono’s are fascinating garments. They are among the world’s most iconic pieces, largely due to the fact that they have remained relatively unchanged for several hundreds of years. So when and how did kimonos get their start?

To start with, “kimono” used to serve as a general term for clothing, not meaning the specific garment until the 18th Century. What we think of now as kimonos actually have several different names, depending on the style. Kimonos today are thought of as a Japanese fashion, but in fact they got their start in China. In ancient China, robes were very common among both men and women. They had the same cross-front closure as kimonos today. Robes were layered upon robes, and wrapped in various skirts and sashes.

The beginnings of the kimono robe actually started as a base robe for these other dressings. In other words, it started out as an undergarment. It had tighter sleeves and was long, while the top robes had very wide sleeves and were often shorter, though this would be covered by the skirts. In the early days of Japan, starting in about 300 BC, there was a strong influence by China on many aspects of Japanese life, from clothing, to art, to farming. This influence waxed and waned for many centuries, interspersed with eras of Japanese isolation.

It was during these times that the Japanese kimono developed apart from the Chinese garments. Around the 9th Century, during the Heian period, separate short robe and skirt combinations faded from style, and long robes took their place (though a half apron was still worn over this.) With this long robe now exposed, fabrics changed from basic linens to rich silks, often with elaborate woodblock printed designs, for those who could afford it. In this era, an excess of fabric was popular, with sleeves expanding to vast lengths and widths, and hems often pooling on the floor. This was also the time when kimonos began to be constructed out of straight pieces of fabric, not fitted specifically to the wearer.

Though this overabundance of fabric faded, hemlines, sleeve lengths, and overall widths of kimonos fluctuated over the next several centuries. In the 14th Century Muromachi period, the kosode robe, formerly the under-robe, became outerwear, and the wide hakama pants (or bifurcated skirt) once worn under the outer-robes were abandoned. This is when the obi was adopted- the long band of fabric wrapped around the waist like a belt. Tying an obi is almost an art form. There are various styles of tying, but with a length of well over 10ft long, it is always complicated.

During the 17th Century (the Edo period,) differences between men’s and women’s cuts became more apparent, with women having longer sleeves and hemlines. The style of kimonos developed during this era are the styles that remain traditional today. Various fabric patterns, colors, and embroidery have been popular throughout the years, and there are some differences between formal and everyday kimonos.

In the mid 19th Century Meiji period, there began to be a strong Western influence in Japan. Western wear was seen as more convenient, particularly trousers, which were easier to move in. The push of Western styles got so extreme that laws were instated requiring government officials to wear Western dress at formal events. Though the laws were ultimately retracted, this government push of Western-wear had a large impact on the downfall of kimonos. Today, kimonos are mainly just seen at formal events or traditional ceremonies. They’ve endured for so many centuries, though, it is hard to imagine that they will ever fade away completely.

Want to learn more about kimonos? Check out these books:

The Story of the Kimono, by Jill Liddell

Kimono: Fashioning Culture, by Liza Dalby

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!


I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool… You see, I think everything’s terrible anyhow… And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.

                                                    - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Obligatory 1920s post for the release of Baz Lurhmann's Gatsby.

How do the film’s costumes stack up to the contemporary dresses of the 1920s?
 Anyone who’s seen it, let me know what you think :)


Horse King and Ox King, detail. Late 19th-early 20th cent. Woodblock print. Luoyang, Henan Province, China. Asian Art Photographic Distribution (AAPD) (University of Michigan)

The image of the King of Horses, 馬王, an ugly ogre with three eyes and four hands, bearing various weapons of warfare, is occasionally found in wayside shrines. He is worshipped by horse rearers, and is usually accompanied by a similar figure, the King of Cows, 牛王。 These deities are supposed to be able to protect cattle from evil spirits and disease. The former has by his side a small model of a horse, and the latter that of a cow. 

Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives, C.A.S. Williams, 3rd Revised Ed. 1976. Entry on: Horses. 


These photographs were taken in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In the early part of the 20th cent. Interestingly we can see that despite the geographical  migratory routes of the Hmong, their clothing remained consistent; the checkered turban, skirt, apron and the top knot.