The design of the kimono itself–the T-shape, the straight-seams, the wrap-around style–has changed very little over the centuries. The design of kimono patterns, however, is a whole other story. Like wearable missives, kimono designs are historically coded with meaning–the lavishly embroidered or printed textiles indicating everything from your gender to your wealth and status in society.
Kimono: The Art And Evolution Of Japanese Fashion, published by Thames and Hudson and The Khalali Family Trust, traces how those meanings and patterns have changed throughout history, from the early 17th century to the 1950s.
“In Japanese dress, it is the surface decoration, rather than the cut and construction, which is important, and indications of gender, age, status, wealth and taste are expressed through the choice of color and pattern,” Professor David Khalili of the Khalili Family Trust writes in the preface. “The kimono in the collection convey the remarkable creativity of designers who used the surface of the garment to produce a work of art that would enfold the wearer. They each form a sort of capsule, a personal statement as well as one of status and period, a representation of a world recorded in fabric.”
The book’s history begins with the Edo period (1603-1868), and features mainly women’s kimonos. Since men spent the most time in public, they were the most bound by their status and didn’t have much flexibility when it came to what they wore. Male kimonos during this period were characterized by subdued patterns and sober colors (though men did often wear elaborately decorated undergarments). However women, who spent most of their time at home or among family, had much more freedom in the aesthetics of their kimonos, as long as they did not overstep what was acceptable for their status.
For example, women in the ruling, or samurai, class would typically wear one of three styles: an elegant kimono embroidered with flowers, a silk crepe covered in detailed landscape images (known as “palace court style”), or a kimono depicting scenes from plays or literature. Women in the merchant class would wear allusions to famous works of literature on their kimonos too–and the characters found in their patterns would often act as subtle references to the fact that the wearer was wealthy enough to engage in leisurely activities like reading. They were also conversation starters, according to the book: “the use of such characters in kimono design served to demonstrate the tastes and accomplishments of the wearer, and acted as a playful way of inviting those she met to engage in word games or to ‘read’ something of her personality through her dress.”
The westernization of Japan began during the Meiji period (1868-1912), but when it came to dress, only men in the aristocratic and samurai class adopted western clothing like shirt and pants. Women, for the most part, still wore kimonos for both everyday and formal occasions. Still, in the late Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa eras (1912-1950), the modern world began to seep its way into kimono designs–in the form of bold color schemes and dramatic designs. Though no longer as distinct a marker of class, there were still kimonos for different occasions. For example, silk kimonos with the auspicious motifs of cranes, pine, bamboo, and plum were worn by a bride on her wedding day. A simple stripe motif, on the other hand, was typically worn by women working in restaurants or department stores.
In the second half of the 20th century, kimonos became far less common for everyday use, in large part because of the U.S. occupation directly after WWII and the Americanization of Japan’s culture. Though still worn for special occasions and ceremonies, the kimono became more of a cultural symbol–a relic of Japanese essence in a time of increasing globalization. These days, the vintage kimono is seeing a bit of a revival, with patterns and designs once again adapting to the style of the time. In fact, it’s now made its way to the West–kimono-inspired dress was one of 2015’s biggest fashion trends.
Check out some brilliant examples of kimono design throughout the Edo, Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras in the gallery above, or buy the book here.