Fireman’s Jacket (Hikeshi-banten) with Shogun Taro Yoshikado
Noh Costume (Atsuita) with Checkered Ground and Chrysanthemums in Stream
Summer Robe (Hito-e) with Court Carriage and Waterside Scene
Over Robe (Uchikake) with Genji Wheels and Wild Ginger Leaves
Summer Kimono (Hito-e) with Swirls
Obi (Kakeshita-obi) with Shell-Matching Game Boxes
"UKIYOE" by Hanae Mori
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This traditional Japanese garment has influenced art, design, fashion, and movies

The kimono, the traditional costume of Japan, is worn both by men and women. Its history dates back over a thousand years. Then, Japanese aristocrats wore garments with many layers. The most inner part of their clothing was the comfortable undergarment layer with narrow sleeves. This is the origin of the kimono.

From the sixteenth century onward, the kimono became a principal garment to wear in Japan, regardless of social status, wealth, gender, or age. The kimono became fashionable, especially among women, and wearing these fabulously decorated garments became a trend that extended to all social classes. The style endured and evolved through hundreds of years of domestic change, and then, as international trade and commerce brought Japanese culture to the west, the kimono became a key export.

Modern designers frequently seek to emulate Japanese cultural nuances and so the significance of the garment with its luxurious flow and simple construction are often emulated. Artists inspired by that heritage now create new interpretations based on this iconic shape.

Fashion designers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto repeatedly use the design aesthetics and the traditional construction techniques of the kimono in their modern clothing designs.

Western-based creatives such as director George Lucas reference Japanese culture and particularly the image of the Samurai warrior for costumes of the Star Wars Jedi Knight characters. In the first Star Wars movie, the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi is introduced dressed in a Samurai-style kimono. The name “Obi” is a direct reference to the sash of the kimono. Since that first depiction, the Jedi characters in the Star Wars franchise have all been similarly clothed.

Kimonos are constructed traditionally in a rigidly rectangular shape with no curves in the pattern. All pieces of fabric are cut with straight edges. Putting one together requires cutting rectangular pieces of fabric in a classic pattern, and then sewing in straight lines and at right angles. Cut from one bolt of fabric into seven rectangular pieces, the traditional kimono is essentially made of the same size and has little to do with the size of the body of the wearer.

The traditional kimono was a canvas to show off the design. It was used as a background for a work of wearable art. Many traditional designs include flowers, leaves and foliage that herald different seasons inspired by the beauty of nature.

An integrally designed and cared-for kimono can be preserved and passed down from one generation to the next. Some exquisite examples, hundreds of years old, are well preserved in museums and galleries around the world.

There are no buttons or zippers, so the accessories that are required to wear one include cords, belts and most importantly, the obi, a large sash.

The obi is an essential part of any kimono and is made to exact dimensions. Often made of silk and decorated with elaborately embroidered, brocade stitching and ornate patterns, the obi is meant to enhance the whole outfit. The obi is constructed separately from the main garment and may be decorated extensively with designs separate from those on the main kimono. Often over four metres long, this item makes the garment overly complicated and unwieldy.

There are over a hundred ways to tie an obi knot, all of them behind the wearer. These various ways of tying the obi are a fashion and cultural statement and different styles of knots are used on different occasions for different reasons.

The classic narrow sleeve style kimono remained largely the same shape, however times and styles change. The obi, which began as a simple cord, became wider, longer, and more ornate and is now frequently heavily decorated with fancy embroidery and brocade.

Although the main kimono is simple to put on, the obi requires the assistance of another person for tying the special obi knot. For this reason, it is not possible to properly dress yourself in a traditional kimono.

Today, the kimono is still worn in Japan on special occasions and for fun. There are guidelines for wearing them. Married and unmarried women wear different styles and it is essential to wear the correct style of kimono, with the appropriate obi knot, for the right occasion.

From around 1910 to 1920, affordable ready-to-wear kimonos became available to many in Japan. The “Meisen” kimono was made from a less expensive type of silk. These were combined with faster stencil printing methods and weaving techniques. This innovation allowed the contemporary kimono to be designed with a broader range of colours and themes. Essentially anything could be replicated, from bold geometric patterns to inspiration from modern western art. Silk kimonos became affordable, and they became a popular and casual form of dress throughout Japan.

The rich heritage and the significance of this iconic fashion are explored and revealed in detail in the exhibition Kimono Style: The John C Weber Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The story begins with a presentation of the costumes worn for Japan’s traditional theatre, Noh and Kyōgen, to highlight that the clothing tradition derived from the dramatic and elaborate costumes. The exhibition continues with the kimono’s evolution during the Edo period (1615–1868), and the rise of the military class, noble high-ranking samurai, and their influence in the development of this garment into uniform battle attire and common dress. Then telling of the tremendous change for Japan and its population during global trade and industrialisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the narrative finishes with a showing of how Japanese culture and fashion evolved and were exported to the west and to those who enthusiastically welcomed the stylish, simple, ornate and beautiful kimono as a new source of creative inspiration.

Text Cammy Yiu / Photos The Metropolitan Museum of Art