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The Japanese kimono.

Cultural Background and


The kimono is a universal symbol of Japan - a symbol of traditional beauty with a sense of timelessness and endurance. Kimono literally means "the thing worn", and to the Japanese simply means "clothing." It is the modern descendant of the kosode, which translates as "small sleeves," referring to the opening for the wrist, not the length. The furisode ("swinging sleeves"), with its long flowing sleeves, is the kimono most often associated with Japan.

The kimono is a simple form with a single basic pattern. Traditionally worn by men and women, kimono are basically all the same size and shape with the length adjusted at the waist by the obi, or sash. Sewn from full-width lengths of cloth, kimono are cut and sewn flat, and are also carefully folded flat for storage.

Prior to the Heian period (C.E. 794-1192) the arts of Japan, including textile design, were heavily influenced by China. The original form of the kimono (kosode) was similar to the official costume of the Chinese nobility and scholar. During the eighth century in Japan, a plain and undecorated kimono-like garment was worn by men and women under twelve-layered formal court robes. By the sixteenth century, this garment had made its way to an everyday outer garment worn by all classes because it was light and practical. Originally, the kimono was not decorated due to Buddhist conservatism, but the kosode had limited embellishment by the time of the Muromachi period (1336-1568). Many of the world's most beautifully designed kosode were created during the Momoyama period (1568-1603) when a cultural and artistic renaissance was taking place, characterized by unprecedented creativity, and the wealth and inspiration to support it. After this period, kosode are dated according to patterning and techniques, rather than tailoring which changed minimally after this time.

Textile arts are highly regarded in Japan, and enjoy a rich and long tradition in both imagery and technique. As the national costume, the kimono expresses taste, character and social status. In Europe and America, the shape of clothing changes to accommodate individuality and trends in fashion. In Japan, individuality and fashion are expressed in the color, decoration and design on kimono, rather than through styling. The kimono shape reflects the power of tradition, and is a source of pride for the Japanese. Young girls wear brightly-colored kimono with fancy patterns, while older women wear subdued colors with little or no pattern. Although the styles of the Western world are now commonly worn in Japan, the kimono is still worn at the New Year, tea ceremonies, and occasionally to temples and shrines, graduations and weddings. A group of special kimono and other traditionally styled garments make up the range of costumes used in Noh theater. Noh is a highly stylized drama based upon music and dance with a slow-moving poetic quality. The stage is simple and almost bare, so the costumes create the atmosphere and mood, and become the primary visual focus.

Looking Carefully

Looking at the kimono on the next page, one is struck by the boldness of the overall design and the intricacy of the lines and patterning. The visual response to the garment belies the skill of the designer whose work is beautiful, and who creates colors and motifs laden with meaning. Equally impressive is the mastery of the craftsperson with the experience and skills necessary to create these textiles.

Examination of this kimono reveals several design motifs. The silk fabric is a satin damask weave and its complex pattern of interlocking shapes superimposed with flowers is part of the structure of the cloth itself, as it was woven on the loom. The design is subtle and monochromatic; its patterning becomes apparent only as light reflects off its surface. Upon woven pattern is an array of other designs and symbols. There is a large all-over pattern of mandarin orange trees (a symbol of longevity) and open cypress fans (symbols of ever-expanding prosperity), which were dyed using a paste-resist process. (A rice paste is used to outline areas to be dyed. After these are dyed, and covered with more rice paste, the entire background is dyed another color.) The designs inside the fans are hand-painted images representing scenes from a famous Japanese book entitled The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Sometimes stencils are used to apply the rice paste, as was done for some of the oranges and the cypress wood graining on the fans. Needlework, using silk and gold-leaf wrapped cotton in a variety of stitches, further embellishes the surface by creating new forms and adding detail.


The subject matter depicted on kimono generally fall into one of five categories: (1) the natural world - seasons, flowers, trees, insects, birds, waves, clouds; (2) human-made objects - fans, baskets, bridges, buildings, ribbons; (3) imagery based upon well-known poems, literature, folk tales, and legends that are easily recognized; (4) symbols from Chinese Confucianism and Japanese Buddhism; and (5) small, intricate geometric patterns often based on nature - mountain motifs, tortoise shell grids, thunderbolt zigzags.

Compare the kimono in the centerspread to the one on this page. How do the designs and the scale of the designs affect the mood and impact of each? The one in the centerspread has several design motifs that occur simultaneously. These include large fans and medium-sized oranges, held together with the serpentine lines of tree branches. A busy and agitated surface has been created, a visual explosion of sorts, with many small shapes and colors standing out in high contrast to the dark background resulting in a fairly two-dimensional surface. The kimono on page 31 is far more simple and serene. The cloud-like pattern is soft and full, and appears more solid than the clear-blue background in which it drifts. Scattered pairs of asarum leaves, floating in space or landing gently, lend weightlessness to the image. A subtle pattern of rows of bamboo tree trunks and leaves is woven into the cloth. An illusion of depth is created by the strong contrast between the large red cloud-like shapes and the clear-blue sky (or water - perhaps it is a reflection we see.) If the size or placement of the design elements in either kimono were changed, what would be the effect? Imagine using different colors. Have you seen this type of imagery in other artworks?

The techniques used to create the images on kimono are as complex and varied as the images themselves. Dyeing, painting, shibori (similar to tie-dye), applied metallic leaf, needlework, paste resist and ikat are just some of the possibilities. Can you tell which techniques were used in the kimono on this page? Would using different techniques on either of these kimono have changed the impact? How? When looking at these exquisite kimono, it is important to remember that they were made to be worn, often layered over other kimono, and sometimes held in place at the waist with an obi. The woodblock print below shows what kimono look like when worn and how they drape softly.

Key Concepts

* Textile arts use the same elements found in painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics and other art forms. These elements include line, shape, texture, color, value, composition, variety, proportion, contrast, balance, repetition, etc.

* More than one artist, each a specialist in a certain technique, was typically involved in creating each kimono. All of the artists remain anonymous.

* The materials and techniques chosen by an artist greatly affect the impact and final outcome of the image created.

* Our personal experience and knowledge affect our interpretation of unfamiliar art forms and images.

* Much can be learned about other cultures and their traditions through the careful study of their arts.

Suggested Activities

The following can be adapted to both elementary or secondary classes, taking into consideration age, interest and ability.

* Using the kimono as a springboard for a multicultural learning experience, have the students choose a garment from another culture (e.g., a Sioux Ghost Dance shirt). Let them compare the objects in terms of country of origin, culture, date, function, shape, materials and techniques. This can take the form of a written report, oral presentation or creative project in small groups or individually. The students should be able to answer the following questions: How is each garment a reflection of the place and time from which it came? How do the two very different garments relate to each other? What characteristics do the two cultures share?

Variation: Create a fantasy country with its own culture, characteristics and rituals, and design its traditional garment.

* With an outline of the classic kimono shape, ask the students to create a design that reflects something from their life and times. It can be based on their interests and hobbies, their dreams or goals, their favorite season, book, song, etc. This project can take the form of a drawing, painting or collage; or they can create an actual kimono (miniature or full-scale).

Variation: Design a kimono for someone else - a family member, friend, teacher, someone famous (athlete, actor, singer, politician).

* After studying a variety of kimono and their designs, have the students create a different art form. For example, create a play, dance, story, poem or song. It could then be performed for the class, perhaps followed by a discussion.

* Through classroom discussions, explore the idea of clothing and costumes, past and present. Talk about everyday clothing and clothing for special occasions, who wears costumes, when and why, how students would look, feel and move if wearing a kimono, etc.

Variation: Look through magazines, cut out costumes and clothing from other places and times, and create a collage.

* Ask the students to look at carefully, research and draw other examples of textile art. Possible areas to explore include European tapestries, Amish quilts, African weavings, Early-American samplers and contemporary textile arts.

Variation: Compare a kimono to one of the above, or to another work of art (painting, sculpture, ceramics, drawing, etc.).

* Experiment with some of the techniques and media actually used in creating images on kimono. Dyeing (immersed or painted), stencils, needlework stitches, resist techniques, etc.

Variation: Try simplified versions of these techniques using commonly available supplies: paper with rubber cement or white crayon (used as a resist) covered with a wash of paint; yam threaded through large-eye needles and stitched into burlap; thick paint on sponges (or stiff bristle brushes) used to stencil through openings in heavy paper.


The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, "Five Centuries of Japanese Kimono." Vol. 18, No. 1. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992. Chung, Young Yang. The Art of Oriental Embroidery. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983. Gluckman, Dale Carolyn and Sharon Sadako Takeda, "When Art Became Fashion: Kosode in Edo-Period Japan." (Weatherhill, 421 Madison Ave., New York, NY 1001.) Liddell, Jill. The Story of the Kimono. New York: Nal-Dutton, 1989. Minnich, Helen Benton and Shojiro Nomura. Japanese Costume and the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1986. Stinchecum, Amanda. Kosode: Sixteenth Through Nineteenth Century Textiles from the Nomura Collection. New York: Kodansha,1984. Yang, Sunny and Rochelle Narasin. Textile Art of Japan. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Japan Publications (USA), Inc., 1989.
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Title Annotation:history, appreciation and design of Japanese kimonos
Author:Goldberg, Barbara
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Japanese dry garden.
Next Article:Visual art: the universal language.

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