A Brief History of Japanese Clothing

Although the “kimono” seems to be the same garment that has been around for millennia, it is not. This misconception arises from its status as National Costume of Japan, implying ancient origins. Although it is true that what we call “kimono” today originated in the 7th century, it is hardly true to say it is the same thing it was then. The long, narrow, obi-tied silhouette of the modern kimono wasn’t achieved until late in the Edo period (17th – 19th c). The original garment from which the modern costume derived
displays obvious similarities, but no so much that one can wear modern apparel and still be considered “Period.” This pamphlet intends to lift the misconceptions of “kimono” and provide a source book for the construction of “kimono” for the use of re-enactors.

To begin, the word “ki-mono” is a modern term. It was invented in the Meiji era (1868-1912), a time of great openness in Japan after nearly three centuries of self-imposed seclusion.   When pressed by foreigners to name their native style of dress, they used the word “kimono” which means simply “thing to wear.”  In Japanese, it applies to any clothing, although sometimes the hemisphere-specific wafuku (Japanese clothes) and yofuku (Western clothes) are used instead to prevent confusion. Within this text, I will endeavour to use words the Japanese used to describe their clothing throughout the ages.

Ancient Japanese Dress

In ancient times in Japan, the Japanese Court copied Chinese court dress. Japanese clothing from as far back as the Han Dynasty (200 bce – 200 ce) in China greatly resembled Chinese dress. This is not surprising since the Japanese were known to have established a vigorous trade with their continental neighbours.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties (late 6th to early 10th centuries), Chinese culture provided a model for civilization throughout the Far East. In the seventh century, Japan aspired to empirehood. Previously, Japan had been a loose collection of clans. Now it strived to become like its big sister to the West. Clan leaders were gradually persuaded to declare fealty to a central figure in exchange for the coloured caps and gowns of royal rank. Clothing, shoes, hairstyles and paintings of the period all reflect Sui and Tang styles.


The Nara Period

During the eighth century, Chinese civility was not only assimilated, it was reproduced in toto. Japanese tomb murals of the late seventh century could have been Chinese. In 718, the Yoro Clothing Code instituted clothing restrictions wholly influenced by China and explicitly based upon the official Tang codes. (China could not have Sinified Japan more completely had it conquered it by military force!) The Yoro Code specified that all robes should be crossed left over right, like the Chinese. The Chinese considered right over left a sign of barbarism because it is easier for right-handed people to wrap them this way. Easy, apparently, was not chic. This left over right rule has been the convention of kimono wrapping ever since.

The Heian Period

The early Heian Period (specifically 894) saw the end of diplomatic relations with China and the growth of a native style in art, architecture, writing and fashion. Some Chinese characters were “abbreviated” into a phonetic Japanese script that made writing easier. This script was referred to as “women’s writing,” since the men preferred the prestige of being able to write in Chinese. Needless to say, the first truly native poetry was written exclusively by women. More relevant to our study, two of the greatest Japanese works of prose, one semi-fictional novel and one diary, were written by Heian court women in the early 11th century. These books tell us much of what we know about how Heian court society lived. Because the Heian court was so taken with sensitivity to art and love of subtle beauty, much detail is given to wardrobe: colours, combinations, and fabric textures.

The Kamakura period

The Heian Period was succeeded by an era of warring clans and political/military power. This was a major change from the Imperial rule of the previous nineteen centuries. The Emperor made Minomoto Yoritomo Japan’s first Shogun in 1192. Unlike his succeeding Shogun, Yoritomo had to earn his title as “general of the central army of the Emperor”. The Kamakura Bakufu (1185-1333) ushered in an age of functionality, a direct reaction to the excesses of court life. Matter of fact, the decadent ways of the court were so despised that Yoritomo arrested and condemned his own brother to sempuku because he thought that Yoshitsune had joined in the glamour and intrigues of the court. The bakufu was headquartered in Kamakura,
a suburb of Tokyo (about 200 miles from the Imperial Palace), precisely to keep it physically as well as philosophically distant from the court. This starkness is reflected in the clothing of the time which discarded the many layers of the Heian period and resorted to pure fuctionality.

The Muromachi Period

The political jockeying for power of the Kamakura period inevitably lead to a civil war which split the Emperial household into two separate factions, a Northern and Southern Court. The Ashikaga Shogunate seized power and supported the illegitimate Imperial line in the North. The shogunate became more and more influenced by the soft Court life and and eventually, all out war ensued over a succession dispute. This gradual return to decadance is seen in the more elaborate dress of the period. Women ceased wearing hakama on a regular basis and their robes reached ankle length. A number of strange ways of wearing robes develop, including over the head as a veil as shown left.

The Momoyama Period


If Heian was the height of elegance, Momoyama was the epitome of decadence. Taking a cue from the nouveau riche Toyotomi Hideyoshi who governed the country in all but name, the clothing of the period was typified by gaudy colour, clashing fabrics, and abundance of gold leaf and embroidery. Not surprizingly, the cult of beauty of the Heian court regained popularity and the Tale of Genji again became a popular story as well as a common motif for garment decoration.

This article is sponsored by Reconstructing History’s Japanese sewing patterns.
Buy RH’s Japanese sewing patterns here.


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Mannequin pictures used by gracious permission of Mr. Izutsu at the Kyoto Costume Museum.

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