Designer Diaries – Kimono

Many, many thanks to Prisma for providing the source material (listed at the bottom) and guidance for this post. Without her, it could not have been written. Follow her on Twitter!

Kimono (着物): “Thing to wear”. Quite a straightforward description of a garment with a long history and complicated construction!


The kimono originated in the Nara Period (710-794). At that time the Chinese style of dress had a strong influence in Japan. Over the years, the style evolved and adapted to Japanese life and the Japanese environment. Although it can be worn by both men and women, we are focusing purely on women today. Other than for highly ceremonial events, such as the recent enthronement, the men of the Imperial family do not publicly wear kimonos.

For women, the styles currently range from the highly formal junihitoe (十二単), worn for ceremonial occasions, and the kosode (小袖), a simple robe that can be worn next to the skin. Next week we will delve into the various classifications of dress worn at the Imperial Palace, and discuss the junihitoe in depth.

In non-royal life, the kimono is worn by Japanese people for some ceremonial occasions such as weddings, and it is not often seen every day. Japanese girls wear kimonos at ages 3 and 7, during the month of November when the families traditionally visit shrines to give thanks for good health and happiness.

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The next kimono outing typically occurs at the coming of age birthday when a woman turns 20. These can be big kimono-filled street celebrations.

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However, in very recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in Japanese tradition, and you might see the kimono on younger women when sightseeing in ancient towns or at community celebrations. Women of the Imperial family wear kimonos a bit more frequently, for events such as the enthronement, tea and garden parties, and certain visits with foreign dignitaries.

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Other ceremonial kimonos, including the kimonos worn by Akihito and Michiko for their wedding, are shown below. We’ll dive deeper into the ceremonial junihitoe in next week’s post.

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Classifications of kimono are determined by differences in design, material, and pattern. The number and placement of family crests will also signify the level of formality.


• Furisode (振袖): “Wavy sleeves.” This is a kimono for young women. Note the long sleeves on Princesses Mako and Kako that extend to the ankles or calves. They are more visible when the arm is extended. Because they are typically worn by younger women, the patterns can be brighter and flashier.

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Tomesode is a formal dress of the highest rank worn by married women, the equivalent of evening dress in western fashion. This term was derived from the custom where the long sleeves of furisode were sewn up and the newer, shorter-sleeved garment was referred to as “tomesode” regardless of the patterns. It has now evolved to mean “formal dress for married women” with specific patterns.

Kuro-tomesode (黒留袖): “Black fastened sleeves.” This is a highly formal black silk kimono worn by married women. It contains five family crests: one on the back, one on each sleeve, and one on either side of the chest area. The Imperial family doesn’t wear this style. It is typically worn by mothers and grandmothers at relatives’ weddings. Patterns remain below the obi line.

• Iro-tomesode (色留袖): “Colored fastened sleeves.” This is semi-formal silk, not-black, kimono worn by married and unmarried women. It typically contains three family crests but can have between one through five. Patterns are below the obi line.

• Iro-muji (色無地): “Solid color.” This is an informal silk kimono of a solid color, other than black. It can have one, three, or five family crests.

• Homongi or Homoungi (訪問着): “Visiting clothes.” This is a semi-formal silk kimono. With shorter sleeves than the furisode and patterns that span the seams, it is a less formal choice. Is it next to the furisode in status and is worn by both married and unmarried women.  

• Tsukesage (付け下げ): “Fixed hanging.” This is a silk kimono designed for outings. It is slightly less formal than a homongi, although the lines can blur between the two. The patterned areas do not cross the seams, except in front.

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• Komon (小紋): “Fine pattern.” This is a silk kimono, typically with a repeated all-over pattern. It is designed for going out on a casual outing, like shopping, or comfortably hanging out at home. It is very rare to see a Japanese royal woman wearing this pattern, but it can be seen in less formal situations on non-royal Japanese women at work and at home.

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All these kimonos will also have different sashes, or obi, with varying designs, patterns, and colors.


The obi sash is the finishing touch on a kimono. The obi is a wide piece of fabric, fastened with a decorative cord. Like the kimono, obi are categorized by their design, formality, and material. They range from brocade weaves used mostly for formal occasions and silk obi worn for informal events. Some can be more expensive than the kimonos they adorn!

Below are obis with a decorative cord on Empress Michiko and Princess Hisako’s kimono.

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The traditional taiko musubi (“drum knot”) is shown below. Although by no means the only way to finish off an obi, it’s the commonly-worn knot worn today. It looks like a box with a short tail underneath.


Tabi (足袋): These are typically white, traditional split-toe socks. They are available in colors and patterns, but formal events and ceremonies require white ones.

Zori (草履): These are sandal-like made of fabric, brocade (most formal), rubber, vinyl, or straw (least formal).

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Geta (下駄): These are wooden sandals with supports, often with summer kimono. 

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The kimono is not the only formal wear worn by Japanese Imperial women. Join us next week when we discuss Robe Décolleté and Robe Montante.