Yukata vs Kimono, The Secret Culture Behind The Japanese National Dress

Kimono, the national dress of Japan, fascinate travelers with their elegance, deep cultural meaning, and long history. Many who visit Japan dream of wearing this Japanese traditional garment. But how much do people know about the culture and history surrounding kimono? In this article, we will explain what a kimono is, the difference between a kimono and a yukata, and the history and culture behind this traditional Japanese garment, including its popularity in modern Japan.

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Table of Contents

What Is a Kimono, the Dress That Embodies Japan?

  1. Kimono History: 1,700 Years of Kimono Culture
  2. Types of Kimono for Women: A Kimono for Each Occasion, From Formal to Informal
  3. Kimono for Men: 5 Differences Between Men's and Women's Kimono
  4. What Are the Accessories for a Kimono?

What Is a Yukata?

Yukata vs. Kimono: What Are the Differences Between Yukata and Kimono?

Yukata and Kimono in Modern Times: The Current Situation of Japan’s National Dress

  1. Do Japanese People Still Wear Kimono?
  2. Where to Buy a Kimono or Yukata in Japan
  3. Where to Rent a Kimono or Yukata in Japan
  4. Foreigners Wearing Kimono, Is It Cultural Appropriation?

Kimono: Wear 1,700 Years of History and Culture

What Is a Kimono, the Dress That Embodies Japan?

The kimono is a traditional Japanese garment and Japan’s national dress. When worn, a kimono often indicates the wearer's age, gender, the formality of the occasion, and less commonly, their marital status. This extends to the decoration, the way in which it is worn, and accessories as well.

The word "kimono" literally means "thing to wear." The meaning of the term "kimono" helps us understand that in ancient Japan, the kimono was considered daily wear by the Japanese people. Kimono help us to understand not only the local fashion sense through time, but also to better capture the lifestyle and culture of the specific periods it was worn in. In this sense, kimono represent a fundamental piece of Japanese identity.

Kimono History: 1,700 Years of Kimono Culture

The first prototypes of what would become the kimono were introduced to Japan from China during the Kofun period (300-538 AD). 

The Heian period (794-1185) saw the presence of some recurring elements, such as multi-layered kimono for women, colors that were used to represent ranks in court for men (the deeper the color, the higher the rank), and specific combinations of colored layers to represent the seasons and plants. 

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the sleeves of the kimono grew in length, and the "obi" (sash) developed from a hidden tie into a visible sash which was longer, wider, and which needed its own accessories to keep it in place. From this point onwards, the basic shape of the kimono has remained unchanged.

During the same period, the public display of expensive "shibori" (tie-dyeing) and "shishu" (embroidery) silk kimono by the newly-wealthy merchant class was considered a threat to the status of the upper classes, so the government issued edicts on clothing practices. Shibori and shishu silk kimono became prohibited to merchants, and for this reason, "yuzen" (resist dyeing), a new revolutionary dyeing technique that allowed for more dynamic designs, was invented and cotton became a commonly-used fabric.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan opened its door to the West after hundreds of years of isolation. People working for the government began wearing Western clothing at work, while they continued to wear kimono in their private life. Women weren't affected as much, and for them, changes occurred only in the form of added Western accessories such as gloves, boots, and scarves.

In the Taisho period (1912-1926) another revolutionary change took place on the kimono scene. "Meisen" (a cheaper, more robust type of resist-dyed silk) started to be used to produce kimono. Meisen is characterized by bold, bright designs unseen before in the kimono history, so it answered the need for colorful, cheap kimono during the economic depression and had a similar role to jeans in Western countries. 

It was the World War II years that saw the decline of kimono as daily wear, as they were seen as unpatriotic because they required too much fabric. Kimono were stored away, if not traded for food, and Japanese women began to bring up their children in Western clothes. Thus the first generation of Japanese who didn’t wear kimono in their daily life was born!

Types of Kimono for Women: A Kimono for Each Occasion, From Formal to Informal

・Furisode

A furisode is the most formal type of kimono for young, typically unmarried, women. They have very long sleeves (between 100-110 cm) and are decorated with colorful patterns across the entirety of the garment. Furisode are usually worn at "Seijin Shiki" (Coming of Age Ceremonies) or weddings, either by the bride herself or by other unmarried young female relatives. 

・Kurotomesode

A kurotomesode is the most formal kimono for older women. They have a black background, a design along the hem, and between three and five crests. Kurotomesode are worn to formal events such as weddings, usually by the relatives of the bride. 

・Homongi

Homongi are semi-formal kimono that stand out for their motif placement. The motifs flow across the back of the right shoulder and sleeve, the front of the left shoulder and sleeve, and across the hem, higher at the left than the right. Often, friends of the bride will wear homongi at weddings. They may also be worn to formal parties.

・Komon

Komon are casual kimono that have a repeating pattern. These kimono are suitable for daily errands, a stroll around the town, or small celebrations.

Kimono for Men: 5 Differences Between Men's and Women's Kimono

1. In contrast to women's kimono, men's kimono outfits are simpler.

2. Unlike the sleeves on women's kimono, which are very deep and are mostly unattached from the body of the kimono, men's kimono sleeves are mostly attached to the body of the kimono, with no more than a few inches unattached at the armpit.

3. Another distinction is the fabrics and colors used. The typical kimono for men has a subdued, dark color, such as black, dark blue, dark green, or brown, and the fabrics used are usually matte. However, more casual kimono sometimes come in slightly brighter colors, such as light purple, light green, and light blue. The most formal kimono for men is plain black in color with crests and usually includes a "haori" (kimono overcoat) and "hakama" (trouser-skirt).

4. The obi (sash) is comparatively narrow and tied on the waist, with colors that are usually subdued. 

5. "Geta" and "zori" (types of traditional Japanese sandals) for men are simpler and undecorated, with a solid color.

What Are the Accessories for a Kimono?

・Obi

The obi is the kimono sash, which does not actually keep the kimono closed, but has more of a decorative function. Informal obi are narrower and shorter, while formal ones are longer, wider, and richly decorated. There are different ways of tying an obi depending on the occasion and formality of the situation. 

・Hakama

The hakama is the traditional Japanese trouser-skirt, worn together with a kimono. While men's hakama are made of striped fabric, women's hakama are either a solid color or dyed with gradient hues. Hakama are still utilized at graduation ceremonies (sotsugyoshiki) for women, as wedding attire for men, and in general for traditional Japanese sports such as kyudo (Japanese archery), aikido (a Japanese martial art), and kendo (Japanese fencing). Finally, they are part of the uniform for those who work at a shrine. Particularly famous is the outfit of the miko (shrine maiden), which consists of a white kimono and bright red hakama. 

・Haori

A haori is a kimono overcoat or jacket. It is worn open over the kimono or kept closed by a string that connects the lapels. Haori are usually jacket length, but full-length versions can also be found. In winter, haori are a mandatory element of the kimono outfit, while in warmer months, people either wear a thinner haori or don't wear one at all.

・Geta and Zori

Geta and Zori are two types of traditional Japanese sandals. Geta feature an elevated wooden base held onto the foot by a fabric thong. Zori are flat, thonged sandals made of rice straw, cloth, lacquered wood, leather, rubber, or synthetic materials.

 

・Tabi

Tabi are toe-divided Japanese socks that are worn with zori. The most common color is white, which is also the color worn in formal situations. Colorful tabi or tabi with patterns can be worn for casual occasions.

What Is a Yukata?

"Yukata" literally means "bath clothes," although their use is no longer limited to bath wear. It is the most casual unlined traditional garment, usually made of cotton, linen, or hemp for summer use. Yukata can be worn by everyone, men or women of all ages, for many informal occasions.

While the yukata nowadays is widely popular in Japan, its history is relatively recent compared to the kimono. These two traditional garments undoubtedly are siblings, but not quite alike. So, let’s investigate the interesting history of the yukata and the actual differences with the kimono, to better understand the culture behind yukata! 

The History of Yukata: A Hop Back to the Edo Period

Yukata became popular during the Edo Period for two main reasons. The first had to do with a change in bathing habits, and the second had to do with the sumptuary laws mentioned in the "History of Kimono" section above.

The yukata developed to become what it is today from a single-layered silk kimono worn in the bath by the upper class. In around 1800, priests began to bathe in water for purification. The samurai and noble class followed suit, but since silk was not suitable for getting wet, people started to wear cotton or linen-like fabrics instead. Finally, the custom spread to the middle and lower classes, too, and public bathhouses opened in Tokyo. People who had to walk from their homes to the bathhouse began to desire fancier yukata to wear while in public view, and this is how the modern-day yukata emerged.

Yukata vs. Kimono: What Are the Differences Between Yukata and Kimono?

・Material

Kimono are usually made from different types of silk, while yukata are generally made from cotton or polyester. This reflects the fact that in general, kimono are more luxurious and formal. Yukata are cheaper, more casual, and made to be cooler since they are worn during the summer months.

 

・Composition

Kimono usually have a lining under the patterned silk layer, while yukata don’t. Again the reason is that yukata are made to be worn only during summer. 

・Sleeves

The sleeves of a kimono vary according to different factors, from the wearer's age to the formality of the occasion. Furisode kimono, for example, can have sleeves so long that they touch the ground! The sleeves on the yukata, in contrast, are shorter and are never longer than around 50 cm.

 

・Seasons

Yukata are associated with summer and summer activities. They are worn in other seasons inside a ryokan (japanese inn) or onsen (hot spring) building, as they are handed out to guests for use, but they rarely will be worn outside in colder seasons. A kimono has more layers and it can come with all sorts of accessories to make it suitable for all the seasons. For example, a fur shawl can be used to accessorize a kimono during the winter. There are also summer kimono called "hitoe" kimono (single layer kimono), which are unlined and worn with a summer kimono undergarment. 

・Occasions

Yukata are worn in ryokan or onsen, to attend matsuri (Japanese festivals) such as fireworks festivals, for other summer activities, or just strolling around. Kimono, on the other hand, are most commonly worn for more formal situations, such as ceremonies at shrines and temples, weddings, or graduation ceremonies. Also, even though it’s less common nowadays, some people still wear casual types of kimono for daily errands around the city.

 

・Accessories

Yukata are easier to wear because they don't require as many accessories as a kimono. You don’t have to wear a specific undergarment with it, and you need just one or two strings to close it, while a kimono needs three or four strings. Yukata is paired with a casual obi, which is easier to tie. Since it is more acceptable to play with an informal obi, Japanese girls often tie it in self-invented and original styles. Kimono are usually paired with a formal or semi-formal obi, depending on the occasion. The yukata is worn together with geta and bare feet, while kimono is paired with zori and tabi. 

Yukata and Kimono in Modern Times: The Current Situation of Japan’s National Dress

Do Japanese People Still Wear Kimono?

In the postwar period, kimono began to vanish from everyday life and gradually became confined to the role of formal wear for ceremonies and the world of Japanese arts, such as tea ceremony or theater. And since new generations couldn’t dress in kimono anymore, as a selling strategy, shops started to offer kimono dressing lessons. These lessons developed into kimono schools, which strictly systemized the wearing of kimono, shifting it away even further from the daily wear it was before.

However, the kimono, which was a part of daily Japanese life for more than 1,700 years, wasn’t just meant to disappear like that! Luckily, the 1990s saw its re-evaluation, thanks to a worldwide interest in Asian fashion. This led to a kimono renaissance in Japan as well. The first major phenomenon was a yukata boom in the year 2000, followed by the appearance of secondhand kimono shops. Finally, thanks to new means of communication, such as kimono magazines, online shops, blogs, and YouTube, kimono was again easily accessible to young people.

At the present time, the kimono industry is undergoing huge changes and kimono wearers are in great part rejecting the traditional channels for the purchase of kimono. It is true that traditional kimono shops are facing hard times, but new business models are flourishing. 

Where to Buy a Kimono or Yukata in Japan

If you are thinking of buying a kimono or yukata, there are a few places you should check.

One place is at large shopping centers in Japan, which usually have at least one shop dedicated to kimono and yukata, or they at least will have special summer sales for yukata. These shops usually sell the kimono or the yukata together with all the accessories, making your selection process easier and allowing you to avoid forgetting necessary parts of the set. Prices for these sets start at around 7,000 yen.

If you want to personally choose every item of your kimono or yukata set, head instead to a secondhand kimono shop, where you can freely choose between hundreds of vintage pieces. Vintage kimono and yukata are usually in very good condition, offer a great variety of designs, and are extremely inexpensive. They can be as cheap as 1,000 yen per piece, even if the prices go up a little for some of the more luxurious items. Accessories are usually sold at around the same price. You can make incredible deals by digging inside these shops! Some suggested areas for your vintage kimono shopping are the Nippori Textile Town and Sensoji surroundings in Tokyo, or the area around Shijo Station and Higashiyama Station in Kyoto.

Antique markets are another good option for vintage yukata and kimono hunting. The Oedo Antique Market and the Boroichi Market in Tokyo, or the Kobo Market and the Tenjin-san Market in Kyoto are some of the best ones to check out. 

Where to Rent a Kimono or Yukata in Japan

If you are not planning to buy a kimono or yukata, but you still dream of wearing one while you are visiting Japan, rental kimono shops are a great option! These shops are very popular, even among Japanese people, and you can easily find them in every tourist area of any Japanese city, such as Asakusa or Yanaka in Tokyo or the Higashiyama or Arashiyama areas in Kyoto. Their rental fees usually include not only the kimono dressing and the kimono rental for the day, but also a hairstyling service. 

*In case you are planning to rent a kimono, please remember to book in advance, especially in busy periods such as during cherry blossom season.

*Usually, the staff at rental kimono shops can speak English.

Foreigners Wearing Kimono, Is It Cultural Appropriation?

Thanks to social media and the internet, kimono collectors and enthusiasts have increased around the world. In recent years, even kimono dressing schools have seen a slight increase in foreign enrollees, who are interested not only in taking normal kimono dressing courses, but also in receiving a license as a certified kimono stylist and teacher.

As a foreigner interested in kimono dressing, I had the chance to meet many Japanese people involved in the kimono world, and most of them, especially younger people, are actually very proud to see a genuine interest in the Japanese traditional dress. Japanese people are enthusiastic to share the kimono with the world, as long as it is worn with respect, since this will mean that the kimono tradition can further survive and evolve!

Kimono: Wear 1,700 Years of History and Culture

Now that you know more about the culture and the history behind the kimono and the yukata, you are ready to live your dream of wearing one! Rent it or buy it, and elegantly explore Japan with a deeper knowledge about its national dress. 

 

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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