Say ‘kimono’ and what springs to mind? A wrap? A satin dressing gown? Or a traditional ceremonial gown worn for high status rituals in ancient Japanese culture?
The women's silk kimono robe is a simple T-shaped garment made with straight seams and panels. Depending on the status of the wearer, these were once versatile items that could be layered for warmth, tightened to fit, and shortened or lengthened for ease of movement.
As a fashion watchword, ‘kimono is’ bandied around with ease but the word once meant ‘clothing’ (or ‘the thing to wear’) in Japanese. Those who ranked higher in society wore them as undergarments. Later, when the garment began to morph into the iconic gown we know, patterns representing status symbols were hidden within its folds and panels.
While the silk kimono robe has existed since ancient times in Japan, it only came to the west a few hundred years ago. Now there are several manifestations in modern-day clothing fashion across both eastern and western cultures. There’s the poncho, the throw, the shrug, the belted jacket, the cape, the cloak and of course the versatile, one-size-fits-all wrap.
If you know your eastern fashions, you’ll be aware that a genuine Japanese silk kimono is a rare thing of beauty. High-end luxury gowns handcrafted by traditional workers command a high price, running into many hundreds thanks to the weighty fabric and achingly beautiful embroidery. No wonder westerners connect the gown to ceremony and high society.
Our go-to textile museum, the V&A, displayed an impressive collection of kimonos in its 2020 V&A exhibition Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, curated by Anna Jackson. The narrative explored the robe’s humble beginnings: commoners wore them as outer garments, yet for higher ranking people they were worn as discreet underwear. Gradually they became more elaborate, adorned with bespoke patterns hidden in the folds and panels.
As trade routes opened from the 17th to 19th centuries, women's kimonos headed west. Marked by traders as rare ornamental items, they were pulled into stylistic significance and labelled ‘kimono’ from the mid-1800s. But it wasn’t until after the Second World War that traditional Japanese clothing really opened up to Europe, becoming more widely available to western women.
The image of ‘geisha’ is inextricably linked to the kimono. While we may view this as a cliche, in fact the story has substance. As European wearers converted the garment into a more wearable design, geisha women saw the opening trade routes as an opportunity to take on western fashions, and also to adopt the gown as their trademark fashion item
Jackson’s V&A exhibition emphasised the importance of the patterns that gave social status to kimono wearers. Geisha culture began to adopt the women's gown as a key item in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Their use of the robe as an indicator of social status linked the role to an image that’s been hard to shake.
There is no doubt that, even in its modern-day inception, kimonos are a special and much-prized style item. The younger generation of wearers don their gowns with pride, merging traditional designs with cutting edge current trends.
Young followers of women's clothing fashion in Japan can be spotted wrapped and belted into folds of funky fabric, standing on metro platforms and waiting at bus stops.
Tourist attractions draw visitors, some of whom seek selfies with wearers. They wear the garment like a flag: Japan is nothing if not proud of its traditions and culture.
Here at Rose Fulbright we love developing new nightwear creations using our brand trademark fabrics and prints. We are careful to consider tradition and culture across all our designs, and this always includes accounting for comfort and practicality as part of our brand service.
Shop a selection of our favourite pieces inspired by kimono robes