10 Things to Know About Japanese Black Kimono

Uchikake and Kurotomesode Kimono, Met Museum (left, right)

by Laura Pollacco

Kimono, literally translated as thing to wear, is the national costume of Japan and were once worn ubiquitously by both men and women. As you might expect, kimono carry with them a lot of meaning, from the length of sleeves for women, to colors, symbols, and motifs. All colors carry a certain level of significance, including black which has been utilized throughout the centuries in kimono design. So what is the meaning of black kimono, and when might you wear one?

1. What Is the Significance of the Color Black in Japanese Culture?

In many cultures black is a color of elegance, one that gives off a sense of dignity and wealth, mystery, and mourning, as well as evil, and Japan is no different.

In Japan kuroi (黒い, black) is traditionally considered a more masculine color, used by the samurai class of the past, who would don black armor, and also worn by men at their weddings. Shinto priests still wear black headdresses as a symbol of enlightenment.

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Women have also historically worn black a number of ways, perhaps most famously when it was the fashion to paint one's teeth black as a symbol of wealth, fertility, and status (it was also thought to prevent tooth decay). At this time, pitch black was considered beautiful and women with long black hair and black teeth extremely attractive. You may still catch sight of a blackened smile which is sometimes worn by certain geisha in Kyoto today.

2. When Might You Wear Black Kimono?

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In Japan, black kimono are generally considered more formal than other more colorful options. For women, a black kimono with a family crest, known as a kurotomesode, is often worn for very formal events such as weddings (by married female relatives of the bride or groom) or other significant social gatherings. Men might wear a black montsuki kimono, which also features the family crest, to formal events such as tea ceremonies and weddings.

Whilst kurotomesode may be adorned with colorful designs, more muted, or all black designs, are more appropriate for the most solemn occasion such as a funeral.

These days of course, younger people do not necessarily feel restricted by the traditional rules of kimono wearing, and black kimono – or other accessories made from black kimono fabric – can be worn wherever it suits the wearer’s style!

3. How is a Black Kimono Made?

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Black comes in shades and tones depending on the source of the dye and also the dying process. A traditional method for dying fabric black, is the kyo-kuro-montsuki zome technique which is said to go back to the 10th century. This method covers two aspects of the creation of the fabric, the silk dyeing technique and the drawing on of the family crests necessary to make it a kuro-montsuki kimono (it was designated a national traditional craft in 1979).

In the 17th century kuruzome dyeing was established with the dye extracted from sumac gallnut, Myrica bark, betel nut, and iron. This technique grew in popularity, especially during the Meiji period, but as western influence arrived on Japan’s shores so too did the rise of chemical dying.
Today a popular black dying technique is one that was only recently achieved in 1996 when the Kyoto Montsuki Co. developed its high quality kurozome kakumei dyeing technique. This dye is ecologically made and stays strong even in the sun and rain.

4. What Distinguished Black Kimono from Colored Kimono?

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Black kimono (kuro-tomesode) are considered much more formal than their colorful counterparts. Colored kimono (iro-tomesode) can often be considered seasonal, with colors such as pink and light blues found during the springtime, especially during hanami, and darker shades of red and orange common in fall. Black kimono then, are less to do with the season and more the event you are attending.

SHOP THE LOOK | Kurotomesode Kimono

Older married women are more likely to wear kuro-tomesode, especially to events. Older women are not barred from colored kimono by any means, but the colors may be more muted than those worn by younger women. This is most obviously seen amongst geisha, with older more mature geisha, known as geiko, wearing black kimono with shorter, tomesode sleeves, whilst the younger geisha in training, known as maiko, wear brightly coloured kimono with longer, furisode sleeves.

5. What Is the Significance of Kamon on Black Kimono?

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Mon (紋) refers to a crest generally, while kamon (家紋) specifically referring to the family crest that can be found on kimono, specifically the kuro-montsuki. This can indicate one's family origin, bloodline or lineage, similar to the coat of arms found in certain European families. In 2023 it was believed that there were roughly between 20,000 and 25,000 mon.

The tradition started during the Heian period (around CE1000) to help identify the noble families from one another though over time the practice spread to the samurai class, business owners and then eventually the common people. The only two mon which are prohibited from general use are the imperial family’s chrysanthemum mon and the Tokugawa clan family’s hollyhock mon.

Kimono with Pines and Mist, Met Museum

On formal kimono, you will often find five mon: one at the center of the back, two situated symmetrically on the backs of the sleeves, and two symmetrically on the chest. The use of these kimono is commonly found at such family events as weddings and funerals, both of which honor a family member.

6. What Are the Traditional Accessories To Pair With a Black Kimono?

When attending a funeral, and wearing mofuku, accessories should be kept black. This includes the obi, obiyage (obi scarf), and obijime (obi cord). The undergarments and tabi socks should be crisp white, and you can then wear traditional zori slippers above which should also be black.
For men getting married and wearing the kuro-montsuki, as well as the kimono gown they would also wear a haori (jacket), hakama (pants) with striped hendai hakama preferred, a thin obi, as well as accessories such as a haori-himo (belt) with tassels, white tabi socks, seta sandals and a fan.

Outside of these traditional looks, you can accessorize black kimono any number of ways, choosing to be creative with your color scheme. Often, as black kimono are seen as an elegant option for formal events, gold and silver obi that stand out from the dark kimono gown are chosen. Red is also a popular color choice to complement black kimono, so perhaps the obijime, or even your hair accessories could be red for a touch of boldness.

7. How Has the Black Kimono Influenced Modern Global Fashion?

The silhouette of the kimono has influenced modern global fashions in a number of ways. Many western designers have had their fair share of fascination with the garment going all the way back to Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret in the 1920s who found themselves drawn to and inspired by kimono. Other designers such as Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, Maison Margiela and Balenciaga have also put forth their own interpretations.

When it comes to black kimono though, there are no better modern interpreters than the famed Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, and Issey Miyake. They made their way to Paris in the 70s and 80s and created what was known by Western fashionistas as The Japanese Revolution. They didn’t adhere to Western fashion rules of making clothing that followed the contours of the body, instead allowing space between the wearer and the garment creating a freer shape and form.

SHOP THE LOOK | Kurotomesode Kimono

Often, these designers worked with black fabric for many of their collections, creating designs that were ambiguous and radically different from what had preceded them. Black has taken on new meaning thanks to designers like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. The latter was famously quoted as having said, “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy - but mysterious. But above all black says this: ‘I don’t bother you - don’t bother me’.”
Both these designers were unavoidably influenced by their country’s cultural garb, even if they were deconstructing it, and the color that represents both death and elegance at once.

8. Is the Black Kimono Relevant Today?

Though the daily use of kimono has steadily been on the decline over the decades, it still holds an important place in the culture of Japan. It can be found at certain special events, formal celebrations, and Japanese holidays such as Coming of Age Day. If you walk around Japan’s more historic locations, such as Kyoto and Kamakura you will most certainly see young Japanese, and foreign visitors, dressed up in rental kimono to immerse themselves in the cultural experience.

SHOP THE LOOK | Kurotomesode Kimono

Despite the fact that the kimono is no longer worn daily by the majority here, there is still a market for them. In the field of modern kimono designs, black kimono are always popular given how versatile black can be and how it evokes a timeless quality that transcends trends and eras.
Modern interpretations and styling, especially in the West, are a little more loose when it comes to the rules of wearing a kimono, wearing the garment open with dresses or trousers underneath. Black kimono, in particular, are a great addition to an evening look when teamed with a smart shirt and trousers and perhaps some statement accessories.

9. What Is the Price Range For Traditional Black Kimono?

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This really depends on where you are looking. Japan has a plethora of vintage stores and recycle shops that sell old kimono for as little as $10 if you get lucky and know where to look. The quality of these may not be very high though, so if you are looking for something of substance made from quality materials, you may need to go closer to $200 for a decent vintage kimono, such as this vintage silk black kimono.

Considering that a brand new kimono bought in Japan can cost up to ¥300,000 ($2000) this is a steal. For those with very deep pockets, handcrafted kimono worn for very special events such as weddings or Coming of Age Day can go substantially higher than this. Consider a decent price range for a decent quality black kimono to go from ¥30,000 ($200) to ¥100,000 ($700).

10. Where Can You Buy an Japanese Black Kimono?

SHOP THE LOOK | Kurotomesode Kimono

If you have the luxury of a trip to Japan, you can find recycled and vintage shops a plenty selling vintage kimono, especially in cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can also visit stores that specifically sell and tailor kimono which can be found in department stores in many major cities in Japan.

If you are outside Japan, online sites, like this one, can offer quality assured kimono for sale at a very reasonable price. For a traditional black kimono, you should look for one made from silk which ensures that the fabric will be of good quality.


3 comments


  • Michael

    Most informative. I love the Japan objects site and love the Japanese culture. I have built a Japanese Teahouse in my backyard. Michael


  • Renee Winfield

    Many Thanks for the history of kimono and fashion design influences. One other notable Japanese, fashion designer of the 70/80s influenced by kimono was Kenzo Takada, and House of Takada still carries the kimono tradition/contemporary clothing focus forward.


  • DR D A HANSON

    BEAUTIFUL


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