by Zoria Petkoska
Kimono is one of the most well-known Japanese words, and as the label for Japanese garments, it seems to easily cross language borders. It is very often used as an umbrella term for all traditional Japanese clothes, and its literal translation from Japanese 着物 meaning something to wear (着 to wear and 物 a thing) doesn't help much. Outside of Japan you can even find items such as cardigans or lingerie labeled as kimono, adding to the confusion. Similarly, many garments can be called a robe – academic ceremonial gowns, judicial attire, monks' clothes, royal garments, and even your common bathrobe. What both kimonos and robes have in common is that they are sleeved, long and flowing; and they come together in the comfortable yet stylish 'kimono robe'. From how to tell apart a kimono robe from other garments, how and where to wear one, to specific patterns, and where to buy kimono robes, here are 15 things to know about these beautiful garments.
1. What is a Japanese kimono robe?
A kimono robe is actually more similar to a yukata, the kimono's more informal and relaxed counterpart. The yukata is light and comfortable, usually worn in summer where you will most commonly see them at fireworks festivals. Find out more in Yukata vs Kimono: What’s the Difference? The kimono robe is an even more laid-back yukata, basically lounge wear, usually worn around the house simply tied around the waist, no frills and bells!
2. The history of Japanese kimono robes
Combing Her Hair, Hashiguchi Goyo
The history of kimono robes is intertwined with bathing culture and ryokans, or Japanese style inns, with onsen hot springs. Bathing culture in Japan dates back to about 12th century Kamakura period. Yukata literally means a bathrobe (浴 bathing, 衣 garment) as it was designed to be put on after a bath and worn when one is relaxing. These days, most ryokan will provide guests with a simple yukata, which can be worn at all times around the building, including to the bath, to both dinner and breakfast, and outside in the garden. This type of garment is usually worn at home as well.
3. What’s the difference between a traditional yukata and a kimono robe?
The difference between the type of yukata worn to festivals and the kind you would wear to the hot springs, lies principally in how you put it on. A yukata worn outside, although simple and comfortable when compared to the elaborate kimono, still requires a well-tied obi belt placed on top of a fold in the yukata. Nowadays, the yukata you will see at a ryokan have been simplified so that they can be worn very easily with a simple tie around the waist, just like a bath robe. They don’t require any special underwear, extra ties, or complicated folds.
This is exactly what a kimono robe is, a simple yukata mostly worn at home instead of the ryokan. And because of its simplified nature, there is no significant difference between men’s and women’s kimono robes, other than size and color, so chose whichever suits you! If you want to find out more, check out 30 Things You Should Know About Japanese Yukata.
4. How to wear kimono robes?
Since we have already established that kimono robes are some of the most simple and relaxed items of clothing, it should come as no surprise that there are not many rules on how to wear one! Just wear it like you would a bathrobe or a housecoat, simply tied around the waist. The only Japanese cultural rule to follow is to close the kimono robe with the left side over right, as the opposite way is the way to dress a corpse. Of course, you should make sure your sash is tied well so that it doesn’t accidentally fall open in company!
You could also use a kimono robe as a loose jacket to mix and match with western clothing. Especially the shorter kimono robes are very popular summer items, worn over sundresses or bathing suits.
5. What are kimono robes made of?
As kimono robes should be comfortable and worn around the house, one shouldn't expect sturdy luxury fabrics or gold threads. Kimono robes are made of cotton, which is lightweight, breathable and soft to the touch. Their beauty lies in the colours and patterns, as well as the form.
6. Where are kimono robes made?
High quality robes are usually made in Kyoto, which is the center of Japanese traditional clothing industry, and to this day is called the kimono capital. The area surrounding Kyoto is the home to once thriving silk industry, that survives to this day. Kimono and yukata makers constantly come up with new patterns and styles, and modern kimono fashionistas wear these traditional garments as fashion.
7. Where do the kimono robe patterns come from?
SHOP THE LOOK | Temari Kimono Robe
The kimono robes build on tradition, so their patterns are inspired from those on traditional yukata and kimono motifs. These garments are often used as canvases to show the beauty of nature changing with the many seasons, as many as 72 micro seasons by some old Japanese ways of classification! This is why floral patterns are very prevalent, as well as clouds, waves, animals etc. Some items have evolved into stylized symbols and stamped repetitively to create patterns. Nowadays, there are also patterns taking inspiration from pop culture and kawaii culture, such as cats, sweets, glasses and so on.
Here are some of the classic patterns and what they symbolize:
8. Traditional woodblock prints
Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are a endless source for inspiration, often remixed and reinvented. Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa for example, is considered to be the most re-printed artwork in the world!
Ukiyo-e art themes are often depicted on kimonos and kimono robes, ranging from flowers and Japanese fans, to kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, geishas and even yokai monsters! Like a series of endless reflections between two mirrors, ukiyo-e prints often depict whole kimono, just as some kimono depict ukiyo-e scenes.
A fall flower that has the honor to be the Japanese Imperial Family emblem, the chrysanthemum is a symbol of longevity and rejuvenation in Japan. Chrysanthemums have a great number of varieties in shape and color, inspiring many different designs in kimono patterns.
The chrysanthemum depiction graces the Imperial throne, Shinto shrines, Japanese passports and official documents, and of course – floral kimono robes.
This grandiose flower is a vine that grows expansively and extensively - it can live more than a 100 years, and in fact Japan has the world's oldest wisteria tree that is almost 150 years old. Because of this, wisteria often symbolizes longevity and wisdom, even immortality. Its sweet fragrance, vivid colors and plump blossoms hanging down like grapes are also why it is also seen as rich and luxurious flower.
11. Plum blossom
The plum blossoms are the first heralds of Spring, also symbolizing hope and perseverance, as well as beauty, purity and new life. Before they became obsessed with sakura blossoms, the royal court of Japan initially held hanami revelries under the plum blossoms. Plum blossoms are stronger pink, with darker and knobby branches, and just like cherry blossoms there are festivals celebrating their bloom in late February.
12. Cherry blossoms
Almost synonymous with Japan, cherry blossoms represent fleeting beauty, ephemerality and transience, and the Japanese concept of mono no aware – the impermanence of all things. The pale pinkish or white delicate flowers bloom in spring and draw almost everyone admiring their opening, full bloom, and soft disperse as if they were snowflakes.
13. Temari silk ball
This Japanese craft began as a way to reuse silk scraps from kimono making and turning them into ornaments and toys. The temari silk balls are usually in vibrant colors, with an added silk string. Given as gifts, they often represent friendship and loyalty, as well as wishing happiness for someone.
14. Red-crowned crane
The rarest crane in the world, the red-crowned Japanese crane is a symbol of peace, luck, longevity and fidelity. In stories, these cranes are said to live a 1000 years, as well as to be honest and repaying their debts. It's no wonder that origami cranes adorn so many shrines and making a thousand of them is believed to have wish-fulfilling powers. These elegant monochrome ballerinas are also a symbol of love as they are monogamous, so little cranes are very often used as wedding decorations.
15. Japanese gold
Gold of course represents wealth and prestige in Japan, much like anywhere else. Gold also signifies royalty and the heavens, hence its use in temples and Buddha statues. In kimono design, gold is heavily used in autumn themes for its warmth and richness. It is also said to remind one of the rays or the sun, or swaying stalks of ripened rice.
Kimono designs and patterns have been perfected to an art, each symbol having a wealth of culture and history behind it. With the simplified yukata and kimono robe, traditional Japanese garments fit modern life better than ever, without sacrificing their beauty and elegance.