by Lucy Dayman
When it comes to Japanese clothing, there’s no piece more iconic than the kimono. A traditional garment, steeped in history but still very much of the present day; there’s a lot to be said about the kimono and its summer counterpart, the yukata.
The question that comes to mind first though is: what is the difference between a kimono and a yukata? Here are the answers to your questions on these two most popular items of traditional Japanese fashion.
What Is a Kimono?
The word kimono comes from two characters: ki (着) to wear, and mono (物) meaning thing, so basically, a kimono is simply a thing you wear!
For centuries Japan looked to China for inspiration, including in fashion. The kimono was essentially a localized version of the traditional Chinese garment, the hanfu. The kimono in its most essential form is four separate pieces of fabric sewn into a T-shape, held together with intricate folds, all secured with a belt known as an obi.
The kimono became a popular garment in Japan because, despite its many layers, it was relatively practical. In the snowy winters, a thickly layered kimono made from cotton and silk could be worn as a way to battle the elements, while still looking good.
Today a similar ideology still exists but in a more modern form. These days polyester kimono are particularly popular with Japanese women as they’re warm, versatile, available in a broad range of colors and easily machine washable. These types of kimono are also excellent for first-time users. You can take a look at our selection of women’s kimono here.
What Is a Yukata?
As a T-shaped thing you wear, the yukata is a type of kimono. They are sometimes described as yukata kimono, a type of summer kimono, but are more often referred to as a separate category. Far lighter (in terms of material), more casual, and versatile; their role sits somewhere between breezy summer dress, kimono, and robe.
Typically worn during the sweltering summer months, a yukata is most commonly made from breathable fabrics like cotton or thin, synthetic fabric. The name yukata (浴衣) translates to bathing cloth, which is how the original item came about. Similar to a bathrobe or dressing gown in the west, they were originally worn by bathers hopping from one hot tub to the next.
These days however, the yukata has evolved into a summer kimono owned by all discerning Japanese fashion fans. You can browse our selection of women’s yukata here.
Girl in Summer Costume by Hashiguchi Goyo, 1920
So, What’s the Difference Between a Yukata and a Kimono?
Let’s run through the main differences between kimono vs yukata, including the materials, style, and when & where they are worn.
Materials: A traditional version of a yukata is most commonly made from cotton. This is for two main reasons: firstly it’s one of the most comfortable and breathable fabrics, ideal for Japan’s long hot summers. Secondly, cotton is quick to dry, making it the ideal material for soaking up any extra moisture left on the body post-bath. Modern yukata designed to be worn at festivals are also sometimes made from synthetic materials, which can be even more efficient at evaporating moisture away from the skin.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between a kimono and yukata, at least if you’re wearing it yourself, is that kimono usually (although not always) have an interior lining, whereas yukata never do, and are sewn from a single layer of fabric.
Style: The yukata is quite similar to a bathrobe or dressing gown in terms of style, and is usually worn with less formality and accessories than a kimono. Expensive silk or ornately decorated kimono are very rarely washed, so are worn with an inner layer, known as a nagajuban, which keeps the outer garment clean and dry. Yukata on the other hand are much easier to clean, and so are usually worn without a nagajuban.
Occasion: Yukata are festive, and are often worn for parties, festivals, and events such as firework displays. Unlike kimono, however, they are not worn at formal ceremonial events. Although it may be difficult to tell the difference for an outsider, wearing a thin, brightly-colored yukata to an auspicious occasion might come across as too casual!
Morning Glories by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1897
Where, When and How to Wear Yukata?
Today, the yukata is also most often seen at summer festivals, processions and picnics. Their light, breezy comfortable fit, but aesthetic nod to traditional Japanese style makes the yukata the ideal apparel for the festive, warmer spring and summer months.
In Japan where public communal baths like onsens and sentos are common, the yukata was also (and still is) worn as a quick, easy garment to slip on en-route to and from the bath. Head to a hot spring bath today, and chances are you’ll be putting one on yourself!
Given the still high-level popularity of the yukata in recent years, it’s become more intricately designed. Mirroring the aesthetics of the kimono it’s most common to see women in brightly colored floral designed yukata, while men wear more muted or block-colour style pieces.
Putting on a yukata can be as simple as wrapping it around yourself like a bathrobe (always remembering to wrap left over right!). It can also be worn in the same way as the most elaborate kimono. Check out our How to Wear Kimono video tutorial to see the easiest way to wear a kimono or yukata.
What Other Types of Kimono Are There?
Over the centuries the kimono morphed into something quite removed from its Chinese roots. As a uniquely Japanese garment, a kimono was an artisanal item, decorated with beautiful art and imbued with nuanced meaning. What kimono one could wear depended on a multitude of criteria including profession, marital status, gender, and event, as we have seen with one example in the yukata. To explain just how many mini-kimono categories exist, here are the most common kimonos you may see in Japan:
Homon-gi (訪問着): If there were one party kimono it’d be this, the semi-formal Homon-gi. Worn by all women regardless of marital status, you’ll typically see this kimono at weddings and tea parties. It’s characterized by a common pattern that features across the dress, known as an eba-moyo.
Tsuke-sage (付け下げ): A more casual, simple version of the Homon-gi, it features separated decorations, which do not link together across the garment. This kimono is typically worn by women during semi-formal events like fancy dinners and school reunions.
Kuro Tomesode (黒留袖): Also known as just tomesode this is the most formal kimono you’ll see worn by married women. Often used for milestone events like weddings, this predominantly black kimono features prints on the bottom part, and are also often fringed with gold.
Iro Tomesode (色留袖): If a woman is unmarried but is also attending an auspicious occasion, then she may wear this. However unlike the tomesode, marital status doesn’t dictate whether or not you can wear this kimono, as many married women wear them too. It’s essentially a colored version of the kuro tomesode and only has patterns along the hem as opposed to across the whole garment.
Furisode (振袖): This single’s version of a formal kimono is traditionally worn by unmarried women only. Covered in vibrant, attention-commanding patterns, it’s typically worn at coming of age festivals or for events like wedding, specifically by the bride when she’s changing dresses during a wedding.
Komon (小紋): A more casual incarnation of the kimono, komon are worn to special events, but are not considered suitable wear for ceremonial occasions. Usually worn for activities like going to the theater, shopping or heading out for dinner.
Iro-muji (色無地): Potentially the most versatile of all kimono, iro-muji kimonos are single, block color garments that can be worn both at celebrations and condolences. Women often pair the kimono with different accessories and obi-belts as a way to signify the meaning of the kimono.
Kimonos for men are far less varied, and typically feature much more muted colors and designs. The most common type of men’s kimono you’ll see is the montsuki (紋付). It’s a typically black, often silk-made kimono worn over traditional Japanese clothing known as hakama. It’s actually more common to see men in a yukata than a kimono.
Should I Buy a Kimono or Yukata?
If you’re thinking about yukata vs kimono in terms of which you want to buy, then it all comes down to two main questions: where do you want to wear it, and how hot is it?
If you’re buying it to wear to a formal event, such as a wedding, or if the weather is cold, then you should get a kimono. If it’s very hot, you’re better off buying a yukata.
In any other circumstances, you can be free to follow your heart! Don't worry about what type of kimono you’re looking for, and instead find the color, pattern and material that you love. Like fashion the world over, the most important thing in choosing a kimono is to feel great and enjoy yourself!