What are Vintage Kimono? 24 Things You Need to Know
by Zoria Petkoska & David McElhinney
Kimono are perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of traditional Japanese culture. And although the time when everyone only wore kimono has passed, these works of art are still very much available to purchase and wear today.
The word kimono plainly explains that it is a thing to be worn (着 – to wear, 物 – a thing). It is a thing to be worn, to be loved, to be experimented with, to style and to incorporate into 21st century fashion.
So, if you want to find out more, read our comprehensive guide below.
1. What are Vintage Kimono?
Vintage has become a hip term in the apparel industry worldwide, generally referring to an item of clothing that’s second-hand and has an air of oldness or nostalgia.
In the realm of the kimono, however, the category is more precisely delineated: kimono from the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods (1868–1930s) are considered antique; whereas post-1930s kimono are vintage. Thankfully vintage markets in Japan tend to be good health due to an embedded collectors culture in society and the fastidious approach with which many Japanese look after the clothing and paraphernalia of yesteryear.
In the video above, licensed kimono dresser Billy Matsunaga shares some top tips of buying and wearing vintage kimono.
2. What are the Different Types of Women’s Vintage Kimono?
SHOP THE LOOK | Women's Vintage Kimono
Various types of vintage kimono exist for women, such as the uchikake, shiromuku, furisode, tomesode, honmongi, komon, and iromuji, among others.
Uchikake: one of the most formal types of kimono for women, uchikake are outerwear kimono worn during wedding ceremonies or stage performances. Typically red and white to symbolize rebirth, an uchikake may also feature brocading or shibori (tie-dyeing) techniques.
Shiromuku: As the names suggests (shiro means white), shiromuku are pearly white kimono worn by brides during traditional Shinto weddings. These are among the most ornate – and therefore expensive – Japanese dresses, whose white embroidery is supposed to represent purity.
Furisode: Readers of Lafcadio Hearn might be familiar with this type of kimono from his short story Furisode, the apocryphal tale of a cursed kimono that started the great Edo fire of 1657. Furisode are also quite formal, though they were traditionally worn by unmarried women. Furisode have long, hanging sleeves and you’ll see plenty of young Japanese women sporting them at the annual coming-of-age ceremony, which celebrates those who reached adulthood during the previous year.
Tomesode: Once married, a woman migrates from the furisode to the tomesode. Tomesode have shorter sleeves, and elaborate and contiguous designs running diagonally across the hem.
Homongi: These are semi-formal, patterned kimono that come in a vast range of colors and styles. In traditional Japanese restaurants, waitresses may wear homongi or slightly less formal versions of the homongi, called tsukesage.
Komon: Komon are kimono for day-to-day use. Notably, however, they’ll will be designed with a katazome (stencil-dyeing) technique which covers the entirety of the garment.
Iromuji: These kimono can be formal or informal. The term iromuji primarily refers to a kimono that’s dyed all one color with no patterns or embroidery.
Find out more about these 10 Popular Types of Kimono.
3. What are the Different Types of Men’s Vintage Kimono?
SHOP THE LOOK | Men's Vintage Kimono
The range of kimono used by Japanese men was traditionally quite wide, though it has become narrower in recent years. Common types include the montsuki, mofuku, and tsumugi.
Montsuki: Formal attire with multiple crests, montsuki are among the most symbolic type of men’s kimono. Black versions – called kuromontsuki – are worn during weddings, whereas more colorful varieties may be worn at other celebrations.
Mofuku: These black silk kimono are most typically worn during periods of mourning.
Tsumugi: This is one of the most casual type of kimono, often worn for daily use. Tsumugi are made from woven silk floss or hemp fibres.
4. What is the Difference between Yukata and Kimono?
SHOP THE LOOK | Yukata
To the uninitiated, kimono and yukata essentially fit into the same category and the terms may even be used interchangeably. But there are various differences between the two types of garment, from semantics to materials to aesthetics.
First of all the kanji for kimono – ki (着), “to wear”, and mono (物), “thing” – indicate exactly what the garment is: “a thing to be worn”. Whereas yukata – yu (浴), “to bathe”, and kata (衣), “garment” – is usually translated as “bathing clothes”.
In its most basic form, a kimono is four separate pieces of fabric sewn into a T shape, held together with intricate folds and fastened by an obi (decorative belt). Kimono tend to be quite layered and heavy – such practicality meant they were useful for fusing comfort with fashion in the chilly winters of old.
Yukata are, in some sense, summery versions of the kimono, made from more breathable fabrics like cotton and synthetic fibres. Though you’ll occasionally see people sporting these on the streets of Japan, the “bathing clothes” nomenclature they’ve carried for hundreds of years still feels applicable today as yukata are provided to guests in onsen (hot spring) hotels across the country.
For more detail on differentiating the two check out our article on Yukata vs Kimono.
5. Where do Vintage Kimono Come From?
In days gone by, kimono weren’t mass produced or available off the shelf; a tradition that’s generally maintained today. Prospective buyers will often have them tailor-made for special occasions, which means the garment might only get one single outing. If one doesn’t have the storage space nor sentimental inclination to keep the kimono, it will likely be sold or donated when no longer needed.
6. How are Kimono Made?
Silk Weaving by Tatsumura Textiles
These days kimono are usually tailor-made by an artisan. The fabric is woven while still white and then dyed. After this, the artisan may enliven the design with embroidery, brocading or kinpaku (gold leaf) processing. In the past, however, when kimono tailoring was less accessible and very expensive, they were often made by family members.
7. How much do Vintage Kimono Cost?
The price of kimono varies widely, depending on the condition, design, age, degree of craftsmanship, and more; you could pay anywhere from tens to thousands of dollars.
The Japan Objects Store has some carefully selected vintage kimono options in the $200 – $400 range. Or if you want something truly exceptional head to an artisanal tailor during your travels in Japan and let them turn your kimono vision into a reality.
8. Should I Buy a New Kimono or a Vintage Kimono?
New kimono usually need to be tailor-made and therefore will usually cost several thousand dollars. Unless you have the disposal income or want to splash the cash for a specific special occasion, going vintage is a great way to get high quality silk garments at affordable prices.
9. Where can I Buy a Vintage Kimono?
The Japan Objects Store is your go-to online destination for high quality vintage kimono. The women’s options feature a kaleidoscope of designs, from ethereal forests and soothing landscapes to floral prints and shimmering peacocks. As is tradition, the men’s options are subtler and come mostly in darker tones, though you’ll often find vibrant pops of color in the lining.
10. What Size Kimono Should I Buy?
Given their shape and looseness, kimono are quite forgiving in the size department. That said, if you want to look as good as possible in your vintage garment, finding the appropriate size is important. Check out our size guide here, or note the following considerations:
Check the height: For men you should pick a kimono that is about 10” (25cm) shorter than your height. Women can choose kimono that are longer than this, as any excess material is then folded over at the waist
Check the width: A kimono with a width that is at least 16” (40cm) greater than your hip size will fit perfectly. If the width of the kimono is not at least 10” (25cm) greater than your hip size, your legs may be visible as you walk. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s not the traditional way!
11. What to Look For When Buying Vintage Kimono?
What to look for ultimately depends on your stylistic and material preferences. If you’re looking for a winter or cold weather kimono, best to opt for a layered silk kimono. Below, you can check out our recommendations for appropriate winter patterns. For summer, you thinner cotton yukata, as it will be much more comfortable. Size is also important – we’ll refer you to the question above for that one!
Lastly, we recommend looking for handmade kimono as these are the best quality. Japan Objects Store specializes in handmade vintage kimono crafted in 100% silk.
12. Where and When Can I Wear a Vintage Kimono?
For some people kimono are a part of their everyday style, whilst others only wear them for special occasions. Japanese festivals, such as Tanabata, the Sanno and Kanda Matsuri, and Golden Week celebrations are popular times for donning kimono or yukata. And if you’re invited to a Japanese wedding, it may also be appropriate to dress in kimono – though it’s worth checking with the wedding party first.
Popular among both Japanese and international tourists is to wear kimono in some of the country’s old towns: Asakusa in Tokyo, Gion in Kyoto, Higashi Chaya in Kanazawa, or Takayama. In each of these areas you’ll find many stores offering rental services for tourists, so you can dress in period clothing and walk around the flagstone streets.
13. Is it Appropriate to Wear Vintage Kimono on the Streets of Japan?
Absolutely! As mentioned before, even if you don’t have your own, many stores offer a rental service. Kimono can be difficult to put on, so shop staff will help with wrapping up in the various layers and fastening your obi belts.
14. How about at Festivals and Events?
Japanese people are generally very welcoming of foreigners wearing kimono during seasonal celebrations: if anything it is seen as a sign of Japan’s burgeoning cultural impact. Just note – for your own comfort more than anything - that during festivals in the colder months, kimono are more popular, whereas airier yukata are the garment of choice in the sweltering summer months.
15. How to Wear Vintage Kimono?
Check out this video from Billy Matsunaga, a licensed kimono teacher and stylist based in Kumamoto, on how to wear a kimono. She is wearing a yukata in the video, but the principles can be used for any kimono – vintage or otherwise.
16. How to Look After a Vintage Kimono?
It’s recommended that you don’t wash a kimono in a washing machine and tumble dryer at home. Either seek out a dry cleaner familiar with washing silk and hemp fabrics, or wash the garment by hand using shampoo or non-alkaline detergents. If opting for the latter, rinse properly to remove suds before air drying outside away from direct sunlight – do not wring out, tumble dry or iron. Make sure it’s fully dry before folding and storing. You can also check out this video on How to Fold Kimono.
17. What to Wear with Women’s Vintage Kimono?
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Silk Obi Belt
The most important accessory to wear with any kimono is the obi belt, although contemporary kimono wearers can set off their outfit with any kind of belt. If you’re wearing an obi, you can also ad in obiage silk scarves, obijime strings (used to hold the obi belt in place), and tabi (socks with a space between the big toe and smaller toes) that can be worn with traditional wooden geta sandals. You will find many accessory options available at Japan Objects Store. Women often also wear hanten or haori jackets with vintage kimono.
For a full explanation, check out these Essential Kimono Accessories.
18. What to Wear with Men’s Vintage Kimono?
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Kimono Jacket
Jackets, including hanten, haori and happi, are also popular with men’s kimono.
A hanten is a short winter coat with cotton padding and a tailored collar. It’s suitable for every-day wear though also works well on formal occasions. A haori is a loose-fitting jacket derived from the word haoru, meaning to “put on”, and is not dissimilar to a Western cardigan. Happi, however, are lightweight jackets with baggy sleeves and traditional symbols most commonly worn during festivals.
19. How to Break the Rules of Kimono Wearing?
Traditional kimono kitsuke (dressing) can be so complex and intense that there are schools dedicated to learning the proper way to put on a kimono. Yui Michael learned that to a T in such a dressing school, while also learning that not everyone is obligated to strictly follow the rules. For a quick parallel, medieval European corsets and dresses had their own tight rules, but that hasn't stopped people reinventing them in modern fashion.
Michael Yui, Neo Kimono Stylist founder
Yui confirms that “the formal and 'proper' kimono style of today is just one of the styles worn in the Edo period, now frozen in time, but Japanese people wore kimono differently before that and after”. If you think wearing a kimono with a top hat is a novel hipster thing, any photo from Ginza from the 1920s will change your mind. Of course you don’t need to go to school to learn to put on a kimono – check out our videos on how to wear kimono and how to tie an obi belt.
In what she calls Neo-Kimono styling Yui often adds hats to kimono outfits, as well as belts, neckties, button up shirts, brooches, but most of all – non-traditional footwear. It's how she started reinventing the kimono look, first out of necessity as zori shoes didn't come in the sizes for her foreign clients, and then realizing how cool a yukata with boots looks! “High-heeled shoes look super stylish too, and flip-flops are a great compromise as they are inspired by traditional Japanese zori shoes” adds Yui.
You can also let your hair down, both metaphorically and literally, as vintage kimono fashion today liberates the hairstyle rules too. Forget about gender limitations, as fashionistas in Japan are blurring the lines with girls wearing hakama pants, guys wearing popping colours, and young people wearing black kimono once reserved only for ageing mothers. It's all a natural progression of kimono wearing, from the Heian period to Meiji, to Heiwa, to today's Reiwa – reinventing, adding novelty and wearing it with style.
If you’re visiting Tokyo, you too can enjoy a personal experience of neo-kimono styling with Yui, or follow her on Instagram @yui_michael.
20. How to Wear Vintage Kimono with Style?
Like other vintage kimono stylists and enthusiasts, Yui rejects the notion of cultural appropriation, “as long as you're wearing kimono with love, knowledge and style” Yui emphasizes. Kimono is both fashion and art, and a product that kimono-makers and Japanese people want to share with the world.
If you want to start wearing vintage kimono pieces, Yui recommends starting small, like draping a haori like any jacket, or tying an obi-belt on top of a dress. Learn more with these 8 Pro-Tips for Beginners. Above all all, kimono influencers would agree you should feel free to be your stylish self in kimono.
21. Are There Any Modern Kimono Influencers Online?
Everything is available online!
Yi Ping and Yi Fang are a pair of the most stylish kimono Instagrammers, effortlessly remixing vintage kimono pieces since 2017. For them, it's all about a person's style and how they incorporate the kimono in it.
The twins often sport button-down shirts or turtlenecks under a yukata, berets on their heads and Doc Martens on their feet. They ingeniously fold the kimono to make it knee-length, and combine it with leggings. Tying the obi can involve belts or sliding the back knot to the front. They choose bold and funky patterns and modern accessories, mix fabrics, add lace and denim to the silk and cotton staples of kimono. Finally, they often wear backpacks with their kimono outfits. “The combinations of kimono and obi are practically infinite,” the twins say.
The twins have started buying kimono from second-hand markets and joining meet-ups of kimono fashionistas where they do photo shoots, exchange styling tips and hang out. “We jumped straight into the experimental fashion community, without dealing with formal kitsuke, and were charmed by the way traditional clothes are being styled in the 21st century” Yi Ping and Yi Fang tell me. Even though they know of the so-called 'kimono police' online, their overall experience is positive, as they keep being stopped in public by locals admiring their style.
Even grannies recognize that this non-formal kimono outfit is cute and compliment Yi Ping and Yi Fang and ask to take photos. “When people learn that we come from China they are even more touched by our interest in kimono,” the twins add.
Apart from purely relishing kimono fashion, Twins Kimono hope their online presence will help remove people's stereotypes on kimono and make it a daily and personalized fashion item for more people. They believe kimono is timeless, transnational, and universally beautiful.
22. Are Vintage Kimono Sustainable?
The kimono is a versatile and sustainable garment without trying too hard. It's cut from one piece of cloth and the size is flexible depending on how you wrap it and tie it around each person's body. For exceptionally tall people, length can be an issue, in which case, as the kimono's fabric is never cut when resized, you should check vintage kimono for extra fabric tucked in the hems. This and the hand-sewn high quality fabric is why kimono can be passed down from generation to generation, and vintage kimono retain most of their lustre.
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Obi Belts
When a kimono can no longer be worn, the fabric can be repurposed for other items, since there are no complicated cuts and it's basically a long rectangle. Yui explains how in the past kimono was useful until the very end: “kimono fabric that could not be repurposed became kindling for fire, and even the ashes had their use as fertilizer”!
23. Can I Repurpose a Vintage Kimono?
Remaking or, as it's better known in Japan, re-forming kimono robes takes the fabric and gives it a new purpose. This is usually done with unsalvageably damaged kimono, the preserved parts turned into jackets, blouses, skirts, or even wallets, handbags, pillow cases, or tablecloths. You will see many of the most popular kimono patterns on these type of handcrafted items. No fabric scrap wasted, smaller pieces can be used for dolls, hair ornaments, jewellery, and so on.
As an added bonus to the stylish outcome, repurposing kimono fabric is eco-friendly. Popular both in Japan and abroad, kimono repurposing is a great way to keep the memory of an heirloom item, or own a piece of kimono if wearing one is not your style.
24. What Kind of Patterns Do Vintage Kimono Have?
As we’ve briefly touch upon before, kimono bear all kinds of patters and color variations, which are dictated as much by seasonal changes as by personal preference. We’ll briefly run through some of the patterns here, but for more details, check out our article on Traditional Kimono Patterns.
Popular spring styles include plum blossoms, peacocks, peonies and kusadana.
Though sakura (cherry blossoms) are now Japan’s floral spring icon, the plum blossom was the flower of the age in the pre-Nara period (before AD710), even being used interchangeably with the word hana, meaning “flower.”
Peacock designs are prevalent on furisode and proliferated throughout Japan following the Edo period. Kusadana were bags filled with herbs and medicants that also represent good luck. While the peony has long been one of Japan’s favorite spring flowers, following its introduction from China during the Nara period, and thus a popular feature on kimono patterns today.
Lilies, bamboo and insects typify summer kimono.
Lilies aren’t quite as venerated in Japan as they are elsewhere, but they made their way into kimono patterning during the Taisho and Showa eras (1912-88), and are often rendered against colorful backdrops.
Bamboo patterns are quite utilitarian, appearing in designs throughout the seasons. That said, summer is when they appear most frequently. Insects, such as dragonflies, often appear on daily-use kimonos in summer; the time of year at which Japan’s forests and rural areas come alive with miniscule wildlife.
Chrysanthemum, maple leaves, and even the tale of Genji light up kimono fabrics in fall.
The Chrysanthemum is the symbol of Japan’s imperial household – the emperor’s throne bears its name – and is commonly seen on fall kimono. This is particularly true during the annual Kiku-no-Sekku (Chrysanthemum Festival), held on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar.
Maple leaves are a thematic pattern design that immediately bring autumnal imagery to mind. Often burnished and wreathed in fiery colors, the maple is to fall what the cherry blossom is to spring.
Written in the 11th century, The Tale of Genji is widely regarded as the world's first novel. It’s also the most influential piece of literature in kimono design, with scenes from the Evening Faces chapter sprawled across fall kimono.
The fabled phoenix appears on winter kimono, as does the crane, the camelia and the old game box trinket.
Representing fire, rebirth and immortality, the phoenix is a strong symbolic motif. On thick winter kimono, you’ll often see it rendered against dark background colors. The crane, a bird that is both very real and prevalent in Japan, is a natural fit for kimono due to its elegance and peace-bringing symbolism.
Camelia flowers, though usually associated with warmer periods of the year, are displayed on winter kimono as anticipation of the forthcoming spring. While traditional Japanese game box toys are playful embellishments often appearing on children’s winter kimono.
Laissez un commentaire