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History of Kimono: The Edo Period

Early Modern Japan

During the Sengoku period, the merchants and artisans withdrew into central Japan, where there was less conflict and where they could better protect themselves by means of guilds and by securing the patronage of powerful daimyo. The stability brought about by the works of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period allowed the artisans and merchants to return to the capital and port cities, and trade flourished once again in Japan.

Throughout Classical and Medieval Japanese history, only the samurai class was able to indulge in traditional arts. Aside from arts like metalworking and swordmaking, tea ceremony, Noh theatre, and fine works of art were the purview of the daimyo and other powerful men, who had the money to patronize displaced artisans. With the stability of trade returning to Japan, the return of the merchants and artisans to the cities, and a policy known as sankin-koutai ('alternate attendance'), the arts could come to the common man.

With the policy of sankin-koutai, daimyo had to maintain two residences--one in Edo, the capital, and the other in their feudal domain--and every other year, they would have to move their entire entourage to the capital. The vast amounts of money and effort required for a daimyo to keep both residences was meant to keep them from amassing enough power and wealth to start an uprising (and the requirement that the daimyo's primary wife and first son had to maintain permanent residence in Edo helped keep them in check as well). The influx of wealth into Edo and into the towns along the way where the daimyo's processions would stop to restock meant that the merchant class now had enough wealth to patronize the arts, as well. Edo Period merchants drove the demand for elegant kimono, the traditional display of power and wealth in Japan, and patronized other arts as well, both old and new.

What period of Japanese history are we looking at today?

"Hey, there are gaps and overlaps in this timeline!" Yup--Japanese history has been tumultuous, and transfers of power didn't always occur right away, or last long enough to have a significant impact on clothing, e.g. the Kemmu Restoration.

Paleolithic (pre–14,000 BCE)

Jōmon (14,000–300 BCE)

Yayoi (300 BCE–250 CE)

Kofun (250–538)

Asuka (538–710)

Nara (710–794)

Heian (794–1185)

Kamakura (1185–1333)

Muromachi (1336–1573)

Azuchi–Momoyama (1568–1603)

Edo (1603–1868)

Meiji (1868–1912)

Taishō (1912–1926)

Shōwa (1926–1989)

The kimono of an early Edo Period lady. It still greatly resembles the Muromachi Period kosode.

The kimono of an early Edo Period lady. It still greatly resembles the Muromachi Period kosode.

The Early Edo Period

The developments in silk-making and embroidery from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period quickly came to bear when merchants in the early Edo Period commissioned grand kosode with a very different appearance from the kosode worn by Muromachi Period samurai ladies. Older designs were often small, indicative of the process by which brocades were woven, and somewhat blocky and horizontal in their positioning. In Edo, a new aesthetic arose, characterized by asymmetry and large patterns created by skilled dyers and painters. At first, these fashions were only available to the samurai class women living in Edo year-round, but within 100 years, the merchant class would have a stranglehold on the fashion world.

Genroku Opulence

The influx of money into merchants' purses and their desire to own the finer things in life meant that artists could continue to develop the emerging world of Japanese fashion. Merchants would commission famous artists to design their kimono, adorning their works of art with metallic leaf, gold threads and delicate dappled tie-dye and luscious embroidery. This decadent fashion reached its height in the Genroku Era (1688-1704).

The Shogunate passed many laws regulating the dress of the lower classes in response, however, and one law was the forbidding of the dapple tie-dye technique (kanoko shibori) to members of the lower classes (namely merchants). The technique was incredibly labor-intensive, and thus kanoko shibori kosode were very expensive. Such an ostentatious show of wealth displeased the reigning samurai, who had to give up more and more of their wealth to these nouveaux riches merchants with every passing year. Of course, making something illegal rarely stops it from happening, and the design of kanoko was so popular that a way of getting around the law was quickly devised.

The yuzen resist-dyeing technique emerged at around the same time, which allowed for the kanoko pattern to be 'painted' directly onto silk with relative ease. Since only the tie-dyeing technique was forbidden, fashion rolled along with its dapple-dyed patterns without much incident. The yuzen technique offered more than simply a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card for fashion-conscious merchants, however. With the yuzen technique, an even greater range of painterly techniques could be applied to kimono. Merchants could not only wear their kanoko, but they could wear silks which bore incredibly delicate designs reminiscent of a nobleman's brocade, or a kosode painted by a famous artist--imagine someone being able to wear a Da Vinci or a Picasso! Yuzen became one of the most widespread techniques in kimono-dyeing, and is still seen today on formal kimono.

The flexibility of this technique also allowed for something which I have mentioned in the past, but is able to truly emerge in the early to mid-Edo Period: fashion. Fashion is something which, by definition, is always changing. Now, with the demands of the merchants and the new techniques available--not to mention the challenges posed by the Sumptuary Laws the government would pass every so often--styles of clothing did change, over months and years rather than over centuries.

The Rise of the Obi and the Lowering of the Sleeves

With changing fashion, other changes came to kosode. One of those changes was a structural change. Early Edo kosode had small sleeves, often sewn directly to the body of the kimono (though not always--individual kimono makers might construct the sleeves a little bit differently, so some were free in the sleeve drop). One exception to this general rule was children's kimono--a traditional belief in Japan was that children's body temperature was higher than an adults, which made them more susceptible to fevers. Children's sleeves were thus open in the back, and much larger, to improve ventilation and help keep children's temperatures regulated.

Young women's kosode began to take longer and longer sleeves, reflecting their 'child' status (after all, a girl did not become a woman until she was married, and so her sleeves were free to hang and remain open under the arm), and as young women's sleeves lengthened, that permitted married women's sleeves to grow as well, reflecting the opulence of the era. Dalby provides some measurements for comparison: before the Genroku Era, an unmarried woman's sleeve, known as furisode, was 18 inches long. (For comparison's sake, a modern married woman's kimono sleeve is 18.5 inches long.) In the 1670's, only sleeves longer than 2 feet were considered furisode, and ten years after that--by the beginning of the Genroku Era--they had to be 30 inches to be furisode. (In modern times, the shortest furisode sleeve length is 30 inches--the longest reach to 45 inches.) But this leads to a bit of a problem when you start looking at proportions. A married woman's sleeves were sewn to the body of her kimono, as a symbol of her adulthood, and married women wore increasingly long sleeves as a sign of their fashionable taste. As one can imagine, having a sleeve attached to your body more than 18 inches below your shoulder starts to inhibit one's range of motion, and starts to make belting one's robes shut increasingly difficult. Sleeves which weren't attached under the arm were much more practical, allowing women a greater range of movement, and thus, women's kosode made after 1770 all featured the more child-like free-hanging sleeves.

Men's kimono did not ultimately follow this line of development. Though fashion-conscious men in the cities wore long sleeves and followed the fashion world just as closely as women, this would ultimately be nothing more than a fad in men's clothing. The 'adult' mode of having one's sleeves sewn to the body of one's kimono became dominant in men's clothing before the end of the Edo period, with free-swinging sleeves becoming a ladies-only style in modern Japan. But more on that in a minute.

The increase in sleeve dimensions prompted a change in the obi, as well. The narrow brocade ties and fashionable cords of the Muromachi Period were out, and wider obi were in, to help balance the new proportions of the furisode (and the increasingly long-sleeved married women's kosode). Men and women alike were influenced by the desire for wider, more fashionable obi (though men's obi historically maxed out at about 6 inches wide), and no one was more fashion-forward than the stars of the day--kabuki actors. Just like today's world of actors and entertainers, kabuki stars wore designer fashion, and their stage outfits were elaborate costume depictions of the haute couture of the day. Being stage costumes, they had to be larger-than-life versions of reality, to allow people at the back of the theatre to see the designs clearly. This fashion of wider obi was picked up by townswomen, which meant that kabuki actors had to wear even wider obi, which resulted in women wearing even wider obi, et cetera, until women of the middle Edo Period were wearing foot-wide obi. The expanding dimensions of the sleeves and obi also prompted a lengthening of the kosode as well, so that the hem trailed behind the wearer like a train, harkening back to the decadent juunihitoe while also giving kimono makers more area to embellish--especially necessary now that the wide obi was covering so much of the middle of the kosode, prompting more attention to be paid to decorating the bottom half, rather than painting a large-scale continuous pattern over the shoulder and sweeping down to the hem.

With the lengthening of sleeves and the widening of the obi, a new way for unmarried women to show their family's money was to wear elaborate musubi tied in the back--knots which would be impossible for a girl to tie on her own (especially with her long sleeves). This implied that she was wealthy enough to have a servant whose duty was to dress her every morning, and moreover, her family was so wealthy they could afford to have one of their children sit around and do nothing all day--it is impossible to do housework or manual labor in a furisode with a big darari musubi in the back, after all. Married women, who wore convenient, somewhat shorter sleeves, tied their obi themselves in simpler, quicker styles and often left the musubi in the front, as a matter of convenience--though as the obi width continued to increase and having a mess of silk protruding from one's front like a permanent third-trimester pregnancy became the height of inconvenience, married women shifted their musubi to the back as well. Most obi knots were worn in the back by the 1800's, but it was not codified as the only proper location for a musubi until the 20th century (when the trope of 'only prostitutes wear their obi tied in the front' emerged).

Two fashionable kabuki actors--both are men. Women were banned from the stage, so women's roles were played by onnagata (often translated as 'female impersonators', since in the Edo Period, many did live as women) who had a stranglehold on fashion.

Two fashionable kabuki actors--both are men. Women were banned from the stage, so women's roles were played by onnagata (often translated as 'female impersonators', since in the Edo Period, many did live as women) who had a stranglehold on fashion.

But What About Men's Wear?

As you might guess from looking at kabuki costumes, men's clothing got pretty wild in the Edo Period as well. Men and women were both taking their fashion cues from stage actors, and what was fashionable for men often found a niche among stylish women, as well.

One men's-only fashion from the Edo Period was the kamishimo, the broad-shouldered vest and long hakama combination familiar from kabuki plays and images of samurai. An evolution of the practical kataginu worn by Muromachi Period samurai, the kamishimo did for Japanese men what shoulder pads did for business women in the 80s, expanding their silhouette and cutting an impressive figure for formal situations. The hakama also extended, trailing behind men in the same way that women's kosode trailed behind them. Since the war was long over, samurai did not have to dress themselves as if conflict could break out at any moment--and indeed, these nagabakama (long pants) were required dress in certain places, such as Edo Castle, where any aggressive action would be rendered impossible by the fact that one's pants were three feet behind them at all times.

The sumptuary laws of the Edo Period impacted men's fashion permanently. During the early Edo Period through the Genroku Era, men's dress could be just as flashy and extravagant as women's dress--indeed, it can be difficult to tell whether paintings and woodblock prints from the era are depicting young women or young men! But the Shogunate cracked down on opulence in the early 1700's, and soon both men and women of the merchant class were restricted to wearing shades of blue, brown, blue, black, dark blue, and blue. The fashion world quickly adapted, however, producing rough-woven blue-striped kimono with luscious red and yellow linings, never to be seen by anyone except the wearer, and plain brown or black haori jackets with linings made of intricate woven patterns or exclusive, one-of-a-kind works of art from famous artists or calligraphers. This new fashionable look is known as iki, a subtle, cool chic look which looked down on the fashion of yesteryear as too flashy, childlike and tasteless. Iki is the height of cool, and even today marks a mature, tasteful wearer. Iki in the middle Edo Period was comparable to buying a $700 pair of designer jeans, with the designer's label sewn on the inside of the waistband.

The pendulum of fashion continued to swing a bit for women (there was a period where greens, and even light blue were fashionable for even the most iki of Edo ladies, though dark shades remained the classiest colors), but men's kimono would forever remain in the trenches of drab outer shells concealing lavish inner linings. Even today, men's kimono commonly come in blue, brown or black, but the underrobes come in garish colors with bold designs dyed into them, everything from calm, intricate pastoral scenes to fantastic mythical scenes to erotic boudoir scenes--the Japanese masculine equivalent to wearing a garter belt and a lacy corset when anticipating a particularly steamy evening. Men's kimono remains locked in this mode because in 1868, the Meiji Period began, and with it came Western fashion for men. But that is a story for another day.


  • While the power was held at the top of the social order by samurai, the money was held at the very bottom, by the merchant class. This influx of money into the cities spurred a full-blown modern fashion industry
  • Demanding city-dwellers and actors in need of haute couture fashion kept encouraging new trends, such as wider obi and longer kosode sleeves
  • Sumptuary laws passed by the Shogunate provide external pressure on the fashion world, causing kimono to evolve with the times
  • Kimono structure reaches its modern form in the mid-Edo Period, and fashion from this time continues to influence current kimono wearing.

Further Reading

Paul Varley's Japanese Culture is an excellent overview of Japanese history, with specific attention paid to the influence of Buddhism on Japanese culture.

Liza Dalby's Kimono: Fashioning Culture is an excellent resources on clothing and history (specifically Heian and Meiji culture), and is very readable.Geisha is one of the leading English-language resources on the Karyukai, though it is somewhat drier than her other books (though considering it is a Ph.D thesis, it's highly informative!).

Steven D. Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry contains lots of Edo Period poetry, as Matsuo Basho, the father of the haiku form, lived and wrote in the Edo Period. His students' and contemporaries' poetry is also found, and many are quite humorous--a sign of the relaxed attitude found among cityfolk of the Edo Period.

Helen Craig McCullough's Classical Japanese Prose contains an account of Basho's travels into northern Japan. A good accompanying piece to the poetry.

Resources on kabuki, geisha, and ukiyo-e are particularly informative with regards to the Edo Period, and many dramas and novels take place in the Edo Period. Ghost stories also became particularly popular during the Edo Period, as telling ghost stories in a candle-lit room was a popular party game at the time (known as Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai). Because of the availability of mass printing in the early Edo Period, many of these stories are still available to us today!