Despite being a symbol of Japanese culture to the rest of the world, the kimono has its roots in historical Chinese fashion. Before Chinese influence, Japan's common garments were in two parts, a set of shirt layers and a pair of loose trousers called the "hakama." During the Nara period (700s AD), Chinese missionaries journeyed to Japan to spread their ideals of Buddhism and Confucianism, and with them came a multi-layered, wrapped, and belted style of clothing. As Chinese style took root in the still-developing Japanese civilization, the first predecessor to the kimono arose: the "kosode," a robe-like undergarment with short hanging sleeves that was paired with the hakama. Over time, it became more acceptable to wear the kosode as outerwear.
The fashion shift from kosode and hakama to full length kimonos happened over the following century, when the kosode lengthened into a robe that could cover the legs when belted and thus eliminated many wearers' need for hakama. From then onward, the kimono, easy to wear and stylish, became a staple of everyday Japanese clothes. The Yoro clothing code, modeled after the Chinese court, further cemented the kimono's presence by placing restrictions on dress and mandating a certain appearance on part of the Japanese people, especially the nobility.
The Growth of the Kimono
During the Heian era (794-1185), Japan closed itself away from China and began to evolve as an isolated society. Direct influence by Chinese visitors waned, and Japan's fragmented clans warred for years among each other. The kimono, now the base for most Japanese clothing, grew in several directions reflecting the political climate of the time: the common people were guided by an intensifying dress code, noblewomen began commissioning more and more elaborate kimonos to suit their tastes and wealth, and men adopted uniform-like kimonos that showed their rank, occupation, and clan loyalty. The straight-line pattern for cutting kimonos out of whole cloth made production of the robes far faster than in the past. Techniques for decorating kimono cloth expanded to include new dye practices as well as elaborate embroidery. The artistic kimonos we think of today from history classes came into being during the Edo period, and the wealthy began accruing kimonos so beautiful that they were handed down for generations as antique artworks. Some ladies of the court wore up to twelve kimono layers in a costume called "junihitoe," one of the most elaborate garments in the world.
Western Influence and the Decline of Silk
In 1853, the US Navy sailed to Tokyo, and Japanese fashion was never the same. While the traditional kimono remained a stylistic staple for another century, machine-woven cloth from the West began to dominate Japanese silk, and earthquakes at the turn of the 20th century destroyed entire collections of antique robes. Silk taxes during the two World Wars cemented the end of the silk kimono, paving the way for its replacement in the form of cotton and then polyester garments. Though it may seem like much was lost with the end of silk kimonos, the new fabrics made formal and artistic kimonos more accessible to the average Japanese citizen as well as to foreign buyers. Cotton was simply cheaper and easier to produce than silk, and the results, as they say, are history.