Yukatas, at first glance, look quite like kimonos, both being robes with drooping sleeves that are bound with a silky belt. Intended as bathrobes -- even their name means "bathing clothes" -- they were once made of simple dyed cotton and relegated to the bathhouse. However, the more casual and lightweight yukata has taken over as the go-to Japanese outfit in place of the casual kimono in the past few decades, and now they are common at festivals, inns, and out on the streets during Japan's humid summers. Modern colorful yukatas resemble a light kimono far more than their simple blue ancestors did, and since the 1990's, they have become stylish and fashionable.
The word "yukata" comes from the original "yukatabira," a robe worn to dry the body in place of a towel. The first yukatas were made from hemp, but cotton became so popular in the Edo period that it took over as the primary fabric for yukatas. In addition to being widely cultivated, cotton was very easy to dye with indigo, which resisted fading and bleeding when washed. The primary method of dyeing the fabric was coating the cotton with a resist and then applying the dye, so that designs showed up in white on a blue background. Bathers enjoyed the cool colors and lightweight cotton in the sweltering Japanese summers, and with public bathhouses rapidly gaining popularity during this time, the new blue yukatas spread quickly across the nation. Unlike the more formal and artistic kimonos, yukatas often had humorous or lighthearted designs suitable for someone relaxing after a soak in the tub. Because bathhouses were not only places for bathing but often for eating, drinking, and relaxing as well, yukatas became a staple of loungewear.
Yukatas emerged as casual wear about town during the Meiji restoration, from 1868-1912. The convenience of Western fabrics and clothing drove a desire in citizens to have simpler, easier to wear dress, and yukatas became an easy choice for daily life in hot weather. Though eventually Western clothes won the cultural tug of war for day to day wear, yukatas remained as the go-to for summer festivals. Beginning in the late 20th century, many people mixed the yukata with Western accessories and shoes to form a new combined style, a trend which only grew once the West gained a fascination with Japanese fashion. Today, they are often paired with artistic obis or geta, which are traditional Japanese wooden sandals. Fashion designers change and fold the panels of the yukata to create artistic and flattering shapes, treating it like textile origami, and now yukatas are worn around the world.