Originally, "kimono" was the Japanese word for clothing. But in more recent years, the word has been used to refer specifically to traditional Japanese clothing. Kimonos as we know them today came into being during the Heian period (794-1192).
From the Nara period (710-794) until then, Japanese people typically wore either ensembles consisting of separate upper and lower garments (trousers or skirts), or one-piece garments. But in the Heian period, a new kimono-making technique was developed. Known as the straight-line-cut method, it involved cutting pieces of fabric in straight lines and sewing them together. With this technique, kimono makers did not have to concern themselves with the shape of the wearer's body.
Straight-line-cut kimonos offered many advantages. They were easy to fold. They were also suitable for all weather: They could be worn in layers to provide warmth in winter, and kimonos made of breathable fabric such as linen were comfortable in summer. These advantages helped kimonos become part of Japanese people's everyday lives.
Over time, as the practice of wearing kimonos in layers came into fashion, Japanese people began paying attention to how kimonos of different colors looked together, and they developed a heightened sensitivity to color. Typically, color combinations represented either seasonal colors or the political class to which one belonged. It was during this time that what we now think of as traditional Japanese color combinations developed.
During the Kamakura period (1192-1338) and the Muromachi period (1338-1573), both men and women wore brightly colored kimonos. Warriors dressed in colors representing their leaders, and sometimes the battlefield was as gaudy as a fashion show.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa warrior clan ruled over Japan. The country was divided up into feudal domains ruled by lords. The samurais of each domain wore identified by the colors and patterns of their "uniforms." They consisted of three parts: a kimono; a sleeveless garment known as a kamishimo worn over the kimono; and a hakama, a trouser-like split skirt. The kamishimo was made of linen, starched to make the shoulders stand out. With so many samurai clothes to make, kimono makers got better and better at their craft, and kimono making grew into an art form. Kimonos became more valuable, and parents handed them down to their children as family heirlooms.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan was heavily influenced by foreign cultures. The government encouraged people to adopt Western clothing and habits. Government officials and military personnel were required by law to wear Western clothing for official functions. (That law is no longer in effect today.) For ordinary citizens, wearing kimonos on formal occasions were required to use garments decorated with the wearer's family crest, which identified his or her family background.
Nowadays, Japanese people rarely wear kimonos in everyday life, reserving them for such occasions as weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies, or other special events, such as summer festivals.
Illustrations and photos (from top): Typical Japanese looks in the Nara, Heian, and Kamakura periods (© Chitose Yamada); kamishimo are worn to this day by noh actors, and many women wear kimonos when they go to see a kabuki show (courtesy of Hisako Nakatani).