I have been living in Japan for the past 4 years, and am originally from Northern Italy, so I thought it would be interesting to compare menswear in Italy and in Japan.
First, I would like to point out that here I will be focusing on Neapolitan style tailoring. This style is not the only one you can find in Italy, but it is without doubt the most unique and different from other tailoring styles. For what concerns the kimono, I decided to mostly take into account the more formal reisō (formal black attire worn for example by grooms) and junreisō (semiformal attire; what you would wear if you were invited to a wedding). This choice is mostly due to the fact that these variations of the kimono are the closest in formality to a western business suit, and they provide a comprehensive take on the different items that go into kimono wearing.
Despite some 400 years of tailoring history, the modern Neapolitan suit is a fairly recent invention, its characteristic style having been invented in the 1920s. In particular, Vincenzo Attolini is credited with introducing those features that morphed into a suit with soft construction, completely different from the more rigid styles fashionable elsewhere. These features were, for example, an extended dart on the jacket front, running to the bottom seam of the jacket skirt; a generous lapel, high of gorge and notch; minimal or no lining at all, a barchetta (boat-shaped) chest pocket; tre buttoni su due (three-roll-two) button stance; and patch pockets curved at the bottom.
The true mark of a Neapolitan suit, however, is at the shoulders, where the heavy padding and canvassing of British style is removed to create a much softer shoulder, almost like a shirt. In fact, this is called “spalla camicia” (shirt-like shoulder). The armscye is kept small and high, so as not to impede movement, and a significantly larger sleevehead is carefully handstitched (the process is impossible to execute using a machine). This results in shirring known as ‘grinze’ — a puckered rippling.
As with all tailored garments, the key aspect is fit, with the best suits being “bespoke,” meaning that the pattern is made for the specific customer and the resulting garment is adjusted by the tailor over multiple fittings.
Generally speaking, navy blue it the quintessential color for a suit in Naples. However, there is no limitation in hue (expect black, which in Italy is worn only by undertakers, outside of evening wear). The cloth is typically worsted wool and fresco di lana (high-twist worsted yarn and porous plain weave, very breathable and ideal for summer) is also common.
If the suit is the triumph of tailoring with regard to fit, the traditional Japanese costume, nowadays referred to as kimono, is the opposite, being a completely unfitted garment. The kimono, originally called kosode, “small sleeves”, originated in the Heian period (794-1192 A.D.), and has changed little since.
In the Heian period the cutting and sewing method typical of wafuku (Japanese-style clothing), which involves cutting and sewing straight, rectangular pieces of fabric together, was first invented. Thanks to this approach, the maker did not have to concern themselves with the fit or the body of the client. This approach had many advantages: since all clothes were based on a rectangle, waste in cutting the cloth was minimal, the garments were easy to fold and store, and they could easily be layered in winter. It also was a unisex garment, and different colors were generally associated with different social classes and not with different sexes (though this is not true anymore today), a practice which must have been quite a gaudy spectacle in the Kamakura period (1192-1338 A.D.), when both sexes wore bright colors. Especially in the Edo period (2603-1868) samurai and warriors wore a kamishimo (sort of vest with wide starched shoulders) and hakama (undivided pleated pants).
The kosode was and is still, in its modern form, made out of a single bolt of fabric, using the same pattern. The length is standard, and it is adjusted by folding it under the obi, the sash that keeps the kimono closed.
The basic form of the kimono is a T-shaped robe, with a collar and sleeves to the waist. It is wrapped around the body with the left on top of the right, and, as mentioned has not changed much since the Heian period.
The differences between male and female kimono have, however, developed over the years. The main difference is in the sleeves and the color or pattern of the kimono. Men’s kimono have the sleeves completely attached to the body, or present a very small slit. The colors are more subdued, ranging from dark browns to navy to grey. The more formal reisō kimono, for both men and women, is black and features the crest of the family (called Mon). In such formal occasions it also normal to wear a haori, closed by a decorative string, called a himo, and hakama. Junreisō kimono can vary in color, as long as the hue is muted and dark. To make the outfit more casual, the hakama and then the haori can be removed.
The most common fabric for kimono is silk or silk blends, either plain, brocade, or with a micro pattern.
Now that we have all the basics covered, I would like to compare and contrast these two iconic garments. The first difference is, quite obviously, that the kimono is closer to a dress than to what we would associate with menswear in to West. However, this style is perfect for the general lifestyle of the Japanese, at least historically, where people lounged on the floor or sat on their knees in seiza. The second great difference is that the suit attempts to enhance the shape and curves of the body, whereas the kimono focuses on creating a uniform rectangular shape. It is not form fitting, and the length is standard (thought now it is common to find sizes, to accommodate a vertically growing population).
Personally, I think this differences highlight a very important principle of dress: what is masculine or feminine is a function of culture, and not inherent in a gender per se. One example is that Japanese would traditionally carry a small bag (a purse) when wearing kimono, and the effect of this historical preference can also be seen today among Japanese men wearing Western-style clothing. Furthermore, shades such as pink are considered masculine or at least unisex in Japan, as they are associated with the imperial color red. On the other hand, an Italian man would consider that showing a bit of chest is cool, but that is an absolute faux-pas in Japan especially when wearing kimono.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and hopefully learned a few things you did not know before. If you want to know more about the kimono nomenclature, wafuku.co.uk offers a handy glossary. As further reading, I recommend “Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History” by Toby Slade and “Fashioning Kimono: Dress and Modernity in Early Twentieth-century Japan” by Annie Van Assche and Stefano Ember. And remember, wear what you want, and how you want it, when you want!
Note: Sewcialists is a hyper-inclusive editorial site. We recognize that “Menswear” as we use it in our theme month is a very loaded term, and we use any gendered reference in these discussions to denote the most broadly accepted “traditional” categories only, without wishing to prescribe or proscribe what any person can wear. We recognize all gender identities and the choice to dress how one pleases.
Emilia is the mind and tiny creative hands behind shopkintsugi.net. She has been quite a tomboy all her life, so it was only natural for her to take part in this theme month, Menswear for Everyone. When she is not sewing, she is a scientist working in Neuroscience.