The yukata of the early 2000s has remained, since the Edo period (1603–1868), an unlined cotton garment, with the traditional T-shape and overlapping lapels of the kimono. Purists may consider it more of a bathrobe than a true kimono. An ancestor of the modern yukata is the katabira, an unlined bast fiber (usually hemp or ramie) kosode worn in the summer by the upper classes. A yukatabira (yu is derived from the word for bathing) was
put on after a bath as a way of drying the body; bath towels were not used in Japan at this time.
By the late Edo period cotton was abundant in Japan, having first been successfully cultivated as a commercial crop in the seventeenth century. As cotton, while still a bast fiber, is a softer and more absorbent fiber than hemp or ramie, it became the fiber of preference for the yukatabira. By the time cotton was readily available, the garment became known by its current abbreviated name, yukata.
Cotton is more easily dyed than other bast fibers, and indigo is one of the most colorfast of all natural dyes. It has the additional benefit of not requiring a separate mordanting process. Blue, therefore, became the dominant color for cotton yukata, and remains so, in spite of the prevalence of the more practical and versatile synthetic dyes, which can create virtually any desired color on cotton. Blue remains as popular a color for yukata as it was during the Edo period, when the color brought to mind coolness and water, welcoming thoughts during the hot Japanese summers.
The most common method employed for the dyeing of cotton fabric intended for yukata involved the use of paper stencils and a resist-paste made from rice. Stencils slightly wider than the width of a single bolt of cloth were cut with intricate designs, both figural and abstract. Rice paste was applied through the stencils, and the bolt of cloth would then be dyed by immersion in the indigo vat. The indigo dye would not penetrate the cloth in areas where the rice paste adhered; therefore, the designs would appear in white and the background in blue.
The custom of soaking in a wooden tub filled with hot water is relatively recent in Japanese history. Prior to the eighteenth century, bathing consisted of taking a steam bath. The rise of the public bathhouse (there were more than 500 in Edo [modern-day Tokyo] by the mid-nineteenth century) created a milieu for the wearing of yukata in a public place on a regular basis. Bathhouses were popular not only for reasons of hygiene and relaxation, but also because they often included rooms for eating, drinking, and having sex.
The most enthusiastic customers of the bathhouses came from the lowly merchant class, and they welcomed the opportunity to make a show of the latest in yukata designs. As with kosode, it was kabuki actors and other entertainers who often launched new fashions in yukata. Witty and amusing larger-scale motifs were most popular, and required the use of the chûgata stencil, as opposed to the tiny-scale repeats of the komon stencil. Komon patterns were typical of the dignified and conservative samurai class.
Another reason for the popularity of the yukata as a fashionable garment was the existence of sumptuary laws, which impacted most strongly on the merchant class. A yukata, being made of cotton rather than silk, and patterned by the inexpensive process of stencil dyeing, might be excessive in design, but was never very costly. Therefore, yukata escaped the scrutiny of the government authorities.
As Japan modernized in the Meiji period (1868– 1912) and beyond, yukata became the one traditional garment that a man might wear in public. Hot spring resorts were, and still are, another popular venue for the yukata, as are traditional summer festivals, such as Obon. Foreign visitors to Japan, especially those who stay at a traditional inn (ryo –kan), will find a yukata in their room, which conveniently presents the foreigner with an opportunity to wear a kimono-like garment.
Gonick, Gloria Granz. Matsuri! Japanese Festival Arts. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2002.
Kuo, Susanna Campbell. Carved Paper: The Art of the Japanese Stencil. Santa Barbara, New York, and Tokyo: Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Weatherhill, Inc., 1998.
Stevens, Rebecca T., and Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, eds. The Kimono Inspiration: Art and Art-to-Wear in America. Washington, D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1996.