In Japan, kimono have a very special place in people's hearts. Demoted from the clothing (its name literally means something you wear hanging by your shoulders) to Extra Special Occasion Wear, kimono nowadays whisper sweet nostalgia.
During pre-WWII times, pretty much everyone wore kimono: women nearly always, and men mainly when not engaged in their primary profession. For a woman to be seen in anything other than kimono (especially during The Roaring '20s, in combination with a '20s Bob Haircut and without the company of a man), it was considered something of a rebellion against social norms. If you were rich, you still wore the same garment as your servants did, but more: it was more colourful, more patterned, more embroidered, made of more precious materials, and you wore it in layers. If you had enough money, you had super-thin summer kimono as well as fully lined winter ones, and everything in between, and there was no time of year or occasion you could not mirror with your patterns and themes. When WWII came along, women were suddenly expected to work in factories and whatnot, and men came to wear suits or military-style uniforms almost exclusively. Kimono were kept, but for day-to-day use, they became a cumbersome thing, and a luxury. During World War II, many kimono (along with the textile manufacturers that produced the fabric) were destroyed in bombing raids, and more still were sold afterwards in order to buy more important things, like food. In post-war life, there were some people, mainly middle-aged or elderly, who chose to continue wearing kimono daily, but as a general rule anyone wearing kimono day-to-day in post-WWII times has been an exception.
Nowadays, wearing kimono on a daily basis is limited to a few older ladies and geisha. Kimono are also expected or even required wear in such disciplined pastime circles as tea ceremony or ikebana (flower-arranging). Women of any age may wear a kimono to any kind of a party, get-together or celebration, with the highest-rank kimono reserved for the weddings of close family. Little children will wear their first kimono in Shichi Go San (a children's celebration), and young girls look forward to their Seijin Shiki (coming-of-age celebration) furisode just as eagerly as a Western girl would fuss about her prom dress. Outside these contexts, women's kimono are rarely seen, and male wearers are even fewer.
However, for the last 10 years or so, a "Taisho retro" aesthetic of kimono and the casual wearing of kimono have been gaining momentum thanks to the popularity of the Kimono Hime mooks and the rise of brands like Mamechiyo, Takahashi Hiroko, Modern Antenna, Tamao Shigemune or RumiRock, who sell modern, casual designer kimono.
It should also be noted that when one wears kimono in a formal context, the expectations about your behaviour change: you are supposed to be even more proper than if you were wearing anything else. This might be partly due to the fact that kimono are mostly restricted to formal events these days, and partly due to the garment's status having been turned from "it's what everyone and their mum wears" to "walking memory of the Good Old Days". (Not to mention that you will either fall flat on your face or get your clothes in your food if you are not careful about your movements.) Thus they are a visual cue for the Yamato Nadeshiko.
Kimono is a language of symbolism. Most Japanese would know some of the basic rules, but a great majority of the messages and nuances are only readable to a devoted aficionado. Due to this, both wearers in in real life and characters by artists who didn't know better are easy prey for Unfortunate Implications and Accidental Innuendo. A range of details in the dress, including sleeve length and shape, collar position, accessories, and any possible feature of the obi (the sash) cover messages concerning the wearer's age, sex, marriage status, wealth, the occasion, relations, the season and personality. Even if they're a corpse waiting to be cremated and buried (collars overlapping the wrong way). Many creators use this for subtext or even puns. Flower Motifs are common.
Despite the long history of kimono, there actually is no such thing as "the traditional" kimono. The tubular shape favoured today was created in the mid-20th century by Norio Yamanaka, founder of kimono-wearing schools throughout Japan. The previous styles changed every 100 to 200 years or so. The style geisha wear is only about two hundred years old.
In modern Japan, the skill of dressing up in a kimono and carrying it is largely limited to dancers, geisha and such, and aficionados. A run-of-the-mill will have to rely on a relative or a paid professional to dress her up for an event. A woman being able to dress herself up is impressive. High-end formal kimono are incredibly expensive, and can exceed the price of a small car quite easily. Normal quality kimono are not cheap either, with an every-day, synthetic one costing about 100-250 USD in minimum. With all the accessories one needs on top of this, it adds up quickly.
Yukata, worn by nearly everyone come summer and festivals, is much like an easier, lighter, and less expensive version of the kimono, but considered completely separate from the kimono in Japan. However, the feelings they awaken are rather similar. By nature, a yukata is relaxed home-wear (comparable to shorts and a tank top), and situations where one can wear it are very limited. If kimono is "wear" then yukata is "underwear" in terms of social acceptance in public. Rules for wearing yukata are much more relaxed than for kimono.
- Kimono Fanservice: The kimono is used for fanservice.
- Kimono Is Traditional: The kimono is used to underline or communicate that a character is traditional-minded.
- Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo adventures, set in a fantasy feudal Japan (with rabbits!), often feature meticulously detailed kimonos among other styles of traditional dress. Sakai is familiar enough with the symbolic language of the kimono that a savvy reader can sometimes even spot foreshadowing based solely on a character's clothing.
- James Bond books
- The Rosemary Wells's character Yoko has a mother who is always seen wearing a kimono. Yoko herself is seen wearing this in the Yoko book "Yoko's Show And Tell"
- In Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small, naturally, as the protagonist, Lady Keladry of Mindelan, spent her childhood in the Yamani Islands (a fantasy analogue of Japan). Crown Prince Roald later becomes engaged to Princess Shinkokami, a childhood friend of Keladry's, and one of the princess' ladies-in-waiting turns out to be Lady Yukimi noh Daiomoru, Kel's closest friend from the Islands. Naturally, both Yukimi and Shinkokami wear kimono regularly, as does Lady Haname, another of Shinkokami's attendants.
- Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time has a level set in eleventh-century Japan. The main puzzle involves dressing your Exposition Fairy in seasonally-correct kimonos in order to gain access to a series of seasonally-themed rooms. Of course, the rules are simplified so that there is only one correct combination of jacket and lining for each season.