The first instances of kimono-like garments in Japan were traditional Chinese clothing introduced to Japan via Chinese envoys in the Kofun period, with immigration between the two countries and envoys to the Tang dynasty court leading to Chinese styles of dress, appearance and culture becoming extremely popular in Japanese court society. The Imperial Japanese court quickly adopted Chinese styles of dress and clothing, with evidence of the oldest samples of shibori tie-dyed fabric stored at the Shosoin Temple being Chinese in origin, due to the limitations of Japan's ability to produce the fabrics stored there at the time.

During the Heian period (794-1193 CE), Japan stopped sending envoys to the Chinese dynastic courts, leading to the prevention of Chinese-exported goods, including clothing, from entering the Imperial Palace, and thus disseminating to the upper classes, who were the main arbiters in the development of traditional Japanese culture at the time, and the only people able, or allowed, to wear such clothing. The ensuing cultural vacuum led to the facilitation of a Japanese culture independent from Chinese fashions to a much greater degree.

During the later Heian period, various clothing edicts reduced the number of layers a woman could wear, leading to the kosode "small sleeve" garment, previously considered underwear, becoming outerwear by the time of the Muromachi period (1336-1573 CE). Originally worn with hakama trousers–another piece of underwear in the Heian period–the kosode began to be held closed with a small belt known as an obi. The kosode resembled a modern kimono, though at this time, the sleeves were sewn shut at the back, and were smaller in width than the much wider body of the garment. During the Sengoku period and the Azuchi-Momoyama period, decoration of the kosode developed further, with bolder designs and flashy primary colours becoming popular.

From this point onwards, the basic shape of both men's and women's kimono remained largely unchanged. In the Edo period, the sleeves of the kosode began to grow in length, especially amongst unmarried women, and the obi became much longer and wider, with various styles of knots coming into fashion, alongside stiffer weaves of material to support them.

During the Meiji era, the opening of Japan to Western trade after the enclosure of the Edo period led to a drive towards Western dress as a sign of "modernity". After an edict by Emperor Meiji, policemen, railroad workers and teachers moved to wearing Western clothing within their job roles, with the adoption of Western clothing by men in Japan happening at a much greater pace than by women. Initiatives such as the Tokyo Women's and Children's Wear Manufacturers' Association promoted Western dress as everyday clothing.

Western clothing quickly became standard issue as army uniform for men and school uniform for boys, and between 1920 and 1930, the sailor outfit replaced the kimono and undivided hakama as school uniform for girls. However, kimono still remained popular as an item of everyday fashion; following the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, cheap and informal meisen kimono (woven from raw and waste silk threads unsuitable for formal kimono) became highly popular following the loss of many people's possessions, and by 1930, ready-to-wear meisen kimono had become highly popular for their bright, seasonally changing designs, many of which took inspiration from the Art Deco movement. Meisen kimono were usually dyed using the ikat (kasuri) technique of dyeing, where either warp or both warp and weft threads (known as heiyō-gasuri) were dyed using a stencil pattern before weaving.

Today, the vast majority of people in Japan wear Western clothing in the everyday and are most likely to wear kimono either to formal occasions such as wedding ceremonies and funerals, or to summer events, where the standard kimono is the easy-to-wear, single-layer cotton yukata. In the Western world, kimono-style women's jackets, similar to a casual cardigan, gained public attention as a popular fashion item in 2014.