It is very easy to recognize the traditional Japanese clothing of the yukata and kimono when you see one, they are very distinct garments. However, many people will not be aware of the difference between the two. The origin of the Japanese kimono is from the Chinese traditional Han clothing, although an apron was still worn over it. Over the ages, the kimono developed in line with Japanese aesthetic ideals and manufacturing processes to what you can see today. However, there are some very important differences between both garments that first-time visitors might not know:
Kimono are usually made of silk, silk is traditionally a more luxurious material and reflects the aesthetics of the kimono. On the other hand the yukata is often made of cotton or polyester, this makes the yukata cheaper than kimono and also cooler for wearing during the summer.
Another difference in material is the lining when wearing a kimono a lining is worn underneath the patterned silk layer. With yukata, a lining is never worn, again as they are intended for summer use a lining would make it too hot. The kimono also has more aspects than just the patterned silk and lining.
The sleeves on a kimono vary according to many different factors, from age to the solemnity of the event you are attending. The kimono with the longest sleeves are Furisode kimono. These sleeves are so long that they can touch the ground, and are exclusively worn by unmarried young women. In the past, this allowed eligible men to know which women were available for a marriage proposal. There are also different forms of sleeved kimono which have medium length sleeves. In comparison the yukata will never have sleeves longer than around 50cm, so they won’t touch the ground ever.
If you see someone in winter wearing a garment and aren’t sure if it is kimono or yukata, it is surely kimono! You will not see someone outside wearing a yukata except in summer becasue they are only one layer without lining, so they do not protect from the cold. On the other hand, kimono can come with all sorts of accessories to make them suitable for all the seasons, for example, a fur shawl for the winter.
Yukata are sometimes worn in other seasons inside a ryokan or hot spring resort as they are usually given out to guests to wear.
Kimono and yukata are often worn for different occasions. Yukata are commonly worn in the summer months to attend matsuri of fireworks or other summer festivals. Kimono are often worn for more formal occasions, such as first prayer of the new year or graduation from high school. Of course anyone can wear kimono or yukata any time they want also. You may see people in Japan going about their everyday business in these traditional dresses.
Furisode kimono, for example, are now mostly worn for Coming of Age ceremonies:
I hope this helps telling kimono and yukata apart, both are beautiful Japanese garments to appreciate and wear, and are often beautiful works of art.