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What got me started
When Matsuzawa-sensei, one of my former colleagues at my old visit school, very generously gave me a kimono for my birthday, I decided I'd better learn how to put it on properly, since it's unlikely that I'll be able to find someone to dress me after I get back to the UK. Of course, the opportunities to wear the thing will no doubt be few and far between too, but at least I'll know how to put it on if I do have a chance to wear it!
I was introduced to Mori-sensei, a professional kimono teacher in Hikone, by my American friend Pamela, and Mori-sensei was happy to give me free "kitsuke" (dressing in kimono) lessons in exchange for informal English conversation lessons.
For most people in Japan, the kimono is far from being everyday wear. Until the Second World War it was the usual style of dress for women, but due to wartime shortages it became a rare sight, and after 1945 most people abandoned the kimono altogether in favour of Western-style clothing. The majority of the population nowadays don't even know how to put one on properly and have to pay a professional to dress them for special occasions.
The process is pretty complicated - see below for a description - and you need lots of bits and pieces besides the kimono and obi themselves (though they are by far the most expensive parts of the outfit). Pamela was kind enough to let me borrow her things for the first few weeks, then at the end of January I attended a kimono fair in Osaka with Mori-sensei and a few of her other students, and bought all the things I needed: a nagajuban or under-kimono (separate half-sleeves, attached by velcro, could be bought to go with this but aren't really a necessity); an eri (collar) and a stiffener to go in it; a hip pad (the ideal figure for a kimono has no curves - I declined to pay an additional ¥4000 or so for the flattening bra that most people use, on the grounds that I'm not exactly huge in that department to begin with so I reckoned I could get away with just a crop top); a pair of tabi (split-toed socks); two velcro belts (koshi-himo and date-jime); a clip to hold the kimono and collar together during the dressing process; a strap with two clips joined by elastic; an obi-ita (plastic stiffener to prevent the obi and kimono from creasing across the stomach); a makura (cushion to support the roll at the back of the obi); an obiage (silk sash to cover the makura and (optionally) contrast with the obi); and an obijime (decorative rope to tie around the centre of the obi). That lot came to almost ¥30,000, which I believe is about £160 at current rates (early 2001). Oh well, at least it won't be obsolete in a matter of months like computer equipment can be. The only other things I needed after that were a karihimo (sash used to secure the obi temporarily while it is being tied; Mori-sensei gave me one of these so I didn't need to buy it) and a pair of zori (lacquered flip-flop type sandals). I got the zori second-hand from a flea market - and they even came with a matching bag - for only ¥300.
Types of kimono
It's not just a matter of "a kimono is a kimono is a kimono". There are numerous different types of kimono for different occasions. My knowledge of the various types is limited, but here's an outline of most of the basics.
Traditionally, kimono are made from silk, often a type of crêpe called chirimen (I believe that the city of Nagahama in Shiga is Japan's biggest chirimen producer). Wool, or cotton for yukata, can also be used. However, these days a lot of kimono are made from polyester, which makes them cheaper and a lot easier to care for, and most people can't distinguish the polyester from silk.
Nowadays, probably the most commonly-seen type of kimono, worn for less formal occasions, is the komon kimono. This is what mine is. "Komon" is not a Japanized version of the word "common"; it refers to the fabric design and means "small pattern". This style can be worn by both married and single women. It usually comes in fairly muted colours and has an all-over pattern, and the sleeves don't hang very low (around hip level, still low enough to get in the way!). It is most commonly worn with the obi (sash) tied in a taiko musubi, or drum knot, which is named after the Taiko-bashi (bridge) at Tenjin Shrine in Kameido, Tokyo. A description of how to tie this knot is provided below.
Furisode (falling sleeve) kimono - with sleeves that hang down to around knee level - are formal kimono worn only by young, unmarried women, and tend to come in far more flamboyant colours. They are usually worn with big hair (real or fake) with lots of ornaments, and a large, ostentatious obi knot - but no jewellery, except possibly a pair of stud earrings. (This no-jewellery rule applies to all kimono, and long hair is never worn loose with a kimono of any kind.) Furisode are the kind of kimono worn by participants in the Nagahama Kimono Matsuri, of which you can see a few photos here (1999) and here (2000). The kimono that I'm wearing on my main Japan page is also a furisode.
Tomesode are the most formal kind of kimono for married women, worn to (for example) the wedding of a close relative. They bear designs only on the skirt, and are usually embroidered or dyed with the family crest in five places (upper back, front shoulders and tops of sleeves). They can be coloured but are often black.
Houmongi, which means "visiting dress", are smart kimono for semi-formal occasions. They come in versions for both married and single women; those for single women have longer sleeves, though they do not hang as low as on a more formal furisode. They have designs on the back of the right sleeve and the front of the left, as well as on the skirt, and in some cases may also have a single family crest on the back.
Iromuji are all one colour, with no design except possibly a single family crest on the back. They may also have a textured pattern woven into the fabric.
Tsukesage are usually made of silk, but can be cotton. They are suitable attire for parties, tea ceremony, flower arranging and friends' weddings, and have patterns running up from the hem to the shoulders, and also on the sleeves.
Tsumugi kimono take their name from the rough hand-woven silk from which they are made. They are usually striped, woven from different-coloured threads. Because of the craftsmanship involved in the manufacture of tsumugi, they can be extremely expensive, but because of the humble origins of the fabric (farmers wove it out of silk from the lower-quality cocoons, to dress their own families) tsumugi kimono are classed as everyday wear.
Listed in descending order of formality, we have:
1. Tomesode / furisode
3. Iromuji (but this one is above the houmongi if it bears a family crest)
5. Komon / tsumugi
The bridal kimono is called a kakeshita kimono and is worn with a long uchikake robe. A white bridal outfit is called shiromuke and is pure white except for a crimson uchikake lining and pine or chrysanthemum designs. A Japanese bride often wears four different outfits for her wedding: a white kimono, a coloured kimono, and both white and coloured Western-style wedding dresses.
Mofuku, or mourning kimono, are plain black except for the five family crests as on the tomesode.
There are also yukata, which are unlined cotton kimono worn during the summer, and often seen at festivals. "Proper" kimono are rarely worn in summertime, except for formal occasions such as weddings. The cotton bathrobe-type garments provided by hotels for their guests' use are also called yukata. Bathrobe yukata normally come with matching obi, but these should not be worn outdoors (except possibly for taking an evening walk in a spa resort). However, it's OK to wear them outdoors with contrasting obi. Girls' yukata come in bright colours and are generally worn with half-width obi. Yukata are worn barefoot with wooden geta rather than with tabi and zori. You can see yukata pictures here (1999 yukata festival in Hikone) and here (bathrobe type).
The various types of obi (sash) include maru obi (the most formal, a brocade obi worn with, for example, a bridal kimono); the Nagoya obi; the longer and slightly narrower fukuro obi; the fukuro Nagoya obi (a combination of the previous two types); and the odori obi (for dance performances or with ceremonial/semi-formal kimono), among others. Of these, the Nagoya and fukuro types are the most commonly seen. The Nagoya obi can only be tied in the taiko knot mentioned above; a fukuro obi is more versatile and can be tied in a wide variety of styles.
There are several types of outer garment which can be worn over a kimono, including a lightweight one called a haori (an important part of men's attire but optional for women); a heavier michiyuki, which is a three-quarter length coat usually with a square neckline; an overcoat called a dochu-gi; a shawl; and a full-length kimono raincoat.
Putting on a kimono
This description explains what you need and how to put on a kimono. There may not be enough pictures for you to follow it properly, but at least it should give you some idea of what's involved. Anyway, how many people out there are really going to want to know the nitty-gritty of it all?
One important rule to remember - even if it's only for wearing a yukata in a hotel - is that it's always left-over-right, the only exception being when you're dead. Apparently this rule was brought over from China several centuries ago, long before the kimono acquired its present form; the "easy" way (i.e. right-over-left) was considered unfashionable by the Chinese, and the Japanese also adopted the same attitude.
What you need:
Foundation garments: under-kimono (nagajuban, with pads and collar stiffener); eri (collar); hip pad. Tabi (split-toed socks) are also shown here.
Obi kit: obi; karihimo ("disposable" rope, not shown); obi-ita (flat plastic stiffener); makura (cushion); obiage (sash, turquoise in this picture); obijime (ornamental rope).
1. Put on flattening bra and tabi.
2. Put on under-kimono:
a. Thread plastic stiffener through collar and insert shoulder & chest pads (to fill out the hollows around the collarbone and below the bustline) before putting on.
b. Put L flap over R so that central pad is in centre of chest, pass ribbon through hole at L waist, cross ribbons behind back and tie in a bow at front side.
3. Eri (collar):
a. Put stiffener in collar. Throw collar over head, so that strip hanging down back has loops on the outside.
b. Cross L part of collar over R (see picture 1), pull down low at back, and thread both ribbons through top rear loop (2).
c. Bring ribbons round to front and thread through lowest loops (3).
d. Pull ribbons tight (down and back at sides); twist together at front and tie in a bow at rear.
e. Straighten sides and tie small ribbon in center of chest (should form a triangle) (4).
4. Hip pad (padding for small of back). This can be padded out further with a hand towel folded into three lengthways.
OK, that's the underwear. Now the kimono itself...
a. Fold collar in half inwards and put on kimono.
b. Line up seams at front and apply clip to back of collar.
c. Hold centre front and back, and raise hem to just above floor level. Pull forward to keep rear section in place.
d. Check height of L side at front, by bringing it across body to R. Open out again and do the same with R side, raising it about 3-4cm. Hold in place with L elbow and bring L side across body. Make a tuck at R waist before covering with flap from L side. Raise hem of flap slightly (1cm).
e. Fix with narrow velcro belt: hold non-velcro end at R waist with RH and bring belt across front of body with LH, stopping to make a tuck at L waist. Continue right round and fasten.
f. "Hack" top section of kimono down over belt, with one or both hands inside (enter through holes at sides). Do for both front and rear. You should end up with no bunching, and with front seam lining up above & below waist.
g. Attach elastic strap to kimono collar between bust and waist. Start with inside flap: feed clip in from side with LH, fold about 3cm of collar edge underneath and clip (picture 1, below). Pass strap round back (2) and clip other end in the same way (i.e. 3cm turned under) (3).
6. Wide velcro belt: hold behind back, velcro end to L, and fasten at front, with top edge just below bust.
Kimono - before donning obi.
This description explains how to tie the taiko musubi (drum knot), using a Nagoya obi, since that's the most common one and probably the simplest to tie. The half of the length which wraps around the waist is folded in half lengthways, and sometimes (as mine is) sewn into this shape. Sometimes, however, you have to make your own crease.
End AB is the folded end of the obi, with A the crease at the end of the obi and B the point where that end's two corners come together. C is the point where the obi opens out to its full width, and the wide end is E1DE2. To begin with, the obi is creased along its entire length, AD, but later the DE end is opened out.
1. Hold obi behind back with crease (ACD) at bottom, wide part to right. Bring end AB forwards over L shoulder - crease on outside, lowest corner (A) no lower than bottom of velcro belt.
2. Wrap loose end around body, just under bust, twice, tucking plastic stiffener underneath at front on first time round. On second time round, pause to tidy up R waist as well as possible.
3. Hold loose end (CD) by crease at bottom, well away from body and with arm behind fabric. Throw AB end back over L shoulder, lift slightly to side and hold creased edge against L waist (bottom of waistband). Without letting go of the other end, bring it round back and forward over R shoulder.
4. Hold karihimo ("disposable" sash) across back at top of obi (don't tuck it under anything), and tie in a bow at front. (Will remove later.) Start with L end longer than R, so that you can make L loop of bow large, and slot end AB through it (with crease at bottom).
5. Throw end DE back over shoulder and open out at C. Put makura (cushion) just below your bottom, with curved sides facing outwards and upwards, and hold obi and makura together with RH. Flatten top part (C) with LH and raise makura / obi loop to against middle of waistband. Hold straps at sides and "wiggle" makura upwards to just above top of waistband. Tie straps of makura in a half-bow at side and tuck into top of obi, out of sight.
6. Put centre of obiage (covering sash) over makura inside obi loop, bring ends to front, twist and tuck into top of obi (will tie properly later). Avoid pulling too tight, or you may stretch it out of shape.
7. Put arms straight down at sides and lift end DE up to make a loop - end of obi should hang about 8cm below bottom of loop (measure with forefingers). Hold in place with RH inside loop. Pass end AB into loop with LH (with crease at bottom), then hold loop from outside with LH and use RH to pull end AB through to right, so that it protrudes slightly (1-2cm) on RHS. Put RH back inside loop and use LH to tidy up L side of loop where AB went in. (If it protrudes too far on LHS, tuck the excess underneath.)
8. Put centre of obijime (ornamental rope) inside loop using LH, and hold in place with RH. Bring one end round to L waist with LH and hold. Bring other end round to front with RH. Hold both ends at front with one hand; use the other hand to unfasten the karihimo and let the ends drop. Fasten ornamental rope, tightly, in a reef knot (L over R first) at centre of obi. Tuck in ends from top, leaving tassels pointing upwards. Remove karihimo.
9. Tie obiage neatly in a reef knot (L over R first, and not too tight). Tuck ends under main part of obiage, then tuck obiage into top of obi so that the knot itself is hidden. Tidy up waist of kimono (round bottom of obi).
10. Remove collar clip.
The completed outfit.
Differences between styles of dress for single and married women (though these are not always adhered to):
Single women generally wear the "taiko" drum crest higher, supported by a bigger pad, tie the obi-jime right in the centre of the obi and display the obiage more prominently.
Married women wear the taiko slightly lower, using a smaller pad, tie the obi-jime just below the centre of the obi and tuck the obiage in so that less of it is visible.
For further information...
Most of the information on this page came from my kimono teacher, Mori-sensei, but I also gleaned some of my knowledge from The Book of Kimono: The Complete Guide to Style and Wear by Norio Yamanaka, published 1982 by Kodansha, ISBN 4-7700-1285-3. (I found out afterwards that Yamanaka-sensei is the head of the kimono school for which Mori-sensei teaches.)
For links to other kimono-related websites, see my Japan links page.
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