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Kimono Basics   

        There are many different names for what Westerners call "kimono".  A formal garment worn by a man or woman, usually made of silk is called a kimono. An informal one, usually in cotton, with an indigo-blue and white design is called a yukata.  You will often see young girls in the summer with pink, white and red flowered designs on their yukata; another style is worn at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is a yukata for relaxing in and sleeping. There are short cotton ones with usually the kanji character for "festival" or "celebration" on the back - these are called hapi coat. There are also thin ones, haori, that are used as under-garments for a more formal kimono, or under a wedding kimono.  Wedding kimono are usually heavy brocades in white, red, and orange - often with large cranes depicted. Square-necked kimono in heavy silk or moray are worn as an outer jacket (michiuki).

        The fabric for a kimono is make in straight strips of varying lengths (two for the back, three for the front, one for each sleeve, and one for the collar) that are hand-sewn together with a tiny basting-like stitch.  The hand sewing is important so that it can easily be taken apart for cleaning, then re-sewn. Yes, this is how kimono garments are cleaned, even in modern times. When wearing a kimono, the left side is always crossed over the right, similar to how men's' clothing crosses to button. A kimono is only crossed right over left to indicate the death of the wearer.

        Yukata used for relaxing or sleeping, as well as a hapi coat, are not secured with the traditional obi, but a more informal strip of fabric that is tied in the front.  However, when wearing any other kind of formal kimono, it is secured with several strips of fabric at the hips and mid-chest, draping a fold of the kimono over the hip-cord, and a formal obi over the upper cord. The obi knot is always in the back. It is never tied in the front, other than if the wearer is a prostitute (much easier and faster to tie in front than in the back).

        A formal kimono will be rather long when first put it on.  The length is adjusted beginning from the bottom and working up to the hips. Use the excess fabric to form the drape of fabric over the hip cord as mentioned above.  Then adjust the upper collar and neck area and secure with the mid-chest cord.  The collar should sit back on the shoulders allowing 4-fingers width between the nape of the neck and the collar.

        Obi are tied in many ways - the height and elaborateness of the obi knot indicate everything from a woman's age, to her marital status, whether she has children, or where she comes from - not to mention what is currently fashionable. An obi, when fastened correctly, will feel a lot like a corset - very tight, and limiting of movement.  If there is a dramatic difference between the hip and waist measurement or chest and hip measurement, padding may be added to the waist to help the obi maintain its proper parallel lines.  The over-all shape of a person wearing a kimono is straight up and down. Sleeve lengths provide similar information - long sleeves that nearly touch the ground are for young unmarried women.  Shorter sleeves are for older married ladies.  A sleeve can be used as a purse or pocket to carry things.

        The first thing to be noticed when wearing a kimono is that one cannot walk too quickly, or the front will flap open. The wearer is forced  to take small shuffling steps to keep one's modesty in check.  Neither can one easily bend from the waist - great for improving posture, and bowing properly from the hips.  It is difficult to sit in a chair while wearing an obi, as it will crush and misalign the back knot.... hence, learning to sit in the Japanese style on the floor, with the legs tucked under, takes on a lot more appeal. When nature calls, using a western toilet nearly impossible, where as the desire for the Japanese style, that is flush on the floor again holds new meaning.

        The polyester wash-and-wear kimono that most foreign tourists purchase to use for bathrobes are only found in touristy shops... Japanese would never wear such an item "for real". Antique, or vintage kimono and obi are often purchased, taken apart, and re-made into a variety of craft and clothing items -  such as vests, evening jackets, purses, etc. One can also purchase new rolls of un-cut kimono or yukata fabric - but most are only about a half-meter in width (about 18 - 22 inches). If they are to be used in more Western styles, they often need to be pieced.

        Black kimono are for formal events and funerals, white kimono are for the bride at a wedding.  If the black kimono has a small floral design surrounded by a circle either in the center back near the neck, or on the front "lapel" areas, the flower design is a family crest; such a kimono would be worn by a male. Modern day has seen the advent of the "instant obi" - this is an obi that is secured with small fabric strips, and the pre-tied bow hooks on the back and tied to the body with fabric strips.... great invention for the modern woman who has little or no experience in tying her own obi, which is is an art unto its own.

A quick introduction, courtesy of Sue H.



Last updated 12/2013 © 1998 - 2014 G. Thompson/PuffinStuff, Inc.