Words by Freedom Chevalier
When you think of Japan, chances are your mind quickly conjures up images of multi-tiered pagodas, sushi, and kimono. While kimono are a common sight, even in modern day Japan, most foreigners are surprised to learn that a typical kimono is made up of 12 (and sometimes more) separate pieces. And knowing how to properly wear them is a testament to a level of attention to detail and tradition rarely found outside of Japan.
One of the fun things tourists can do if they want to get a ‘feel’ for Japanese life and culture is to take advantage of an opportunity to wear a traditional kimono. Worn by both women and men, the kimono has been a part of the Japanese landscape since the Heian period (794-1192). In fact, kimono were the standard everyday wardrobe choice for Japanese citizens for the majority of the country’s recorded history. Kimono are still worn, though in decreasing numbers. Traditional kimono are more frequently reserved for wearing during auspicious days such as festivals, ceremonies, or other special occasions.
The most visible parts of a kimono are a floor length robe and a wide embroidered belt called an obi. Traditionally, both of these items are made of hand-woven silk. But the more commonly machine-made robes and obi have found increased popularity among wearers in recent years.
Despite the passage of time the kimono robe and obi, at the heart of Japanese culture, still appeal to locals and visitors alike.
A Unique Challenge
Walking along the crowded streets of Harajuku, a kimono-clad woman stands out against the sea of urban fashion, effortless elegance. But wearing a kimono properly can be challenging, especially the first time. And many people engage the services of a kitsuke-shi (着付師) or professional dresser to help them don their first kimono. Many dressers make house calls, and some even provide tourists with a “kimono experience.”
For a fee, you can be dressed professionally in a kimono of your choice, after which you can take part in a Kimono photo shoot. Stroll the streets of historic neighbourhoods dressed flawlessly in a traditional kimono, and get great professional pictures to remember the moment. Available in almost every major city, many kitsuke-shi also offer classes for those who want to learn the intricate techniques of assembly for themselves.
Kyoto Nishijin Textile Centre
If your travels to Japan take you to Kyoto, a visit to the Kyoto Nishijin Textile Centre is a must. The centre provides visitors with the opportunity to watch kimono being made, starting with the harvesting of the silk, weaving the threads, cutting and assembly of the garment, and wrapping up with a kimono fashion show.
How To ‘Kimono’
Most kimono are traditionally made from fine silk, but kimono made from cotton or polyester have become popular due to their reduced cost and durability.
Winter kimono are made from heaver woven fabrics, lined and worn from October to May. Wool kimono are not worn for special events or celebrations but are a popular everyday wear.
A Nagajuban is a thin, cotton, kimono-shaped robe worn under the actual kimono. It helps to keep the outer silk robe clean. The collar of the nagajuban can be seen peeking out from under the robe. Nagajuban often have a remove able collar allowing the wearer to coordinate with the outer robe.
A juban is a white cotton undershirt-type garment worn under the nagajuban.
Typically made of embroidered silk, the obi is a wide belt worn on top of the kimono. An obi can be tied in many different ways, with each ‘knot’ bearing special significance. The fukura-suzume musubi (ふくら雀, "puffed sparrow") knot is worn by young, unmarried women. While the much easier taiko musubi (太鼓結び , named after the taiko bridge – not the drum as many mistakenly believe) is an everyday favourite.
Kimono sleeves carry a specific significance. Unmarried women wear floor length furisode (ふりそで,) or swinging sleeves. Furisode are typically worn during Coming of Age celebrations taking place when a young lady turns 20.
Older, married women wear tomesade (留袖), traditional kimono sleeve length.
Colour plays a significant role when wearing kimono and is chosen with care to reflect the wearer, season, and situation. The rules surrounding colour choice are intricate and complex, referring to pattern and colour combinations. For example, “gentle colours” are worn in the summer and spring, ‘cool’ colours and fabrics come into play in autumn, while heavier winter materials sport patterns reflecting an anticipation of the coming spring.
Always Wrap Left over Right
Kimono are always worn wrapped left over right. Never wear right over left. Kimono are only ever wrapped right over left for the deceased in the preparation of burial.
Geta and Zori
Geta and Zori are traditional footwear worn with kimono. Resembling ‘flip flops’ both geta and zori are open-backed sandals, worn with split-toed socks called tabi. Geta are zori’s more informal cousin and are typically worn with yukata.
Summers in Japan can be quite hot, making wearing full kimono ensemble uncomfortable. Instead, you’ll see many people wearing a brightly coloured yukata, a light, breezy, cotton, casual kimono.
A festive, drawstring bag called a kinchaku is often used to carry essential items while wearing kimono. Small items can also be carried tucked into an obi, such as a hand fan, or into the sleeves.
Worn up, lacquered, adorned with sticks and other ornaments, when it comes to wearing kimono, a woman’s hair plays a starring role. Many kimono appropriate hairstyles feature seasonal flowers or other botanicals.