Manner of Wear


Kimono tradition has, over the centuries, racked up a lot of nuances. Some of these, such as purple being reserved to the Imperial family, have fallen by the wayside. Some, such as the location of one's obi knot, have changed back and forth over the years. These are the basics of what has been retained in modern usage, and notes on the parts I think are frankly pointless and outdated.

Note: According to both Mamechiyo, one of the mavens of kimono fashion, and Alex Kerr, lately famous critic of Japanese culture, many of the current rules for wearing kimono are inventions of the past century or less. That is, the rules stratified and even multiplied as soon as the kimono ceased to be an everyday item of clothing. Since I would like to treat it as, at the very least, a potential everyday item, I feel no qualms about bending or breaking some of the "rules".

Apropos of this, however, remember that all this applies to the everyday wear of kimono in non-specialized circumstances. Professional hostess/facilitators (that is, geisha) have a whole history and standard all their own. Likewise traditional dancers. This is kimono for Jane Schmoe. (Joe Schmoe is either out of luck or hugely in luck, depending on how you look at it; his kimono are far simpler and easier to adapt, though by that token they are also more drab.)


The Obi

There are proverbs about an X without a Y being like a kimono without an obi. The obi has become, in many ways, more important than the kimono itself.

I happen to think this is absurd.

Most obi you can find or buy today are heavy, unweildy, stiff and ungraceful. They fold up into origami obi bows, all right, but those have, as far as I'm concerned, all the charm of a hair-style held in place only through a heavy application of hairspray. They're designed to not go anywhere, not to walk in or sit in or, really, move in at all. This matches well enough with the current "fashion" of kimono... and the current fashion is why the kimono is dying as a viable item of clothing.

I enthusiastically endorse the use of lighter, softer obi, alternative bows, less padding and bracing, and even no obi at all. One of my favorite kimono looks best with a very small ohashori over a red silk koshihimo and no obi; the drape is lovely.



Yes, this deserves it's own section. The ohashori is the fold below the hips from where you've gathered up the extra length of your kimono.

There is much made, on some modern kitsuke sites, of absolutely needing ohashori to be "proper".

This is a load of crap.

As recently as Meiji (last third or so of the 19th C.) you can see that ohashori is a strictly practical aspect of kimono. Women spending a day inside the house didn't use it and let the kimono trail to whatever length it was. Women going out of doors folded it up. By Taishou (roughly first quarter of the 20th C.) ohashori was a standard, all-the-time thing because women were in and out of doors all day long.

As long as your kimono isn't trailing in the mud, it doesn't matter how large your ohashori is, or even if you have any. Do whatever you have to to make the line and drape look good, and you will be proper.

It is worth noting, however, that the very snug fit around the legs achieved by drawing up the corners as one wraps the bottom is far more likely to stay put with a good, long ohashori. If you are seeking that fit with a relatively short kimono, safetypins may be your best friends. Alternatively, many kimono look perfectly charming with the hem taken up to the knee and a long ohashori done that way.


X Marks the Spot

Apropos of this, the tightly wrapped skirt with the hems forming an X over the ankles is also considered the only proper thing in many circles.

Now, it's all well and good to not have your front-wrapped skirt flapping open to the waist, but that is not to say that pulled-up corners and a hem that hobbles the wearer are required. That's just dumb, and probably a big part of the explanation for the low popularity of kimono wearing in general. If your hems hang straight, there's nothing improper about that. Wrap your kimono so that you can move in it as easily as you need to. If your kimono is too narrow to be reasonably modest in when you step out at your regular clip, then you can simply wear it open over another garment.

To be honest, I only wrap the skirt that tightly when I want to show off my rear.



This is a lot more simple than most people make it sound. The formality and dressiness of a given kimono is pretty directly related to the amount of trouble and expense it took to make.

The most casual sorts of kimono are of the less expensive fabrics that are easier to sew and care for: cotton, hemp, synthetics. They are also patterned in simple, repeating patterns that are/were easy to weave, and no effort is made to match up the patterns at the garment seams.

The most formal styles are made of and lined with high quality silk and are almost impossible to clean without causing the thread to shrink at a different rate than the fabric and ruin the drape, to say nothing of dyes and paints that may not be cleanser-safe. The patterns are generally hand painted in a way that lets the design run continuously over seams, even unattached seams, e.g. around the body as with a kurotomesode or from body to sleeve as with a furisode. And then they have to be very carefully sewn together so that the pattern parts match up.

And in between, of course, you have all the gradations of casual to dressy to formal. This is not a difficult continuum to comprehend, and it is based firmly on practical economics, exactly like similar ranges of style in Western dress. Consider the difference between a cotton sun-dress and a velvet gown.

I divide kimono into two general classes: ceremonial/formal and dressy (since truly casual, daily-wear kimono are no longer made). The former are deeply embedded in Japanese culture and history, in Japanese standards of behavior and propriety, and cannot easily be divorced from that. It feels tacky, to me, to try to jigger with them. Consider that, as you will see below, the ceremonial/formal styles are things one wears to participate in ceremonies. Dressy styles, however extravagant or subtle, are things you wear to watch ceremonies or to participate in social life. They involve fashion, not morals. They are up for grabs, and grab them I do.


There are three styles of kimono that a live woman would wear that are so specific to particular occassions it would be weird (or haut couteur) to wear them to anything but that occasion. Think of wedding dresses; you may well hand a wonderful wedding dress down in the family, but you don't generally wear it more than just the once... even if you have a second wedding.

Uchikake and shiromuku (wedding overrobe and white wedding set) are exactly the same. Kurotomesode and irotomesode are, in a way, extensions of that. They are what one wears to a ceremonial occasion for oneself or a family member. And mofuku (black mourning kimono) are, again, specific to death and mourning ceremonies in one's own family.

Given the symbolic weight and cultural specificity of these garments, it seems wisest to leave them out of our adaptations altogether. If you're doing a full-bore Shinto wedding, presumably you want cranes and fans and bamboo on your robe, not apples and salmon. If I'm wrong about that... hey, go for it, babe.


The issue of family crests is a slightly peculiar one even in Japan. Despite the fashion for everyone claiming that their ancestors were samurai, nearly no one is actually entitled to the crests they wear--or any crest, technically. And everyone knows it and genteely ignores it and deploys crests as a ceremonial marker anyhow. Of the three above styles, only the wedding kimono does not have mon. There is also a level of formal-wear below them that is appropriate to taking part in lesser ceremonies--the tea ceremony, for example. These are invariably iromuji, and they are marked with mon.

The closest parallel to mon I can think of from Western nations is Scottish tartans. One can either abide by all the latter-day rules of entitlement and occassion, or one can ignore them completely and use everything up to and including Blackwatch as only a pretty fabric, or one can go much further back and start inventing new plaids again.

Similarly, one can either adopt all the rules of ceremony and formality that go along with mon, or one can toss it all out the window and use mon wherever, simply as pretty patterns, or one can proudly declare one's plebe-ness and not wear any at all.

I tend to favor that last option, though I admit this is made easier by my nearly total disinterest in the tea ceremony.

Dressy to Casual

That leaves furisode, houmongi, tsukesage, komon and yukata. Plenty to play with. For the purposes of establishing a reasonable standard, let us make the following equations.

Furisode = girl's holiday dress or prom gown (you know, those explosions of velvet and frills you can only wear while you're still a teenager)

Houmongi = gown

Tsukesage = fancy dress

Komon = slacks/skirt and blouse, or jeans and blouse if of rougher fabric like tsumugi

Yukata = jeans and teeshirt with obi, or sweats without



In conjunction with the dressiness of a given style, we have a handful of indicators that can show nuances of age and experience. I would point out that the experience in question is, as far as the symbolism goes, very weighted toward the sexual. These indicators seem to have evolved around a woman's marital status, primarily. They are, however, considerably more tastefully expressed than most Western equivalents I can think of, so I very much endorse making use of them.

They're just fun.


This is very simple. Younger = gaudy, older = subtle.

Younger women get the more obtrusive and noticable styles. They get the long sleeves that fall to the knees or even floor, and the most ornate, baroque patterns in the brightest colors.

The older a woman gets the shorter her sleeves fall, the more subtle her colors become, and the more the pattern of her houmongi and tsukesage shrinks toward the hemlines.

Where a young woman wears her obiage bloused out a few inches, it gets tucked further and further in as she gets older until, in old age, it disappears entirely under the obi.


The two areas of expression for sexiness are the neckline and the obi. This is also very simple. Younger = closer and higher, older = looser and lower.

A young woman's kimono collar should fit close up against her neck, and her obi should sit high on her ribs, just under her breasts. Her obijime, similarly, is tied in the upper third of her obi's width.

An older woman's kimono should fit more loosely, even showing a bit of collar bone and the full length of her neck. This is, I would note, remarkably elegant if you can make your collar stay where it's supposed to be. Her obi is tied lower on the body, resting just above the hips for a mature woman, and her obijime is tied in the middle. A woman feeling particularly sexy might even tie it a bit below the middle, rather like wearing a low-cut top.

Sum of the Parts

Since marriage and sexual experience are no longer firmly yoked together, these things have taken on a layer of simple age-indication to go with the experience/status indication. The combinations of age and experience are more flexible, and so, to an extent, have the kimono become. So you might well see a woman in her late twenties or early thirties wearing a furisode with a neckline and obi style sexier and less modest than would be reasonable for a young girl. This is an admirable trend, and I suggest we take it and run with it.

This is not to say that older women can't be gaudy if they want to be, or that girls can't pick subtle and understated patterns, or that a married woman can't wear sleeves just as long as she pleases, of course. But the accumulated nuances can be great fun to combine and play with.



Kimono underthings are one of those areas of arcana that make it useful to have classes and teachers for this stuff.

I don't think it's all neccessary, though, not for a living article of practical clothing.

For one thing, a lot of the accoutrements are designed to achieve a uniform look, and that look is stiff straight up and down. That's fine as one option, but I would point out that the last two periods when kimono were daily wear (Edo and Meiji) produced a huge quantity of art that shows far more relaxed, soft lines.

For another thing, there's no earthly reason for keeping things purely because they are 'traditional'. The tradition of the kimono was, in its actual lifetime, an ever-changing thing, under pressures of economic, social and environmental change. Let us take that as our tradition.


High on my personal list of things to un-require are the 'traditional' items of footgear, tabi socks, zori and geta. To be sure, boots don't exactly go well with most kimono. But sandals, flats and heels all would, and regular socks or stockings go with them--especially in cold weather.

Of course, one should definitely coordinate the socks with the kimono ensemble.


Consider the difference between a corner of slip showing under your skirt because it came askew, and the lace edge of a high necked camisole showing under a low-cut sweater because you picked those two things to go together.

Similarly, if your juban is poking out in places just because you didn't straighten it, that's rather tacky. If it's showing because you tied it or draped the kimono back so it would show, that's fashion.

Intentionality has a lot to do with how well you can carry things like that off.


As long as the rest of the world can't tell at a glance what choice you made, there's no reason this should be anyone's business but your own. So if you want to ditch the slip or wear the bike-shorts-with-a-slit, or your regular underwear for pity's sake, that's entirely up to you and kitsuke should have nothing to say about it. Don't let the busybodies who write books convince you otherwise; your own comfort is the rule that matters.



Last modified: 07/26/09
First Posted: 2/11/2006



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