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The Emperor's Old Clothes - November 2001 Newsletter


Clothing has always played a vital role in Japanese culture. Traditional robes worn by royalty, geisha women, and commoners once held as much importance in the history of Japan, as do Levi's 501 jeans and Converse tennis shoes in Japanese popular culture. While Kimono's are one of the most recognizable Japanese garments, other types of robes are just as integral to traditional Japanese fashion. Unlike kimonos, yukatas and happi coats are both less formal types of traditional attire. However, all three varieties have long, rich histories, which are woven into the fabric of Japanese customs and culture.

First born during the Heian period (794-1192 A.D.), kimonos are ornate, ankle length gowns most recognizable by their long, wide sleeves and pronounced belt-like sash, or obi. At that time, the word "kimono" was the generic phrase for "clothing", but eventually came to signify one of the most elegant outfits ever designed to this day. Since that period, kimono styles have changed in various ways. During the Heian period, kimonos were often used to denote the changing of the four seasons and political affiliation. Prior to this era, Japanese clothing mainly consisted of two-piece outfits for both men and women. The advent of the kimono allowed more self-expression through print patterns and colors, while allowing anyone to wear any robe because of its size and shape. During the 17th century, samurais often wore brightly colored kimonos on the battlefield, as well as in formal ceremonies. Today, kimonos are no longer worn on a daily basis in Japan. Instead, they are only seen during traditional tea ceremonies, coronations, funerals, weddings, festivals, and other momentous occasions.

Most often made of silk, kimonos are made from a piece of fabric measuring 40 feet long and 15 inches wide. After being cut into eight precise pieces, the panels are sewn together to make a beautiful kimono. This panel method is most frequently used so repairs can be made to individual pieces as needed, rather than the whole kimono, which can last for up to 300 years. The fabric used is colored using one of two methods. Either the silk is woven together to create a detailed pattern, or the fabric is hand dyed, and then embroidered with a separate color. Obis, or sashes worn across the waist, generally measure 1 foot wide and 13 feet long.

Although people of all genders, ages, social class, and marital status wear kimonos, those made for women greatly differ from those worn by men and children. Unmarried women don furisode kimonos that are marked by their long, flowing sleeves. For a wedding celebration, brides wear stark white kimonos, or shiromukus, marking their long journey into a new life. Once a woman is married, she is no longer allowed to wear a kimono with long sleeves, and instead begins to dress in a tomesode. These come in various colors, but all have shorter sleeves and a patterned fabric below the obi. Black tomesodes all sport the wearer's family crest, and are set-aside for formal occasions.

Children's kimonos are generally not as elaborate as those worn by women. Commonly decorated with large prints and bright colors, children have two momentous occasions in Japan where kimonos are still worn. Within three months of a birth, the new child is taken to a shrine, dressed in a white yukata, and covered in a red kimono if it is a girl, and black if it is a boy. The Shichi-Go-San Festival, or Seven-Five-Three Festival, is a national celebration in Japan where parents take their three and seven year old daughters, and five year old sons to a local temple. It is at the temple that these children are dressed in brightly colored kimonos as their parents thank the gods for maintaining their children's health and happiness. Those worn by men are by far the most simple in both design and cut. Conventionally, men of all ages wear simple blue, white, black, gray, or brown kimonos. It is the accessories worn with the actual robe that denote a man's status or special occasion. A haori is a long coat worn over a kimono, and held together with a braided cord, fastened in a decorative knot. Commonly worn by grooms, haoris are reserved for formal events. Hakamas, or large pleated trousers, are worn by men at ceremonies over kimonos, and are also used by martial arts experts. In addition, a man's obi is tied in a plain knot, unlike a woman's sophisticated style.

Despite the myriad of styles, colors, and fabrics, picking out a kimono may prove to be much less complicated than actually wearing one properly. By following these effortless steps, sporting a kimono will be simple for novices as well as veterans. 1) Put the kimono on as you would a bathrobe (with the left side overlapping the right), and pull forward. This will ensure that no excess fabric settles in the back. 2) Lift the kimono so your ankles are slightly visible, and all excess fabric is above your waistline. 3) Tie a thin belt, or koshihimo belt, around your waist and under the excess fabric. 4) Smooth any wrinkles from the front and back, hiding all creases under your arms, and pull the excess material slightly out and over the koshihimo belt. 5) Tie a datejime belt over the koshihimo belt and the loose material surrounding it. 6) To put on the obi, hold approximately 50cm of the obi belt in your left hand, while wrapping the obi in a circle around your waist from front to back, and then around again. 7) The extra material remaining in your left hand should be folded and rested over your left shoulder. 8) The remaining material on the right should be wrapped once, more, and then folded in half like the left side. 9) Tie the two loose ends of the obi in front, and proceed to tie it into a butterfly shaped bow. 10) Hide any excess material inside the waistband, and move the bow to the back. 11) Congratulations, you have successfully put on a kimono!

Yukatas are another type of Japanese robe similar to kimonos. Generally made of one layer of lightweight cotton, yukatas were originally worn after bathing and around the home. The term "yukata" is a derivative of the words "yu", or bath, and "katabira", or under garment. With the introduction of Western fashion throughout Japan, yukatas are no longer a very popular style of dress. Because they are no longer worn on a daily basis, yukatas have transformed from an informal bathrobe to a formal piece of attire. Most often worn at summer festivals throughout Japan, they are traditionally dark blue and white. However, the last two decades have seen an increase in the number of colorful yukatas with modern prints and brightly shaded obis.

Due to the harsh winters across Japan, shopkeepers and other members of the working class regularly wore happi coats as overcoats. "Happi", denoting a shorter length, is essentially what differentiates a happi coat from a yukata. In addition to the shorter length, happi coats are often adorned with a large scripture or symbol on the back. The terms "longevity" and "good fortune" are most often found embroidered on these pieces, which now are no longer just for the less wealthy members of the population. Happi coats are now frequently worn at formal events, tea ceremonies, festivals, religious occasions, and on top of ornate kimonos. Tied with an obi or similar sash, these over coats feature straight sleeves, and are often made from any fabric ranging from cotton, to satin, silk, rayon, and polyester.

The delicate artistry of Japanese fashion design cannot be complete without the proper ornamental accessories. Hairpins made of precious metals and studded with gemstones are a wonderful way to accent your kimono, yukata, or happi coat. Stark white tabi socks are another item often worn with Japanese robes, as their lack of color accentuate the beauty of the main garment, and their split toes go wonderfully with woven straw zori sandals and wooden geta shoes. Folding fans make an inexpensive, yet classically styled accent, reminiscent of the heyday of Geishas.

Whether you're throwing a sushi party, or attending a tea ceremony or other upcoming holiday celebration, a kimono, happi coat, or yukata would make the perfect outfit for the special occasion. Elegance matched with originality, Japanese robes make the perfect addition to any wardrobe, whether it's formal garb or lounging attire. Browse through to find all your holiday and home-wear needs!


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