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Few images of Japanese culture are as evocative as an elegant lady in a beautiful silk kimono. Although rarely worn nowadays, the kimono holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese and Westerners alike; a symbol of refinement, sophistication and taste. Yet 'kimono' translates simply as 'clothing', and was the everyday attire of all Japanese people for centuries.
In modern Japan you will still see the occasional old lady who has never worn anything except kimono, but most people only don their national costume on special occasions. Weddings, New Year celebrations and highbrow performances are all places where you can see women (and men in their hakama version) wrapped in fine silks; their clothing revealing much about their social status, lifestyles and tastes.
There are many types of kimono and many ways of wearing each type. Each nuance has meaning which can be 'read' by others. Young, unmarried women wear bright, gaudy furisode with sleeves reaching to their ankles. This shows they are old enough to marry, but are still eligible and looking for a suitable bachelor. During the wedding, a heavy uchikake is worn on top. After the ceremony, the kimono is changed for a shorter-sleeved, married woman's version to signify that she is no longer available.
Married women wear black tomesode or paler houmongi to formal occasions such as weddings. In this case, black is a joyful colour as it shows off the bride's bright colours to greater effect. Here, the tomesode has colourful embroidery and auspicious motifs around the base.
In summer, light cotton yukata are easy for everybody to wear and can be seen during Japanese festivals and informal outdoor events.
It is very difficult to put on a kimono as there are many different folds, tucks and ties involved. Furisode can include up to 35 different pieces so the dresser must be very skilled (and the wearer must be very patient!). Several layers of underwear, ties and pads turn the body into a cylinder shape - it is not desirable to have a voluptuous figure and any curves will be flattened down or padded out. The kimono collar is ALWAYS worn left-over-right for both men and women. This is perhaps the most important point, because the only time you wear it right-over-left is as a corpse, at your own funeral!
The main kimono is tied with an obi, a strip of stiff, hand-woven silk approximately 13 feet long. The obi is wound around the body several times and then tied at the back. Why at the back? Well, traditionally, courtesans tied theirs at the front for 'easy access', so tying at the back denotes a woman's virtue. The way the obi is tied also says a lot about the woman. Young women wear theirs very elaborately in the shape of a butterfly, turtle, bow or bird. Older women prefer a simpler shape with perhaps a picture on the obi itself. Those courtesans just tied it in a big knot as it wouldn't be staying there for long!
The kimono is made from a single long piece of silk which is patterned before it is sewn together. Some are painted with lucky images using stencil dyes or freehand painting. Others are painstakingly embroidered with single-ply threads. Some have a mixture of painting and embroidery and can cost a small fortune. The obi can be almost as expensive as the kimono as it is hand-woven and takes many weeks to produce.
So, what about footwear?
Japanese people take off their shoes before they enter a house, temple or other special building, so traditional Japanese shoes are easy to slip on and off, looking a bit like Western flip-flops. Often, the shoes are exquisitely decorated on the inside, so that when they are removed people can see the lovely patterns. Japanese socks even have split toes so they can be worn with zori shoes. Tabi socks are made from starched white cotton and have elaborate hook and eye fastenings. They slide so beautifully across tatami flooring that this noise is an integral part of the Tea Ceremony.
I hope you are beginning to see how each component of the kimono is essential to the overall effect. It must be worn absolutely correctly otherwise the wrong impression will be given, but can be adapted to reflect the personality and feelings of the wearer.
If you would like to see a talk and demonstration of kimono dressing, or would like to learn to dress yourself in kimono, please contact Katie Chaplin on 01748 836633 or see www.japancrafts.co.uk.
Katie Chaplin offers talks on aspects of Japanese culture and costume, and a range of workshops includeing silkpainting, shibori, origami and other Japanese arts and crafts.