Kimono” technically means Japanese dress, but for Westerners, the word refers to traditional robes like “kasode” with shorter sleeves; “furisode” with longer, open-bottom sleeves; “uchikake,” an elaborate wedding robe or overcoat; “juban,” a softer under-robe; and “haori,” a shorter jacket for men. Inner kimonos are tied closed with a sash known as “obi,” which also comes in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and styles?including the formal “maru,” the 1920s-style “fukuro,” the simple “nagoya,” and the wide “hanhaba.”
The flamboyance, vivid colors, and artistry of antique kimonos were once a source of national pride for Japan, and also point to the influence of Noh Theater. Kimonos developed as a logical way to stay cool and comfortable in the humid climate, and they worked for kneeling on wood floors. The long, draping sleeves of furisode and fine, richly decorated silks became symbols of leisure and wealth for aristocrats. In the Heian era (794-1185), courtesans wore 12 simple and brightly colored kimonos at once, most of which could only be seen at the collars and cuffs.
Supple, sleek kimonos made of silk (“kinu”) are the most desirable, even though they can be made of any material such as the stiffer silk crepe (“chirimen”), satin, hemp, thread-banana fiber, abaca cloth, hemp, linen, wool, or cotton. Kimonos are often made from fabrics with patterns woven into them, like “kasuri” or “ikat” (made of pre-dyed thread), “tsuzure ori” (tapestry), “nishiki” (multicolored pattern), “Kara-ori” (Chinese weaving that looks embroidered), and “tsujigahana” (made with a tie-dye-thread base and post-weaving flourishes).
Dyeing techniques contribute greatly to the beauty and artistry of kimonos. The most typical “yuzen” technique, developed in the 17th century, lets artisans hand-draw elaborate images with thin, delicate lines. Other popular means include stencil-dyeing, or “katazome,” tie-dying or “shibori-zome,” stenciling unique to Okinawa called “bingata,” and a technique known as “tsutsugaki” that involves drawing with rice paste that will resist indigo dye. Thanks to the stencils, small repeated patterns called “komon”,such as “seigaiha” or stylized waves, “yamagata” or mountain forms, and medallions resembling cranes, chrysanthemum, and wisteria, became common.
These days, most Japanese wear modern Western-style clothing, and perceive vintage kimonos as tremendously out-dated outfits that disguise the body, impractical for the fast pace of 21st century life. There, silk kimonos, which sell for thousands new, are reserved for special occasions like the Shichigosan Festival and New Year’s Day, and for older people, Noh and Kabuki performers, geishas, and others involved in the traditional arts of tea service and flower arrangement. Used kimonos can be found for about $300 at Japanese flea markets.