Japanese Kimonos

by Jean-Philippe Soule

In this era Kimonos are worn only on special occasions. The sight of women wearing kimonos may seem incongruous with an urban setting but they are a propos amidst the sculpted gardens and tiled roofs of centuries-old Jinja shrines. Not all Japanese practice the Shinto religion, but there is universal appreciation for the esthetic of temples and traditional kimonos. Women in kimonos often go to shrines for no other reason than to have their photos taken.

Young women personify the clash of traditional and modern culture seen everywhere in Japan. They still participate with enthusiasm in traditional ceremonies (such as the coming of age rituals) and value the beauty of the kimono, but they won't go anywhere without their ketai-denwa (cellular phone), and pocket-bell (message beeper).

Kimonos may be beautiful but they are not practical. The tightly wrapped, body-length garment severely restricts women's movements. They force women to walk slowly and take small steps. The two types of sandals women wear with the kimonos restrict their movement even more. Geta sandals have a raised heel. Zori sandals (seen in these pictures) have a flat bottom. Tabi socks have a split between the large toe and the rest of the sock that accommodates the thong from the sandal.


Prices for Japanese kimonos vary according to the quality of the fabric and the complexity of pattern, design and embroidery. The two presented on these pages are custom-designed furisode style kimonos that cost $15,000 a piece. Traditionally, only young unmarried women wear them. Customs are changing, and today married women may wear these works of art when they want to look "young and beautiful." In the past it was customary after marriage to switch to a single-color tomesode kimono, and to pass on the furisode to a daughter.

As you can see in these pictures, long, hanging sleeves and elaborate colors and patterns distinguish Furisode kimonos. In the past young women showed their interest in potential suitors by fluttering the bright lengths of cloth like butterfly wings.

Kimonos are tied with wide belts called Obi. The Obi holds the overlapping kimono in place, and keeps the front closed. The Obi has as much importance as the kimono itself. Tying the Obi into a knot and creating a perfect bow behind the woman’s back is a difficult art to master. Women usually seek the services of a professional.

There are two main types of Obis: formal and casual. The formal Obi is usually four meters long and 60 centimeters wide. It is folded in half lengthwise, wrapped twice around the waist and then tied in the back. Formal Obi belts are made of silk brocade or woven tapestry and are often embroidered with designs in gold or silver thread. The more complex designs are considered more formal.

The casual Obi is narrower and made of cheaper fabric such as satin, twill, cotton, nylon or wool. It does not have the elaborate silk brocade embroidered patterns found on formal belts.

Kanzashi are hair ornaments, used to create traditional hairstyles. Kanzashi came into wide use during the Edo period. During that era artisans created more decorative, elegant and expensive ornaments, mimicking the same trend in kimono design. Today they are usually crafted of hardwood and decorated with gold paint. Finely crafted kanzashi are handed down from mother to daughter as heirlooms.


Most Japanese women yearn from childhood for their opportunity to wear the bridal costume. In reality the kimono is very tight and uncomfortable. The katsura, is a large wig traditionally worn with the wedding kimono. It serves as a support for the two different styles of large, white wedding hats. The wig alone is heavy and it sits high on the bride’s head, straining her neck. The entire ensemble severely limits her movements.

The Japanese traditional wedding costume may not be comfortable but its beauty is unsurpassed. The ritual and design of the garment reveals much about the enduring cultural heritage of the country and the people.

The most formal ensemble is the white wedding kimono called shiromuku. Traditionally it was used by brides from Samurai families. The kimono is decorated with elaborate embroidered silk patterns, all in shades of white. Shiro means white and. muku means pure. The pure white color signifies the beginning of a journey.

Brides choose between two different traditional wedding hats. The most common, the wata boushi, dates from the post-Edo era. According to custom, the face of the bride was completely hidden by the wata boushi as a show of modesty, the most cherished quality for women during that era. Today the style has evolved and the wata boushi reveals parts of the bride’s face. The other headdress, the tsuno kakushi, is a wedding hat worn like a wide tiara. So that the beautiful kanzashi hair ornaments remain visible, the tsuno kakushi only covers part of the head.

Donning a traditional wedding kimono is a complicated procedure. Makeup is a key component, applied only by experienced professionals. In these photos the young bride receives a second layer of red gloss on her lips. The red contrasts sharply with the pure white kimono and the white matte foundation covering her face and hands. The red is also used to embellish the shape of the lips, which are artificially tapered and given more volume in the center.

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Japanese Furisode Kimonos
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