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Getting Dressed in Edo:

Basic Traditional Japanese Clothing

copyright 1996 by Lady Melisande of Hali

To begin with, there is no plural form in Japanese, so like sheep and chaos, you can have one kimono or many kimono; "kimonos" just grates on the sensitive ear, unless you are talking about flappers' wrappers. This is only a guide to the basic costume for samurai and commoners. The older dress of Imperial nobles, the ceremonial hats of different levels of the clergy, et al, are beyond the scope of this brief guide.

For illustrations, click here.

The preferred shape for women is cylindrical, not hourglass. If their waists are too narrow, they pad them out with cloth wrappings. The shoulders should be narrow and sloping, so that sometimes a little padding is used near the neck by those whose shoulders are incurably square. This is no place for an uplift bra: kimono gape at the neck and at the opening under the arm (women's kimono only), if you have a protruding bust. Any noticeable bust bulge is wrapped flat to avoid this.

Women stand with their toes and knees together, their heels apart, pigeon-toed being feminine. Men point their toes out, and keep the heels slightly apart, getting a bit of a duck walk in exaggerated cases. Both slightly bend the knees and arch the lower back to thrust the rump out: the posture is called "koshi" and "keeping your koshi" keeps your kimono fastened and hanging properly.

Men wear the traditional FUNDOSHI (loincloth) or a garment like mid-thigh shorts if they expect to tuck up their kimono where their bottoms might show. Women wear fundoshi, too.

KIMONO can mean clothes in general, or more specifically the wrap-around robe on which costume is based. It has no buttons or hooks: everything in Japanese clothing ties, with sewn-on ties or HIMO (straps sewn of folded fabric). Everything is wrapped in what we might consider the "masculine direction" as you look down your body: left side over right. Only corpses wear it the other direction. Kimono are square-cut with rectangular sleeves, not bell-shaped ones (common Western artist's mistake), with the wrist openings straight out from the shoulder. The excess that hangs down from the extended arm varies by age, sex, class, occupation, occasion, and fashion.

Japanese dressing is as many-layered as an onion. First comes the under kimono of plain fabric, perhaps two. The under kimono will often have decorative collars, since they show outside. Sometimes, to avoid extra layers in warm weather, dickey-like separate collars will be added to an ensemble. This also allows a fancy and expensive fabric be used for the collar while the body in only in contact with a cheap, easy-to-wash garment. Each kimono is caught against the extended rump of the koshi and the front pulled forward and a little up as it is wrapped, then tied with a himo around the top of the hips, tightly, where the pelvic bones give an immobile anchor.

The call from Kabuki dresser to dressee, "Yosh'!" literally "Be strong!" means "Brace yourself, I'm going to wrap and tie this layer!" Actors and dancers sometimes grab onto a handy pillar. The dressers know the performers want the himo very snug and secure through mock sword fights, tobi roppos, and even somersaults, so the dressers pull kimono and himo so tight that it can stagger the person being dressed. Cinching saddles is considered good training for a dresser.

The main kimono is tied on like the others. There is always excess length in a woman's outer kimono, which is bloused over the first himo, then tied around the lower ribs. The hem forms a tulip line just at the ankles. It can be so tight around the knees they can hardly be separated, resulting in tiny, tripping steps. A low, open neckline in front is slovenly and fairly uninteresting; the Japanese traditionally considered the unclad body ugly or ridiculous. Sexy is the low neckline in back, exposing the neck, and a modest woman sets her collars to cover all the way up to her nape.

Over the himo is put the OBI, a heavily interlined sash. In early periods, women tied it simply in front, but as centuries passed obi ties got as complicated and coded as the cravats of Regency dandies. Again, age and status make limits: a matron should not wear a young girl's obi bow, any more than she would wear the red or pink kimono of a girl, or her very long sleeves. Anyone dressing him or herself still ties the obi in front, but then sucks everything in that last quarter-inch in order to turn the obi clockwise around themselves until the bow is in back.

Then a woman puts a decorative OBI CORD over the obi, with its fancy square knot in front, and if the obi is very tall and stiff, fills in the top gap between it and the front of the kimono with a soft, silk OBI SCARF, often spotted and puckered from waxed-thread tie-dye.

Before the obi goes on, over-kimono with padded hems may be added. The padding is not to keep the ankles warm. These kimono always drag on the ground, and the stiffened rolls around the lower edges keep them prettily spread out. There may be one or several. With layered kimono, each one has the sleeves a bit shorter than the one over it. You never have a longer sleeve pulled out the wrist-opening of a shorter one, any more than a properly dressed Jackie Kennedy has her slip hanging below her skirt hem. But I have seen this set up by the ignorant, and promulgated in photo collections.

There are no pockets, and bags are not hung on a belt. Women tuck some things like paper napkins (Japanese invented blow-and-throw handkerchiefs of soft paper), letters, daggers or purses into the top of the obi for carrying, or perhaps inside the neckline of the kimono. Men often carry odd cash or a pack of tobacco in their sleeves, a medicine case with its NETSUKE tucked in the obi. You reach things inside your sleeve, not with the other hand, but by withdrawing that hand into the sleeve. Tissues usually seem to emerge from inside the kimono body, especially if the samurai figured he would have to be wiping blood off his katana and packed an extra handful.

HAKAMA are the normal loose trousers of the samurai, ankle-length, worn over kimono and obi. There are wedges turned open on each hip, which makes wearing them on an hour-glass figure a bit drafty. The front of the waistband, so separated from the back, is a pair of plain, long ties, like you are used to on aprons, which wrap around the body over the obi and tie in front. The back of the waistband has a piece of light board or heavy cardboard wrapped in matching fabric, several inches tall. This is placed in the small of the back, above the obi bow, and the ties brought forward and tied across or under the obi. There is more than one sort of decorative knot used, and even a peasant would not just tie it in long floppy loops and ends like we do our shoelaces.

NAGABAKAMA are hakama so long that they trail several feet behind the wearer, who is really walking on the inside of them. Naturally, you can't do much in them, and certainly can't walk outdoors in them, even in the garden. They are the formal dress of the samurai, whether visiting the Emperor or the Shogun. They tie on just like hakama. When you walk in them, you shove your hands inside the gaps on either side. As you lift your foot, you pull that leg of the nagabakama up and forward, to give yourself slack. It sure cuts down on sword fights in the sacrosanct Presence!

MON, circular family crests, appear on men's clothing on the back of the formal kimono at center, and on the back of both sleeves, as well as each front over the chest. The size of the mon varies upward from that of a coin, depending on current fashion.

Women's additional clothing may include a red or purple brocade, ground-trailing kimono with padded hem, gorgeously embroidered in gold and colours, worn over the obi, which always indicates a HIME, a "high-born daughter" like a princess, the daughter of the shogun or of a daimyo. An almost sheer kimono of stiff, coloured ramie was in some periods and places worn like a veil over the head, often held up fetchingly on the hands so as not to crush the hair. This same sheer kimono might be worn over a single under kimono in hot weather. Even monks and nuns did this, using sheer black ramie over white. Latterly, the HIFU is a square-necked, knee-length garment worn over the kimono and obi like a coat in cold or damp weather, with extra space allowed in back for a fancy obi bow. The overlapping rectangular panels in front have sewn-on ties at either corner of the neckline

Single printed cotton kimono, called YUKATA, are worn by both sexes to bed or around the bathhouse or when doing the equivalent of lounging around in pajamas.

Women's hair ornaments may include a few combs or pins, silk flowers for young women on festive occasions, quite a few for a hime. But those glorious arrays of golden tortoise-shell pins and combs are the mark of a high-priced prostitute, the CHAYU or TAYU.

Men may wear their hair in a high pony-tail, the "tea whisk" style, but are often pictured with the front of the head shaved and a lacquered tail brought forward over the shaved area. Impecunious ronin (masterless samurai) will have short front hair, and often short beards, because they can't afford a barber. Some obviously cultivate moustaches or side whiskers to look raspy and dangerous.

Footwear is always a sandal. TABI are a cloth covering for the foot, covering the ankle and split next to the big toe, that fasten with a peculiar kind of hook up the outside, two or three hooks depending on the height of the tabi. Nowadays a split-toe knit sock is sold. Sandals are worn to keep dirt off the feet, and are taken off at the entry porch to the house, so tabi function as slippers, and have canvas soles. Anyone who comes into a room with his sandals still on is either up to no good (thieves, spies, and assassins), or announcing a violent emergency.

In town, the straps are like thongs, easy on and off. Only for travel of some distance, or the costume of messengers or guards are the sandals a form that ties on. In bad weather, any time the ground is wet, GETA are worn instead of sandals. A kind of clog, a rectangle of half-inch board with rounded corners is slightly larger than the foot. It fastens on top of two pieces of board, edge up, running from side to side under the ball of the foot and the front of the heel. Its straps are exactly those of the sandal.

When travelling, almost anyone wears some sort of straw hat to protect the face, head, and eyes from the sun's heat and glare, the cold of the winter wind, or from downpours. Samurai wear a flat-topped cone that hangs so low that a space is loosely woven out of which to see. Women and servitors wear a shallow cone. Priests' straw hats look like tubby baskets with a vision area woven in. Japanese hats are secured with two cloth bands, not one, so that they don't flip up in a wind, and don't throttle the wearer. The bands are twisted together on either side of the chin, then tied under the lower lip.

Those travellers wearing kimono without hakama, male or female, tie the kimono on so that the hem comes around the calves of the leg. Then the legs may be covered from the ankle up with thigh-length gaiters or leggings. To protect the hands in place of gloves is worn a kind of mitaine: a piece of stiffened cloth is fastened around the wrist, and a tongue extends over the back of the hand and knuckles. A loop of cloth, knotted on top of the mitaine, slips over the middle finger so that the cloth will stay against the hand.

Watch good chanbara to get a feeling for Medieval and Tokugawa clothing, and which classes wear what. These movies and TV shows are usually very accurate, because Kabuki and Noh have kept the audience continuously in tune with the dress of extinct divisions, while other costumes continue to be used in the rural areas or for special activities, like weapons or dance training.


Graphic Gallery of Japanese costume examples


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