Photo:Kana Natsuno on Flickr

Casual Kimono: The Unsung Heroes

The unsung heroes of the kimono world are definitely casual kimono.  They’re often ignored for the more flamboyant and colourful formal and semi-formal kimono.  But just like your jeans get more everyday use than your formal dress or business wear, casual kimono are the standard of every kimono wardrobe.  And the more you learn about the craftsmanship that’s behind these kimono, the more you can appreciate it.  It took me a year or so to start appreciating casual kimono, and now my absolute favorite kimono to wear is a tsumugi kimono! Find out more below!

Komon (小紋)

A komon is probably the most common type of casual kimono you can find.  The name comes from ko (meaning small) and mon (pattern).  Altogether, it means a kimono with a small, repeating pattern that covers the entire garment.  They’re very popular and it’s very common to find premade komon made from high quality, washable polyester.  This makes them great for everyday wear or practice.

Komon are created using a variety of dyeing techniques.  The most popular dyeing techniques fall under the category of garazome dyeing. This means that the dyeing and decorating is done after the fabric has been woven.  This might seem like common sense, but take a look below at tsumugi kimono to find out more.

Tsumugi ()

Tsumugi kimono have a long history in Japan.  The silk used to create tsumugi kimono is very different from the silk used to create more formal kimono.  Historically, tsumugi was the silk left over after a farmer had sold the best quality silk to the merchants.  This silk was used to make the kimono for the farmer’s family.  It was rough with bumps and imperfections spread throughout the fabric (see the example above on the right side.)  Eventually, richer people began to appreciate the beauty of tsumugi silk.  The silk got finer, and the patterns got more complicated.  Now there are dozens of different types of tsumugi produced all over Japan, each with their own unique characteristics.  Because tsumugi kimono started life as low class peasant clothing, it’s now considered very casual.  You can wear a tsumugi kimono out shopping, or while running errands in town, but nothing more formal.

One characteristic of all tsumugi is that they use sakizome dyeing techniques.  Sakizome means that the threads are dyed and then woven, as opposed to most other kimono when the finished fabric is dyed.  The way sakizome kimono are produced is to bundle the silk threads together and tie cotton thread around the areas that you want to remain undyed.  After the dyeing process is complete, the cotton threads are removed revealing the original color of the silk.  When these threads are woven together, the pattern finally emerges.   

The most famous type of tsumugi is called oshima tsumugi (the kimono on the left in the above photo.)  It’s only produced on the tiny island of Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture.  Oshima tsumugi is unique because it uses the mud from rice paddies to dye the kimono.  This produces a deep black color that can’t be replicated by artificial dyes.  The process to create one kimono is long and it can take up to one year to complete a kimono.

Meisen (銘仙)

Meisen kimono, like tsumugi, are created using sakizome techniques.  There is one clear way to tell the difference between a tsumugi kimono and a meisen kimono.  The pattern of a tsumugi kimono will be clear and sharp.  The pattern on a meisen kimono will be slightly blurry.  This is a hallmark of meisen.  When the threads are woven together, they are not lined up as precisely as a tsumugi kimono, thereby creating the blurry effect.

Meisen kimono were produced in the 1920’s and 1930’s as cheap, fast, fashion. They were created using imperfect silk, so bright colors and bold designs were used to hide any stains or discoloration in the silk.  Many people only wore these kimono for one season before putting them away in storage.  Meisen has since made a revival and are making their way out of wardrobes and attics to local markets and second hand shops.

The most valuable, interesting, and rare meisen kimono are decorated with pro-war propaganda.  Images like warplanes, warships, soldiers, battles, and children waving the Japanese flag in victory have been found on meisen kimono.  These are usually hidden away by collectors or in museums, and they are fascinating to see.

Yukata (ゆかた or  浴衣)

Yukata are the simplest garment to put on properly, and they’ll probably be the garment of choice for kimono beginners.  They don’t require the layers of undergarments that regular kimono do, and the rules regarding proper dressing are usually disregarded for yukata.  Almost like a perfectly pressed shirt is required for a wedding, but a slightly wrinkled shirt would be OK for weekend wear.    

Yukata are always made of cotton.  They usually have big, bold patterns which could be traditional floral patterns, or modern patterns like skulls or cityscapes.

Yukata started life as a bathrobe to be worn to relax after stepping out of the bath.  They evolved over time to be worn during summer festivals and fireworks shows.  They’re the perfect light but festive garment for the hot and humid Japanese summers.

So enjoy your casual kimono.  And if you haven’t given them much attention yet, take a second look!

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