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Formal Kimono: The Eye Candy of Japanese Fashion

You walk past a kimono store or market stall, and your eye is caught by the most gorgeous kimono.  The colors are vibrant.  The silk is luxurious.  The designs are eye catching.  Congratulations!  You’ve fallen in love with a kimono.  And not just any kimono.  A very, very formal kimono.  That's not unusual.  Many people start their love affair with the kimono world with a formal kimono.  Including me!  So here’s your guide to three formal kimono so you can learn a little more about the new love in your life.    

Furisode (振袖)

Furisode are the most stunning kimono.  Their bright, bold and beautiful colors and patterns are striking and immediately draw and hold your attention.  They take their name from their most striking feature, their long sleeves that almost touch the ground.  Furi () means swinging or swaying, and sode () means sleeve.  When kimono were still worn as an everyday garment, these swaying sleeves were used as a visual clue that the wearer was still unmarried.  After a girl got married, she would shorten her sleeves to a more manageable length.

Today, furisode are considered the most formal kimono for unmarried women, and they are only worn for very formal occasions such as weddings or seijinshiki (the coming of age ceremony celebrated by 20 year olds).  For weddings, brides and unmarried guests wear slightly different furisode.  Bridal furisode have a padded hem and are worn trailing on the ground while a guest will wear a furisode with a normal hem.  The extra length on a guest’s furisode isn’t left trailing, but is hiked up and bloused out over a tie at the waist (called an ohashori).

There is a wide variety of ways to decorate a furisode.  Shibori (tie-dying) is a popular method and a furisode that has been completely covered in shibori can be sold for millions of yen.  Another popular method of dying is called yuzen (友禅).  This involves treating dye as a paint and painting it on the fabric instead of dipping the fabric in a dye bath.  Embroidery and gold leaf are also popular decorative methods for furisode.

Kurotomesode (黒留袖)

The name of this kimono comes from both its color and its sleeves.  Kuro () means black, tome () means stop, and sode () means sleeve.  Altogether, it’s a black kimono with its sleeves stopped or cut off (when compared to the furisode).  This kimono will always have a black base color and a pattern that is present only on the skirt.  It will always have five white kamon (family crests) positioned at the chest on either side, on the back of the sleeves, and in the centre of the back.  Nowadays, the presence or absence of the crests is more important than which family crest is present.  A kurotomesode will also have a second layer of white fabric that will show at the collar.  This is called the hiyoku and it’s a holdover from the time when people would wear several layers of kimono at the same time.

A kurotomesode is the most formal kimono for married women.  It’s most commonly worn by the mother of the bride or groom at a wedding.  There are very strict rules about what obi (the belt) and accessories can be paired with a kurotomesode.  The obi must have a base color of white or cream, and there must be gold or silver elements included.  All accessories must be white with gold accessories.

Irotomesode (色留袖)

An irotomesode is very similar to a kurotomesode.  Switch out kuro (black) for iro (色 color) and you have a pretty good idea what this kimono looks like.  An irotomesode has a pattern running around the hem of the garment and the base color can be any color except for black.  It can have one, three, or five kamon (family crests) and it does not have the extra layer (the hiyoku) built in like the kurotomesode.

The irotomesode is the next step down in formality from the kurotomesode.  It’s also most commonly found at weddings and will be worn by close, married, female relatives of the bride or groom such as a sister or an aunt.

So what was your first kimono love?  Let me know!

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