This kimono buying guide is aimed at the average traveller in Japan looking to purchase a kimono as a gift, a souvenir, or as something to wear occasionally. It is aimed mainly at budget travellers looking to purchase a kimono and accessories for the first time. For this reason, we're going to focus on buying second-hand kimono.
First off, a clarification on what a kimono is and what a kimono isn't. A kimono (着物) is a wrapped-front, T-shaped garment. When wearing a kimono, it is typically worn with an underkimono known as a juban, which look slightly different to outer kimono. Kimono vary in size, shape, and season. Originally, the kimono was strongly influenced by the clothing styles that were popular in China during the Tang Dynasty (roughly corresponding to the Nara period in Japanese history), but since then has evolved in its own uniquely Japanese way.
A kimono is usually worn with a number of accessories used to hold it together or accessorise it. It's a mostly flat garment with minimal shaping, and folds down into a small, flat rectangle for storage.
Kimono vary based on occasion, but there's a kimono for every situation – see this chart for help. Kimono are also seasonal, varying in pattern, color and fabric based on the time of year. Take note of what's seasonably and formally appropriate when you're going to buy or wear a kimono. Some kimono can be dressed up in formality, but they generally can't be dressed down.
In the modern day, you're most likely to see people wearing kimono to special occasions or summer festivals; they're not commonly worn as everyday clothing. However, some people do wear them frequently as regular clothes, such as sumo wrestlers, geisha, and kimono enthusiasts. There are very few occasions at which you'd be required to wear a kimono – except, of course, to a meeting of kimono enthusiasts.
What are kimono?
Kimono are made in a number of different materials. Contrary to belief, not all kimono are silk – and not all silk kimono are the same.
- Tsumugi is a slub-weave silk, used for informal kimono and obi. It can be very expensive; though it's informal, it's highly-prized. One variety known as Amami Ōshima is particularly expensive – though be warned, not everything advertised as amami ōshima tsumugi is the real thing.
- Asa refers to hemp and linen fabrics, mainly hemp. Hemp kimono are usually crisp and lightweight, typically standing away from the body, and tend not to be lined. They make excellent summer-weight kimono in hot weather.
- Wool: some kimono (usually older, pre-1960 pieces) are made of wool. At one time, it was an extremely common fabric for informal kimono. Wool kimono can be lined or unlined.
- Chirimen and kinsha are two different types of crepe. Chirimen is a textured crepe, whereas kinsha is a smooth crepe. For occasions like tea ceremonies and for more formal kimono, textured crepe fabrics either aren't allowed or aren't usually worn. Formal kimono made of chirimen tend to be modern ones.
- Ro and sha are two open-weave silk fabrics worn in summer. Ro is a plain weave fabric with horizontal (or rarely, vertical) stripes of leno-weave; sha is an entirely leno-woven fabric, and tends to be stiffer than ro.
- Jinken is the name for rayon in Japanese. During World War II, rayon kimono were produced en-masse with printed designs. Modern rayon kimono are much better quality than vintage ones; take note that rayon becomes brittle over time, so vintage rayon kimono may be delicate.
- Polyester: Polyester kimono aren't fake, and modern polyester kimono are generally very comfortable. They're easier to care for, can be hand-washed, and won't stain from exposure to water. Polyester isn't generally used for more formal types of kimono, and isn't used at all for the most formal types, such as kurotomesode (for women) and kuromontsuki (for men).
Kimono also have a variety of sleeve lengths. Though men's and women's kimono have visually similar sleeve lengths, this wasn't always the case. Pre-World War II women's "short" kimono sleeves are noticeably longer than their modern-day counterparts.
Going back to the Edo period, there were also more varieties of kimono sleeve for both men and women; some had entirely rounded edges and were connected wholly to the body, whereas others were almost tubular, and featured a triangular gusset under the arm. Many of these older kimono sleeve types were developed for practicality, and would be worn by men and women who worked practical jobs. In the earlier Edo period, young boys and girls alike wore long, furisode-length kimono sleeves, as longer sleeves were a sign of youth. These sleeves would be shortened as they came of age. Extant examples of war-time kimono, some modern children's kimono, and the kimono worn by laborers and farmers still show the much shorter, at times tube-like sleeves worn in previous centuries for practicality or cost.
Kimono are different for men and women. Men's sleeves are a bit shorter, sewn mostly to the body, with a square edge. The bit of sleeve not sewn to the body is sewn shut. Women's sleeves are only attached to the body at the shoulder, are open down the rest of their length at the back, and have a rounded edge. Women's kimono should be as tall as the person wearing them; men's kimono should be as tall as the shoulder to ankle measurement.
Kimono are typically made to measure – and so aren't one size fits all. Vintage kimono are especially small, though looking at vintage photos of people wearing kimono, you soon realise that it's okay if it doesn't fit exactly – many photos show sleeves that don't even go to the wrist in length. Some adjustments are possible when dressing in a kimono, even for shorter pieces; some women wear vintage or otherwise too-short pieces without the horizontal hip fold known as the ohashori, which is otherwise required for women's kimono.
However, some kimono can be bought ready to wear – and it's not a new concept, either. Ready-to-wear kimono first became popular following the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, in which so many people lost their possessions that off-the-rack kimono made of meisen (literally, "common silk stuff" – woven from machine-spun, partially degummed silk thread otherwise unusable for fine kimono) became immediately popular, particularly those dyed and woven in the Art Deco or Taishō Roman style. Ready-to-wear kimono have existed ever since, and are still sold to this day, though formal kimono are still made to a person's measurements when bought new.
Some kimono have wider collars, which are known as hiro-eri ("unfolded collar"), as opposed to bachi-eri ("folded collar"). These collars are designed to be folded in half lengthwise before being worn. You can, for convenience, just sew them down before dressing – though note that the collar is not evenly folded in half all the way along its length. It's generally wider towards the ends, though not by much.
Not every kimono is lined, and not every lining is silk. Unlined kimono are known as hitoe kimono, and lined kimono are called awase kimono. Casual kimono made of fabrics like tsumugi, wool, and cotton might also be lined in cotton or wool, sometimes both. You can identify a pre-1960 kimono by its red silk lining: the fabric is called momi, which literally means 'red silk'; typically dyed with safflower (benibana) dye, it's identifiable for its orangey-red tones.
Types of kimono
Do you have a plain solid-black kimono, where the only decoration is either one, three or five family crests (kamon) along the shoulders? That's what's known as mofuku: mourning clothing. Unless you really know what you're doing, it's likely best not to wear this while you're out and about in Japan.
Some mourning clothes have an extremely subdued grey pattern, but mourning clothing is generally identifiable by its sombre appearance.
The blanket term used to describe all types of traditional Japanese clothing is wafuku (和服). You also might hear someone referring to "kitsuke", particularly amongst Western kimono enthusiasts – literally meaning "dressing", this term is used to describe how someone wears their kimono. "Her kitsuke was so perfect" would be a compliment, while "His kitsuke was very sloppy. Did he get dressed in the dark?" obviously would not.
There are several different types of kimono; some are usually only worn by women, but as trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people exist in Japan as well as the rest of the world, once you know the ropes well, it wouldn't be frowned upon to wear whatever kimono took your fancy, regardless of gender.
Before you buy, be warned that you should consider how you're going to care for your kimono before you buy it; some kimono require a lot of care, vintage pieces especially. If you don't look after it, you'll have wasted your money – so be sure to look at the Care section of this article before you spend your cash.
- Yukata (浴衣) – The cheapest and least formal type of kimono. A one-layer, unlined cotton kimono, it's traditionally worn in summer with a hanhaba obi (for women) or a kaku obi (for men). Yukata are often worn by both men and women at summer festivals, and as a bathrobe in onsen resorts.
- Yukata with shorter, more tube-shaped sleeves aren't yukata; they're nemaki, combination bathrobe and sleepwear worn by guests at hotels and inns. They're typically unisex, distinguished only by the color (pinkish tones for women, and blueish patterns for men). These aren't worn outside the house unless you're a guest at a hotel or inn in a resort village, in which case you can wear it while you explore town.
- Yukata with indigo-and-white patterns are more of an informal bathrobe or house outfit, though can still be worn outside. However, yukata with an indigo-and-white design done in shibori (tie-dyeing) are quite prized and perfectly suitable for outdoor use.
- Yukata with bright colors and large motifs are intended to be worn outside in the summer – to festivals and around town.
- Yukata that are pricier and more subtle can be dressed up as a very informal komon kimono.
- Komon – A type of kimono with an all-over pattern on it. These informal kimono are (or were) everyday wear. They can be made of a number of different fabrics.
- Komon with much smaller repeating patterns, usually done in white on a colored background, are known as edo-komon. As they look like the more formal solid-color kimono from a distance, they're a bit more formal than the average komon, though they can still be worn as everyday wear.
- Iromuji – A solid-color kimono, usually made of silk or a nice synthetic material. Though some iromuji might have a patterned weave or a gradient background, they are designed for tea ceremony, so they're meant to be inconspicuous patterns that aren't distracting.
- Tsukesage and hōmongi – Formal kimono with a design over part of the sleeves, part of the shoulders, and part of the hem. In tsukesage the patterns don't cross the seam lines, and the patterns also tend to be smaller. Hōmongi look similar, but their designs are larger, and the patterns are matched across seams.
- Irotomesode and kurotomesode – A formal kimono with a solid-color background (irotomesode) or black background (kurotomesode) and a design along the hem.
- Furisode – A long-sleeved kimono designed for young women. As such, they have large, bright patterns all over them.
- Hikizuri/susohiki – Look like either a regular kimono or a furisode, but much longer. This type of kimono is designed to be worn on stage or by maiko or geisha. Though beautiful, it's the hardest type of kimono to wear. The collar is set back further, and the sleeves are offset to help this. Sometimes, an okiya (geisha house) that has shut down will sell on its old clothing – as though geisha will mostly own their own kimono, maiko tend not to.
- Maiko susohiki are recognizable for their furisode-style sleeves, with tucks in both the shoulders and the sleeves.
- Be warned that both maiko and geisha susohiki, though available second-hand, are commonly worn until they literally start to fall apart before being sold on. Though they're exciting to wear, be careful you're not spending money on something that can't actually be worn due to fragility, stains, and mold.
- Uchikake – A wedding over-kimono. It's designed to be worn without an obi over the top; as such, its designs cover the entire back. They are usually extremely heavy and have a padded hem.
- Shiromuku – Another type of wedding kimono, a solid-white, often-silk (though not always) kimono with furisode-style sleeves. These also have a padded hem.
You can use this chart here as a quick reference for what is and isn't acceptable in terms of formality.
Yukata make good souvenirs and gifts because they are cheap, easy to wear, and easy to buy brand-new in different sizes, including larger sizes. You can also find second-hand yukata – be sure to look out for second-hand shibori yukata, as they're less commonly sold second-hand, and are highly prized.
Though most kimono are very expensive brand-new, you can pick up second-hand ones very reasonably for around ¥15,000. Though museum-quality examples of kimono from certain decades can go for upwards of US$7000, most second-hand pieces are, if bought from the right places, quite cheap and entirely affordable. (The problem is not buying too many of them!)
There are also garments related to the kimono that might make good souvenirs and/or gifts.
- Haori (羽織) – A kimono jacket, usually made of silk, which looks a little like a kimono cut off at the waist. Haori, however, don't cross over at the front. Haori are usually worn with kimono, and come in a number of different styles and formalities, with men's haori commonly featuring a design only on the inside, not including any family crests (kamon) that were worn on the back and the front of the haori. They're commonly available second-hand, and they make excellent jackets to wear with regular clothing. Be sure to look out for shibori-dyed haori – they have a beautiful texture and can be very cheap in comparison to how much work went into making them.
- Happi – Coats which look a little like haori, but have tube-shaped sleeves and bright designs. They're usually worn to festivals, particularly by people working at the festival.
- Michiyuki – Also a kimono jacket. It looks like a haori that closes at the front. They're less commonly seen, but only because they're not always considered the most fashionable of items.
- Hanten – Another kimono jacket, hanten are casual padded winterwear jackets with generally tube-shaped sleeves. Though not something you'd generally wear in public, they are extremely comfortable and charming.
- Jinbei – It almost looks like a two-piece kimono: a top and some shorts. They're worn as pajamas or casual working clothing, particularly in summer.
- Monpe (or mompe) – Trousers designed to be worn over the top of kimono. They were a very common sight during World War II, as they were made from old kimono to be working clothing.
What aren't kimono?
Here's some tips on what kimono aren't, and how to avoid fake kimono:
- Kimono aren't "one size fits all" – it's a common misconception, but not every kimono will fit you. Some kimono will be too short, others will be too long, many won't have a large enough wingspan, and vintage kimono in particular are unlikely to fit many people today. Some may also be too large around the waist, or too narrow – and all of these things affect how kimono are worn.
- Kimono don't have matching belts – a kimono with a belt in the exact same fabric is not a real kimono.
- Kimono have a centre back seam – a kimono without a seam running straight down the back is either a very small child's kimono, or a fake kimono.
- Kimono don't have shoulder seams – the front and back body pieces are one long, continuous length of fabric.
- Kimono have an extra panel at the front – the overlapping front panel, known as the okumi, is narrower than the body panels.
- (Some underkimono don't have an okumi – these, alongside some small children's kimono, are the only exception to this rule.)
- Kimono sleeves are sewn shut past the wrist opening – the outer edge of the sleeve is sewn mostly shut for both men and women.
- (Some small children's kimono may be open down the entire outer edge – this style is known as hirosode.)
- Kimono aren't made of Chinese-design satin – ever see a kimono in fuchsia or bright blue satin, with gold dragons all over it? Either you've found a very nice stage costume, or it's not a real kimono.
If you're still unsure, and feel like you'd be unable to tell the difference between a real or a fake kimono – you're best off going to shops that aren't aimed at tourists. That's the easiest way to avoid fake kimono.
What you need to wear different types of kimono
A kimono can be an elaborate outfit, consisting of a number of elements, to the point where it's actively easier to have someone else dress you rather than try to dress yourself; or, it can be simple enough that you only need a handful of items to have a finished outfit. When you are wearing a kimono, be sure to always wrap it left over right; doing it the other way round is a major faux pas as that is only done when dressing the dead.
(Once in a blue moon, two genuine kimono or obi that look the exact same do come along – these aren't fakes! The most common obi "twins" seem to be fukuro obi. These "twin" kimono or obi may appear identical, or with the same design, but in different colors – these are either widely-produced pieces, or ones commissioned by someone in two different colors at the same time.)
Men and women will need different things in order to dress themselves; unfortunately, men have it far, far easier. (Unless you believe gender is a construct. Then go wild. Non-binary people exist in Japan as well.)
The basic elements you'll need, no matter what type of kimono you're wearing, or what your gender identity happens to be, are:
Things you'll need, regardless of gender
- Koshihimo – literally meaning "hip tie", these long cotton strips are the thing that actually holds the kimono together. They're usually sold in packs of three, which is a good number to have, but six is better. Who knows what's going to wander off and hide in your suitcase?
- Datejime – A wide undersash used to flatten and smooth out the kimono once it's been tied together with the koshihimo. Though usually made out of a type of silk known as hakata ori, you can also find elasticated ones that velcro together.
- Probably some tabi socks, if you're wearing either zōri or geta shoes. You can find traditional ones that hook together at the side, but you can also find ones made of knitted material that you can pull over the foot. The non-stretchy kind is more formal.
- A juban of some sort – unless you're wearing a yukata. Confusingly, there are two types of juban. The nagajuban resembles a normal kimono (though sometimes comes in two pieces, does not have an okumi, and/or features sleeves where the wrist opening is tacked in place and the rest of the front of the sleeve is left open), and is – save for wearing yukata – not optional. The hadajuban resembles a two-piece, tube-sleeved kimono, is worn underneath the nagajuban, and is optional – it can be substituted out for a tank top and leggings. You will mostly see nagajuban advertised as simply juban – nagajuban are underkimono, but hadajuban are underwear.
- An obi of some sort – the obi doesn't keep the kimono tied together, but you still need one!
Types of obi for women
Do you have an obi that's a plain, solid black, with no design other than a woven pattern? That is what's called mofuku – mourning clothes. Lucky you, these obi are easy to turn into ones wearable everywhere with a bit of fabric paint or embroidery, but if you're in Japan, it's best not to wear solid-black obi unless you really, truly know what you're doing.
- Heko obi – a soft, sashlike obi. Worn by men, women, children, it's one of the simplest obi to tie, and one of the most casual, meaning it can't be worn with anything above a yukata or the most informal of komon. They can also be worn over the top of hanhaba obi with a yukata for a fun and fashionable look.
- Hanhaba obi – literally, "half-width obi", hanhaba obi come in thin, one-layer styles worn with yukata, and thicker, two-layer styles that can be worn with a more casual komon.
- Odori obi look like hanhaba obi, but with large designs of gold and silver on a brightly-colored background. These are worn for dance performances – hence the name odori (literally, "dance"), and though very attractive, should generally only be worn with a similarly brightly-colored yukata.
- Sakiori obi also resemble one-layer hanhaba obi, but are rag-woven with strips of old fabric in a multi-coloured fashion. Though born of necessity, sakiori obi are highly prized for how time-consuming they are to weave, and most examples are vintage pieces.
- Nagoya obi – the most common type of obi for women, most nagoya obi are wider at one end than the other, save for some vintage pieces that might be just one width.
- Chūya obi – translating as literally "day and night" obi, these mostly-vintage obi have different designs on each side, commonly a colorful "day" design and a plain black shusu (satin) silk underside. Chūya obi are highly sought-after, and are roughly of the same formality as nagoya obi. Some are roughly the width of a hanhaba obi, but others are full width, and most are very soft and "floppy", making them easy to wear.
- Fukuro obi – the most formal type of obi worn today, 30 cm wide and roughly 3.5-4.5 m long. They are instantly recognisable, with the front of most fukuro obi being brocade. Some fukuro obi are patterned on both sides (known as zentsu), some are only patterned for 60% of the total length, and some are only patterned where the pattern is likely to show. Fukuro obi that have a pattern appearing to be upside-down near the end where the knot is formed are known as hikinuki fukuro obi.
- Hassun or fukuro nagoya obi are fukuro obi where the only part of the obi made of two layers of fabric is the section where the knot would be tied. It's used for tying the nijuudaiko obi knot, which looks like a taiko obi knot, but more formal.
- Kyōbukuro obi look like fukuro obi, but are as short as a nagoya obi.
- Maru obi – the most most formal type of obi, the maru obi is not worn today. They are roughly the same width and length as a fukuro obi, but they are made of cloth roughly 68cm wide – meaning they're folded over and sewn along one edge. This makes them quite bulky and heavy, and also – since no-one wears them – at times, quite cheap.
- Darari obi– literallg, "dangling obi", these obi are worn by maiko, and are the same width as a fukuro obi – but 6 metres long! You can buy these second-hand, but be warned – many available to buy have been worn to death, as they are so expensive to buy brand new. You may be taking on a problem child if you buy one.
Types of obi for men
- Heko obi – a soft, sashlike obi. Worn by men, women, children, it's one of the simplest obi to tie, and one of the most casual, meaning it can't be worn with anything above a yukata or the most informal of komon. Men's heko obi tend to be black, brown or dark blue, usually with a design done in shibori at the ends.
- Kaku obi – the other type of men's obi, kaku obi are worn to events of every formality. Though they can be very inexpensive, kaku obi can equally be as pricey as anything else – especially if it's from a well-known designer!
Kimono dressing aids for women
- You might need some padding around the waist – the ideal look for women's kimono is more of a tube than it was historically, and as such, padding helps the obi lie nice and flat.
- An obi makura – literally, "obi pillow". If you're tying your obi in the taiko musubi style, you'll need this. Some are just a pillow with ties attached at the ends, and some are more complex, designed to help the entire obi stay upright.
- An obi-ita – a flat board that helps the obi lie smoothly. It doesn't matter what type of obi you're wearing, an obi-ita is a must-have.
- A kantan han-eri (literallg, "easy half-collar") might help you – it's a half-collar (worn attached to the juban collar) with a long tab hanging down at the back, to which ties are attached, that then tie around the body. This can be very useful to ensure your collar stays in the right place.
- If you struggle with dressing yourself, or just want an easier time of things, a tsuke or tsukiri obi might help you – they're pre-tied obi that look indistinguishable to a normal obi when worn.
Kimono dressing aids for men
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your gender identity and kimono choices), men don't need the same number of kimono dressing aids as women. And by this, it's meant that they don't need any kimono dressing aids, above a couple of koshihimo and an obi.
Accessories for men
- Netsuke are little charms designed as something of a cordlock to keep a small purse or pouch – known as an inrō – hanging beneath the obi. The charm hooks over the top, and the cord to the pouch goes underneath the obi.
- Setta – these woven bamboo-topped zōri are commonly just vinyl made to look like bamboo. Zōri that actually have a woven bamboo layer on top are usually very expensive. To get the perfect fit, your heel needs to hang slightly off the back of the shoe.
- Geta – both men and women wear geta for informal situations. Men's geta have squared edges, instead of rounded ones. To get the perfect fit, your heel needs to hang slightly off the back of the shoe.
Accessories for women
- Obiage – worn over the top of a nagoya obi (and the formalities of obi above this), the obiage can be made of silk crepe, shibori-dyed silk, or a number of other materials, with a number of ways for it to be tied at the front. Worn with a nagoya obi, it covers up the obi makura at the back.
- Obijime – a cord worn around the middle of the obi itself, it can hold the obi knot in place, but sometimes is simply there for decoration. Most obijime are woven cords, though some – known as maruguke – resemble padded tubes, and are worn with more formal kimono outfits.
- Obidome – a brooch worn on the obijime, the obidome can be one of the most expensive parts of the kimono outfit. Materials like coral and ivory used to be common, but in the present day, substitutes are used instead.
- Geta – both men and women wear geta for informal situations. Women's geta have rounded edges, instead of squared ones. To get the perfect fit, your heel needs to hang slightly off the back of the shoe.
- Okobo are a type of geta sometimes worn with furisode, and commonly worn by maiko in some areas of Japan. They are roughly 10–13cm high and appear wedge-shaped when viewed from the side. Though the okobo that maiko wear are either plain paulownia wood or are lacquered black, the more commercially available okobo are usually lacquered in a number of different colours and designs.
- Zōri are a flatter, more ornate and formal type of traditional footwear worn with kimono. They come in a number of different materials and colors, and can be worn with anything above a yukata in formality.
- The straps used for both geta and zōri are called hanao. These are threaded through small holes in the sole of the shoe, and tied underneath; for zōri, the knots may be hidden by a rubber sole, but are typically accessible through small flaps cut into the material. You can buy replacement hanao if yours wear out; retailer karankoron[dead link] sells replacements, as well as a number of other geta and geta accessories. Failing that, it's possible to make some yourself.
There are of course a multitude of other accessories you can buy – from bags, to the fur stoles that young girls wear around their necks for Coming of Age day, to hairpins (known as kanzashi), underwear and others.
Some good news. You can pick up a 100% authentic kimono, including all of these elements, quite cheaply – for less than ¥10,000 by frequenting second hand stores. If you're going for the cheap option, here's a rough budget:
- Juban – about ¥1500
- Kimono – about ¥2000
- Zōri – Can be a bit more expensive to find one that fits. Anything around ¥2500 is bearable though
- Tabi – ¥300, try and score a pair at a ¥100 shop; knitted tabi (like Western socks) are much cheaper than the traditional tabi sewn from woven fabric, with hook closures, though knitted tabi: aren't suitable for formal occasions
- Obiage – ¥1500, it's a bit difficult to get these cheap; the cheaper versions are often poor quality. You can always dye them a darker colour if you don't like the color, and in a pinch, a nice scarf will likely do the same job.
- Obijime – cheap versions from about ¥500
- Obi – from about ¥1000
Total: about ¥6000.
For anything but tea ceremony and the more formal occasions, you aren't honour-bound to wear geta or zōri – a smart boot or shoe will work just fine.
If this is your first time purchasing kimono, it's a good idea not to go above ¥20,000 in total; if you end up collecting kimono, your tastes will change, and if you don't, you still may want to sell what you bought on one day. There's also some things you will need to keep in mind when scouring for your first, or otherwise, kimono purchase:
- Many start by buying a furisode – but struggle to sell them on. Some kimono designs are a dime a dozen, and furisode are the main culprit in this area. Just because it's beautiful – doesn't mean it's rare. If you're planning on buying a furisode, be as stingy as you can, and try your hardest not to go above US$130–150. Remember, they're also difficult to wear – and there are precious few occasions you'll be able to wear one to.
- Sheer vintage kimono will break very easily. Though there are countless examples of beautiful summertime kimono from days gone by, many of these are very fragile, more so for their sheer and see-through nature.
- Vintage silk has a tendency to shatter. This is a problem seen in vintage clothing in general – silk is a hair fibre, and eventually, it'll get brittle enough to break down entirely on its own. There's no way around this problem, other than avoiding the items with this problem.
- Vintage rayon/nylon kimono can be lovely – but they may be brittle. Rayon, also known as nylon, became the go-to fibre for kimono produced in WW2 Japan; many vintage rayon kimono are emblematic of this time. However, as a fibre, rayon becomes brittle with age, so these kimono may not be suitable for regular wear.
- Vintage red fabrics will bleed. Oh boy, will they bleed. Kimono from before 1960 usually have solid red linings – or otherwise, were worn with red silk juban. The type of dyestuff used at this time, derived from the safflower, has a tendency to bleed from the slightest heat and moisture, meaning that wearing a red-lined kimono with your lovely white juban on a hot day... may lead to red stains on said snow-white juban. Proceed with caution.
- Mothball smells will go – cigarette smoke won't. Many vintage kimono, in particular casual, indigo house clothes, are imbued with the smell of cigarette smoke. What smells like a musty old kimono in the shop may smell like the soul of a thousand ashtrays when exposed to a bit of moisture and warmth – and it is near-impossible to remove. To test something before you buy it, hold a small portion of it pressed between both palms enough to warm it up – if there's cigarette smoke present, you should be able to smell it. Afterwards, get the smell off your hands by submerging them in diluted lemon juice and baking soda.
Places to buy
Broadly speaking, there are three places you can buy kimono from in-person.
Firstly, there are little antique shops selling old clothing known as furugi. You'll find a number of these in older shopping districts like Shimokitazawa in Tokyo; however, many of them focus on Western vintage clothing as well. Avoid Harajuku; it's a tourist trap, and you won't find any deals there. It's entirely possible to find nice items in these little shops, but it does take some ferreting around, and you really need to know how much to spend so you don't come away bested by an antiques dealer. You're also unlikely to come away with all the things you need for a full outfit.
Secondly, there are established shops in larger cities that cater exclusively to selling second-hand kimono, such as Sakaeya in Tokyo. The advantage of these shops is the visible price on the garments; antiques shops likely won't have this, and will require some haggling. These second-hand shops will likely have all the elements you'll need for a kimono, which is handy if you're not planning on looking forever through every single establishment. You'll find some good second-hand kimono shops in Tokyo, and surprisingly, a weekend-only, family-run stall located on Omotesando in Harajuku, where the staff speak some English and sell kimono on at a reasonable price – ¥2000 is likely enough to net a kimono.
Outside of larger cities, you can reliably find second-hand kimono by going to so-called "recycling" (risaikuru (リサイクル)) shops. One of the larger chains is Hard Off, and they will almost invariably have a section of kimono, often a number of reasonably attractive pieces at a reasonably attractive price. The prices are clearly stated on the garment, and with no haggling allowed, this is an easily accessible option for the average tourist.
You'll soon find that the problem with buying kimono isn't the kimono itself – it's locating everything you need to go with it, and finding a juban that fits is one of the biggest issues you're likely to run into. You may have to try and get one of these from Yahoo Auctions in Japan, or other online retailers. In previous years, one of the best online retailers to find kimono was Ichiroya[dead link], run by married couple Ichiro and Yuka Wada; sadly, they closed down in early 2020, though both owners can still be found online in various kimono enthusiast Facebook groups. Their listings, staff and email newsletters were well regarded for the quality and depth of their information on kimono, and many have been archived through the WayBack Machine or archive.today [dead link]; though the shop has closed, the archived listings are an excellent resource of knowledge.
Brand-new kimono can be very expensive, requiring multiple fittings from a specialist tailor, and can cost upwards of ¥200,000; more so for kimono made by well known artists, often designated as Living National Treasures. Traditional kimono selling shops are known as gofukuya – and they have a reputation for being difficult to buy from.
Gofukuya sell kimono in fabric-bolt form, after which you pay an extra fee for the kimono to be sewn, and perhaps others for the fabric to be washed and treated; the price tag on the bolt of fabric, therefore, isn't the final cost. Be aware that if you enter a gofukuya, it is considered extremely rude not to buy something – even if it's something very small, such as tabi socks or an obijime.
One famous place to get a brand new kimono is the kimono department of Mitsukoshi's flagship store in Tokyo – other department stores may also feature shops with brand new kimono for sale.
Okay, you've got all the stuff. If you're going to wear your kimono, you're confident that nothing has been missed off the list; you've checked and double-checked a list to make sure that your outfit's going to be the exact right formality. You've also, hopefully, not thrown yourself in at the deep end with the most formal kimono, expecting you'll get things right the first time.
If you want to actually wear the thing, there's a number of challenging things. The most most challenging, straight off the bat, will appear to be tying the obi, but you're also – if you're wearing a kimono with a juban underneath, and not just a yukata – going to have to contend with your juban collar wandering off and getting 'eaten' by your kimono.
The best way to learn is to start simple. Start with any knot tied with a hanhaba obi and pair it with a yukata; though the taiko musubi is more common (musubi meaning 'knot'), it requires more components and is worn with kimono that require a juban, so start small, unlined, and half-width. The absolute simplest knots you can try are likely the karuta musubi (literally, 'playing card knot') and the chocho musubi (literally, 'butterfly knot'). Note that even the nicest hanhaba obi are still informal, so you'll want to stick to informal kimono such as yukata at first; it's necessary to start simple, but you still have to match the formality of your obi and your kimono.
Does my kimono fit me?
It's worth noting that if your kimono doesn't fit, you're going to struggle a lot more to get it to look right when worn. Kimono aren't one size fits all, and a kimono that's too big around the hips, or too long in length, is going to present you with extra problems – though you can find guides on the internet to help with these issues. Chayatsuji Kimono's blog and YouTube channel are not only excellent kimono resources, but also incredibly helpful for taller people attempting to get too-short kimono to work – take a look there if you're struggling. There are also guides for larger people looking to make kimono work for them – so don't assume you can't wear them from the get-go!
Learning to wear kimono
There are a number of different places you can learn about wearing kimono; in the past, this was generally from well-respected books such as Norio Yamanaka's Book of Kimono, but in the present day, with the magic of the internet, your sources are wider, and also English-speaking.
As well as Chayatsuji Kimono on blogspot, Facebook and YouTube, try looking at Billy Matsunaga's YouTube channel – both are excellent kitsuke (kimono dressing) teachers. In previous years, the go-to recommendation for getting stuck in to kimono would have been the Immortal Geisha website and forums – however, both the forums and website were taken offline in 2014, and exist now only in archived form. Though many of the pages are preserved on archiving websites, don't panic! The group now exists on Facebook – under the name Global Kimono – with just as large and helpful a following of experts and enthusiasts.
There are quite a few guides on the Internet that show you how to put all the other elements together, so they won't be replicated here. You will find it quite difficult at first and your first few attempts may look a bit silly, but you get better with practice. Fitting kimono onto people is actually a recognised skill in Japan and aside from registered fitters or cosmetologists it isn't legal to offer one's services to put on a kimono for financial gain – though obviously, if you've got the skills and are willing to help a friend, they'd almost certainly be infinitely grateful.
Traditionally, kimono were washed in a process called toki arai – you unstitched all the panels and washed them by hand individually, after which you'd stretch them out on boards to dry, a process known as arai hari. Naturally, this is a pretty expensive process, and isn't available outside of Japan.
The best way to keep a kimono clean is to make the right decisions before wearing it. Here's some questions to ask yourself:
- What's the weather like today? – if you're planning to wear your kimono outside, be aware of what the weather has planned, too! What seems comfortable and cool when sat down indoors can turn into something very, very warm if you're on the move. There's no shame in wearing an unlined kimono if it's not "exactly" the right month for it, so long as it's the right formality; you don't want to get sweat stains on your kimono. The rules regarding what type of kimono you can wear and in what month have relaxed over time; no-one should begrudge you for making that choice.
- What event am I wearing this to? – for some occasions, you can cut corners that may help you. If you're around and about, travelling or otherwise doing something casual, synthetic kimono are a good choice, as if they get dirty, they're easy to clean. For other occasions, silk might be necessary, which will stain easily.
Remember to wash your hands before wearing your kimono, and hang it up on a kimono hanger (really just a long pole with a hook in the centre) after wearing it to air it out. Wearing a juban underneath your kimono will keep it nice and clean, and wearing simple clothing underneath that – a tank top and shorts or leggings works well – will also help to keep it clean. You might invest in dress shields, if you know you're going to be doing something strenuous, but they may show under the arm.
If your kimono gets dirty – you can, cautiously, dry-clean it, but make sure before you send it to the dry cleaners' that you're not sending it to its grave. Before you go – call your dry cleaners' and ask them if they do bridalwear. If the answer isn't a confident "yes", move on and find another one. If they can't do bridalwear – the most silk-laden, snow-white outfits of all – they're unlikely to be able to do your kimono any justice.
If a good dry cleaners' isn't available, then there are some kimono that you could, potentially, hand-wash – however, the stitches on hand-sewn kimono are likely to come loose, and there's the possibility that the dye could run and bleed.
Kimono aren't sewn together with tight stitches, and some dyestuffs – even synthetic dyes – bleed easily, with red and indigo dye being the main culprits. Total immersion in water and the agitation from washing could lead to a kimono coming apart, and the colors running over one another – leading to a stained kimono that you can't wear.
Machine-sewn kimono, however, can be hand-washed, but only very gently – and it's far better to try and spot-treat kimono (not with water and a sponge!) than to hand-wash them if they have a number of different colors. For machine-sewn yukata, you can likely throw these in the wash on a delicate cycle with little consequence – so long as it's brand-new or otherwise mass-produced, as these are designed to be more washable. You should be fine, hopefully, but as always, exercise caution. Keep in mind that water stains on silk do not wash out.
Hand-washing anything dyed red is immediately out of the question, especially vintage pieces with red linings, and machine-washing kimono in general, outside of simple pieces that have been machine-sewn, is almost certainly a very bad idea.
You may be able to remove stains with 99% isopropyl alcohol – as it evaporates quickly enough that it will not leave a water stain itself. Using a cotton bud lightly dipped in the alcohol, gently swab away stains, testing first on an area that won't be seen. Be careful of finishes such as fabric paint, gold foil and golden threads – the alcohol may react poorly with these. Never use less than 99%, as percentages like 70% and 50% will likely leave a water stain.
Don't store your kimono on a hanger in your wardrobe, unless it's folded up on a trouser hanger – and even then, it's not advisable. Yes, you found your kimono hanging on a Western-style garment hanger in the shop – but avoid it anyway! Over time, the shoulders will warp oddly, and the seams and panels will stretch out.
(You should also avoid storing your kimono in direct sunlight – the older a kimono is, the more likely it will fade quickly.)
Traditionally, kimono were stored in tatōshi wrappers – acid-free rice paper envelopes – and these are still available, relatively cheaply online. They are not particularly sturdy; it's very easy to rip them, though you can store more than one kimono in them at a time. They're a good investment, but you may not have access to them; in which case, acid-free tissue paper (the acid-free part is important) will probably do the job.
Kimono were also stored in chests called tansu – paulownia wood chests. Because of the properties of paulownia, these helped to regulate the humidity inside the chest, as Japan's environment is naturally prone to humidity and, over time, mould.
Tansu can be difficult to find and expensive to buy. A flat plastic container under your bed would suffice, as it keeps the kimono away from heat and light, but you must make sure to air out your kimono roughly once a year. You should also fold your kimono in the appropriate way, as this will help to avoid creasing panels unnecessarily.
If you're not storing your kimono in a tatōshi – don't store it in any kind of paper that isn't acid-free. This includes taking a bolt of fabric off the little cardboard tube you bought it on. This will lead to, in a shorter amount of time than you would think, discolouration spots appearing on the kimono, and unless you're able to submerge what you've bought in oxiclean for hours at a time, it is irreversible.
- Always wrap the kimono with the left side over the right side, as the reverse is only done when dressing dead people.
- Don't bow to people with your palms pressed together when wearing kimono – bowing with one's palms pressed together is something done at shrines when praying to deities.
- Avoid wearing chopsticks in your hair – they're not the same thing as kanzashi. You can buy metal chopsticks, but these also aren't kanzashi – metal chopsticks are used in funerals.
- Avoid stereotypical geisha and maiko costumes if you're wearing your kimono for Halloween. Unless you've really put time and effort into the accuracy of your costume, it's likely that it will not come across well.
- If you're going to be visiting special places such as shrines or otherwise attending formal events, wear your kimono properly. Leave the kimono remixing with Western accessories and belts for another time – respect the occasion, place and people around you.