A Guide to Kimono Etiquette

The how and when of Kimono



Kimono are seen by many as the national “costume” of Japan. Just as there are casual and formal clothes in the west, there are also different kimono for a variety of situations.

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Different “crests” for different occasions

Kimono are often used for ceremonies and occasions where a type of formal dress is required. The type of pattern, or whether a pattern is present at all changes depending on the degree of formality. Kimono for formal occasions comes in 3 major types.

The “Kuro montsuki” (black crested) kimono is the most formal. This black kimono has five crests, one on the back, two on the chest, and one on each arm. Men often wear these to occasions such as weddings or funerals. While often used as mourning clothes by women, depending on the “obi” (sash) they can also be used for celebrations.

Next the the “tomesode”, said to be the “Court dress” of a lady, which comes in both black and coloured varieties. Both have the family crest at the top, and beautiful designs on the hem, making either suitable for celebrations. The black variety has 5 crests like the previously mentioned kuro montsuki, but the coloured variants may also have only have 3, omitting the two on the chest. The general rule is that more crests equals greater formality.

Appropriate for semi formal occasions is the “houmongi” (lit. visiting dress). This kimono is perhaps more “flashy”, with patterns running all over it. This is the favourite for parties, weddings, or other celebratory occasions. 

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The meaning of sleeve lengths

For “Furisode” (long sleeved kimono) there are fundamentally three types, which translate to “large – medium – small” in terms of sleeve length. Again, there is a relatively simple rule here in that the longer the sleeves, the more formal the kimono. Furoside are essentially meant to be worn by unmarried women. This is due to the fact that in the Edo era there was a trend for women to reply to men’s marriage proposals by waving their sleeves from left to right to signify a yes, and back and forth for a no. Since a married woman has no need of this ability, it came to pass that furisode were thought of as clothing for unmarried women.

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Casual kimono, one’s fashion sense can be put on display

Kimono aren’t only limited to formal occasions, and there are plenty that can be worn at more casual events. The patterned-all-over “tsumugi”, or the checkered “pongee” kimono are representative of more style focused kimono.

These days there are even more varieties appearing, such as kimono made of denim or leather. There is now a wealth of designs, from the minimalist to the all out over the top “taisho roman” style. We recommend Kimono-beginners to start from the more casual designs.

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“Yukata” – the event king

Most casual of all, is the “yukata”, which you will largely see at festivals or firework’s displays. While it is common to use “hakusho”, a type of underwear meant for kimono, you can also wear yukata without anything special under them. Since they were originally worn when exiting a bath, they are in many ways a private form of clothing. However, they are easy to put on, making them ideal for beginners, or just for wearing around town.