The kimono is a huge part of how the world sees Japan. In virtually every Orientalist depiction of the country, kimono-clad women will be doing the rounds, and to this day, it’s synonymous with the ideals (and stereotypes) of this island nation. For most average Japanese people today, however, kimono are often seen as off-limits or as relics of the past – a dazzling, complex arrangement of clothing that they may only have worn as a kid, if ever.
Hitomi Ito is determined to keep the tradition alive. A kimono-ka, or kimono expert, Ito wears mainly kimono – she actually threw out most of her Western-style clothing a few years ago – and treasures the clothing passed down in her family, in addition to shopping for beautiful, pre-loved garments at secondhand shops. ‘“Antique” kimono roughly refers to garments from the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods (1868-1930s)’, Ito explains. ‘Whereas recycled (secondhand) kimono are anything from mid-late Showa (1950s) onwards.’
‘If you want to buy a kimono, the key thing is thinking about when you would wear it,’ she says. ‘Kimono aren’t exactly like other kinds of clothing, which you can just buy without knowing when you’d wear it.’
Seasons are a good place to start. In winter (October to May, in this case), deeper, bolder colours with seasonal flowers are de rigueur while the materials are awase (lined). Hitoe (unlined) or usumono (lightweight) summer kimonos tend to place emphasis on more subtle pastel shades. Whatever the time of year, you'll be wearing a simple underlayer (nagajuban), often coupled with a second layer (hadajuban) underneath.
If you are looking for an everyday kimono you can wear to a casual party, your best bet is a komon (with patterns all over). A homongi (with patterns at the bottom and over the shoulders, both flowing over the seams) is reserved for formal occasions, while a furisode (for unmarried, young women, distinguished by its long sleeves) or tomesode (for older, married women) is better if you’re attending a wedding. For a concise overview of how patterns define formality, check out this graph (in Japanese).
The obi (belt) should reflect the formality of the kimono too; simply put, anything brocade-esque or with gold and silver threads is formal, whereas base colours in a simple fabric are casual. For coordination, Ito recommends picking an obi that matches one or more colours of the patterns on your kimono, rather than the base colour, for a sleek whole.
Top off your ensemble with two other essential bits: the obi-age and the obi-jime. The former is a small cloth which hides the towels wrapped around your waist, keeps things in place and presents a pop of colour between the top of the obi and your kimono, while the latter is a rope tied around the obi. Tie it all together by adding in some accessories and putting your hair up: showing the nape of your neck is considered the most aesthetically pleasing.
It may sound complicated, but Ms Ito left us with the assurance that ‘at the end of the day, what matters most is what you like and what you feel comfortable in’. With the times a-changing and styles going in and out of fashion, a more modern take on kimono seems to be a freer one. Phew.
Our top vintage picks
Ginza Kimono Aoki
Set in the backstreets of Omotesando, Gallery Kawano has a dazzling selection of obi, some of which are almost a century old. Their kimono and haori selection leans towards the traditional in terms of patterns and colours, but – unusually – they also carry larger sizes, making it perfect for taller women. Check out their range of kimono fabrics too: they have everything from simple-patterned silks to elaborately printed ones, and the bags with different fabrics bunched together make a great gift. Unlike most other places on this list, they have English signage to help you distinguish what is what.
A stone’s throw from Gallery Kawano, Oedo Kazuko is a swanky shop in an unassuming basement along Omotesando. If you’re looking for a vivid kimono with traditional prints, this is the place to be, while their small patches of kimono fabrics are popular too. They also carry a large range of hair accessories and children’s kimono, so you’ll definitely be able to find something to suit your taste and needs here – with prices matching the quality.
Tokyo135° Shinjuku Alta
An offshoot of the nationwide Tansuya chain, Tokyo135's Shinjuku Alta branch attracts a diverse crowd looking for slightly funkier kimono for all occasions. Their colour scheme and style is decidedly more pop art-y and modern than traditional, and they also sell a large selection of vibrant hair adornments and other accessories, alongside some cool remade items. Not all pieces for sale are secondhand, but they have a good mix of new and old. Be sure to browse their offerings of obi, which have some pretty interesting prints as well. Considering some kimono sets go for ¥10,000, your wallet is unlikely to bleed profusely, and with literally everything you'd need to dress yourself on offer, it's a good place to pick up a full kit.
Recycle Kimono Fukufuku Kagurazaka
Part of a small city-wide chain, this secondhand kimono shop has anything from traditional, upscale styles to more modern, casual renditions. The mens selection is particularly interesting here, with some original, remade items, including denim kimono and haori (which look just as good on taller women too). The women’s section features formal homongi to more casual komon, and best of all, carries a wide range of height sizes. Check out the gender-defying remade kimono (female kimono resewn as male ones and vice versa) for a little modern twist. They offer kimono wearing and coordinating lessons on Thursdays and Sundays too; contact them in advance for details. If you can't make it to any of their physical shops, have a gander at Fukufuku's online store.
The only shop on our list that isn’t exclusively a kimono shop, Tokyo Hotarudo is an antiques purveyor set at the end of a narrow alleyway wedged between two buildings in Asakusa. Their focus is on female kimono and haori, all which had a quirky and one-of-a-kind feel. Bring a well-padded wallet though, as most haori and kimono here go for ¥15,000 and upwards.