Want to know a secret? Your beautiful kimono, the star of the outfit, the quintessential Japanese garment, the hero of vintage fashion, is in actual fact a sideline to something else. Want to know what that something else is? The humble obi belt. Or not so humble belt. And I mean seriously not so humble belt. While we think of our belts as functional clothing items, that can sometimes be a fashion statement, the kimono sash is much, much more than that. Did you know that the Japanese obi can in fact be worth more than the whole kimono outfit put together? Did you realise that the magnificent sash is a total statement that would have taken a craftsperson hundreds of hours to make and is a masterpiece of textile art and precision? Obviously, not all obi belts are created equal, but let's take a closer look at why and how these beautiful Japanese textiles might just be worth more than your diamond engagement ring.
History of Japanese Obi Belts
Obi belts haven’t always been the wide beauties that they are now. In fact, obi started out as more of a kimono sash or ribbon, which was around 8cm wide.Both men and women wore similar-sized obi and until the beginning of the 17th century, this remained the standard. By the 1680s however, the width of women's obi doubled, meaning that they were now around 16cm wide. In the 1730s, women's kimono belts had increased again and were now around 25cm wide. At the turn of the 19th century, belts had increased to almost 30cm. By this point, due to the weight from the increased width, other belts and ribbons were required to hold the obi in place. Mens obi also increased in width but not really as dramatically. They were at their widest in the 1730s, where they measured around 16cm wide.
Women in the 1880s wearing obi sashes and kimono
Up until the early 17th Century, women's robes were fastened closed with a sash at the hips. This was because the sleeves of the kimono (the early form of the kimono was called a kosode) were at this stage still fastened to the rest of the garment, meaning that tying the sash any higher would have been impossible. When the fashions in kimono (see here for a concise history of kimono) started changing and longer sleeves started becoming more common, a wider belt was needed. This was partially to keep the proportions right, wider sleeves required the balance of a wider sash, and also because more women were wearing long sleeves at that stage. Today it is customary only for unmarried women to wear long sleeves, but in the 1770’s many women wore them. Having these wide sleeves attached to the main body of the robe would have made working almost impossible as it would have restricted movement. This meant that the underarm of the sleeve was left open, giving freedom of movement and also allowing for a wider obi sash to be used.
Women wearing kosode and obi belts. Notice how the obi are tied much lower down, more at the hips than at the waist.
This kosode robe was probably made in in the 1660s. Notice how the sleeves are attached to the main body of the robe. This would have made tying a wide obi extremely difficult. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kimono sashes used to be tied at the front of the kimono, but fashions soon changed and an obi could be tied at the front, back or side. During the last part of the Edo period, a married woman would wear her obi tied at the back and an unmarried or widowed woman would wear hers at the front. Because the obi was always increasing in size, it quickly became unpractical to tie the obi in the front and so by the end of the 17th Century, during the Meiji Period, obi were mostly tied in the back and this had continued to be the rule until today.
Fun fact, one way of telling the difference between a geisha and an oiran (the highest class of courtesan), was to look at which way her Obi was tied. A geisha always tied hers at the back, and an oiran would have hers tied very ornately at the front of her kimono.
Can you spot the difference? The geisha (on the left) has her obi tied with the knot at the back, and the oiran (on the right) has her much more elaborate obi tied at with the knot at the front
Towards the end of the 18th century, it was considered very fashionable to have an extremely long kimono or kosode, which would trail behind the wearer in the house. In order to prevent this long hem from dragging on the ground while outside, the excess fabric was gathered at the waist and held in place under the obi with a shigoki obi. Kimono these days are still made overly long, this is because they are essentially a 1 size fits all garment. It’s easy to tuck excess fabric away but much harder to add fabric, so kimono makers would rather err on the side of caution to make them overly long so they fit everyone. The excess silk is gathered at the hips, making a fold called ohashori which is then hidden behind the obi.
This painting is from the 1700-1750s, showing a woman in her home winding a clock. Notice the extremely long kimono she is wearing. The excess fabric would have been tucked under her obi if she went out, so that it didn't get dirty. If you look closely, you can see the knot of her obi is tied in the front
It used to be common to provide a wedding chest filled with family obi to a young bride. This was a way of passing on inheritance to her as the obi were considered very valuable. At the end of the day, the obi you choose to wear with your kimono can make or break the outfit. Depending on what obi you choose, the same kimono can be either seen as a casual outfit or something much more formal if paired with a formal obi. I guess we try to do the same thing in Western culture, how many style guides are there out there showing you how to go from work casual to dinner date formality with the same outfit and a few different accessories. Next time, just wear your kimono and pack two different styles of obi and you’re ready to go.
Different Types of Obi Belts
There are quite a few different types of obi, you would select your belt depending on the situation. As a general rule, the more brocade you find on an obi there more formal it is. We’ve ranked these belts from most formal to least formal.
This is the most formal of the obi. It is normally very intricately hand-embroidered and features patterns on both sides of the belt. This is only used by brides for their wedding kimono or by geisha and maiko (trainee geisha, if you are interested in Geishas contribution to Japan see here). The traditional length for this Japanese sash is between 400-450cm and traditionally is 33cm wide. Maiko would wear a specially ordered Maru obi, which was much longer, coming in around 700cm. This special obi was called a Darari obi. This obi were so heavy, the maiko would actually have to have a special servant, normally a man, to tie the obi for her. Maru obi were most popular during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) eras but has waned in popularity since then. Maru obi are extremely expensive to produce and are actually quite uncomfortable to wear. Due to all the embroidery on them, they end up being extremely heavy so would not be advised for everyday wear.
Three maiko, all wearing maru obi. Notice how long they are, and how wonderful the patterns are. These obi will also have a pattern on the backside, even though you can't see it.
Maru obi, showing the patterning on both sides
The fukuro obi is a lighter and slightly less extravagant variation the maru obi. In fact, this style of obi has taken the place of the maru obi due to the fact that it’s a little less expensive, and also much lighter. Fukuro obi still feature quite intricate embroidery but are only patterned on one side rather than both. The back of the obi will still be silk or brocade but won’t be embroidered. The pattern will also only cover around 60% of the obi, leaving the middle part bare as this isn’t really seen anyway due to the way the obi is tied. The fukuro obi was introduced in the late 1920s and is the same general length and width as a maru obi. When properly tied, the fukuro obi is extremely hard to distinguish from the maru obi.
A gorgeous example of a fukuro obi, this has plain green silk on the underside
This style of obi is one of the most common and convenient obi used today. It was first produced in the city of Nagoya at the end of the Taisho era. It is preferred as it is less expensive to buy but can still be stunning in design and is substantially lighter than the other two obi mentioned earlier. The easiest way to identify this obi is by the fact that a portion of it is pre-folded and stitched into place. This means that it is much easier to tie as the narrow part wraps around the waist while the wider part forms the back bow. The more intricately patterned Nagoya obi can even be accepted as formal wear although you can see the difference to a fukuro or maru obi as the bow at the back will only have a single fold compared to the double fold due to it’s slightly shorter length (340-360cm).
This is a nagoya obi. Notice the difference in width, this is to make tying the obi easier and also to reduce the weight of it
This Japanese obi sash is a much more informal style of obi. It is much narrower than either of the other 3 aforementioned obi and comes in at around ½ the width of the others at 15-18cm. Often this style of obi is paired with the much more informal yukata. The name for the belt is literally “Half-width” With “Han” meaning “half” and “Haba” meaning “width. These obi are quite popular these days as they are easier to tie because they aren’t so wide. They are sometimes reversible meaning that they are fun to style as they can be a colour explosion depending on which way you fold and twist the fabric. Because this obi is much more informal, it’s commonly accepted that you can “play” with the knots used and it would be totally acceptable to make up your own knot if you wanted to.Hanhaba obi are often made from cheaper materials making them much more affordable to buy. They are also patterned simply to reflect their use for every day. The patterns are also mostly stencilled rather than being embroidered or woven in like some of the more formal and expensive obi.
These 3 women are all wearing yukata and all have a hanhaba obi on. The belts are noticeably slimmer than other obi sashes we have mentioned so far, and are all simply patterned
The Chuya Obi is named this because it was originally reversible and had a different colour on each side. “Chu” means “daytime” and “ya” means night. When it first came to popularity it was always made white on one side and black on the other, hence the day and night obi. Eventually, it was made in different colours as well but one side was often darker and less decorated, while the other was bright and would have more intricated patterns on it. This obi belt was similar in size to a fukuro obi, around 30cm wide and 350-400cm long. It was popular in the Edo and Meiji periods but isn’t used much these days as it’s been eclipsed by the practicality of the Nagoya obi. It is also sometimes called the “Hara-awase Obi”.
Classic chuya obi, dark and more subtle on one side and bright and festive on the other
This is a very informal obi that is made from a very soft cloth, often chirimen silk, see here for a rundown on different types of silk. The silk is commonly dyed with a shibori pattern, see here if you want to know about shibori. The silk is wider than the other kimono belts we've talked about, coming in at around 50-70cm. Because it is so soft, this doesn’t really mean much as it scrunches together and the width isn’t really noticeable. As with the other obi, a heko obi is around 300-400cm long. It is often worn with a yukata and sometimes with a very informal kimono. It used to be traditional for only men and children to wear this obi and was for a while considered inappropriate for women to wear it. These rules have relaxed now and it’s worn by everyone, but only if they are in an informal setting.
Heko obi in use with a mens yukata and folded, showing the shibori pattern
This is a very easy obi, which has been pre-tied. It often comes with the knot separate, so that it can be pinned into place once the rest of the obi has been tied around the waist. The whole obi is then held in place with ribbons. This type of obi is very informal, as often you can tell that it’s pre-tied. Imagine going to a very formal, black-tie event and wearing a clip-on bowtie, it would be a bit of a faux par too wouldn’t it? Often these belts are only used with yukata. If you want to know what the difference between a Kimono vs Yukata is, check out this blog post. It is possible to get tsuke obi which do look quite good. Sometimes if an old fukuro obi has been damaged in a way that it can’t be repaired, it will be turned into a beautiful tsuke obi instead of getting rid of the whole thing altogether.
This is an example of a vintage fukuro that has been turned into a tsuke obi
This is an example of a very cheap looking tsuke obi. It certainly reminds me of a cheap pre-tied bowtie don't you think?
While this obi isn’t actually the least formal, it’s going to land at the end of the list because it’s not really categorizable in terms of formality. It is an obi mainly used by men, and is much narrower than the traditional formal women's obi. It’s around 10cm wide, and 400cm long and can suit every occasion depending on what material, colour and pattern you might choose. It is made with a stiff fabric, often “hakata-ori”, and might have a woven pattern. “Hakata-ori” is a unique fabric in that once you have tightened it around the body it doesn’t easily come loose again. This was great for the Samurai, who used to have to carry their swords in their belts. I've often seen these belts worn by Sumo wrestlers, maybe the extra grippy fabric helps with their big bellies!
Kaku obi being used with a yukata, this one has a very nice woven pattern. Image courtesy of Katorisi
As funny as it seems, that your kimono accessory could have accessories of its own, they do exist!
The most common are:
This accessory is an obi scarf that keeps the upper part of the obi knot in place by wrapping around the pillow used to give the obi knot it’s shape. It was seen as a provocative piece of clothing (similar to underwear) so an unmarried woman would sometimes show a little of this silk above her obi in the way that I might occasionally flash a little bit of lace from a bra if I was wearing a low cut dress.
Obiage often come in bright colours, and feature shibori
This is a small pillow that is held in place with the obiage and helps to shape the knot of the obi by giving it volume. There are quite a lot of differently shaped pillows depending on what type of knot you would like to tie.
This is one shape of obimakura, you can see the elastic used to attach it to the waist. Image courtesy of Ichiro Wada
This is a stiff, fabric-covered piece of card or plastic that helps to keep the obi from becoming wrinkled. It is slipped between the layers of the obi as it is being tied. More modern versions of the Obi-ita will have elastics or ribbons so that it can be tied on more securely and prevent it from slipping out of place.
A white silk covered obi-ita. Image courtesy of Ichiro Wada
This is a cord, often plaited, around 150cm long which is tied around the waist over the top of the obi and through the back of the knot. It serves as extra decoration and also holds everything in place more securely. The ones I’ve come across are often made with the most beautifully coloured silk and are either flat or round. They can also be made with a narrow tube of fabric although I have rarely seen them being used. A round Obijimi is considered to be more festive than a flat one.
Two examples of obijimi belts. The left one would be considered less festive than the right as it's flat rather than round
This is a small trinket or ornament that is attached to the obijime. They come in many different shapes, sizes and forms and can be really fun.
This is the same as an obidome, but for men and is suspended directly from the obi.
This is a beautiful example of netsuke. Image courtesy of Pinterest
How to tie an Obi Belt
Learn how to tie an otaiko-knot by yourself using a gorgeous antique nagoya-obi
Interesting facts about Obi belts
Most obi produced today come from an area in Kyoto called Nishijin. This area has been the centre of the Japanese textile industry since the 1480’s, after the end of the Ōnin War (1467–1477). Nishijin is well known for its high-quality silks and used to provide textiles for the Imperial courts and the Samurai Lords. There is a style of silk known as Nishijin-Ori which is a weaving technique that requires a huge amount of skill to make and is very expensive to produce. This textile was first produced by Heizo Tatsumura in the 19th century. It is incredibly intricately woven and can have a 3D effect. The threads are often quite thick, and mostly come in gold tones as is befitting of such a costly textile. Many obi used to be made out of this extravagant silk. To purchase one of these obi, can cost well upwards of 1 million yen (8,500euro) so when we say it might be worth more than your engagement ring, you know why! Imagine inheriting a whole chest of these when you got married, you really were inheriting the family fortune...
This video shows a demonstration of nishijin-ori silk being woven by a craftswoman
Just look at these amazing examples of obi belts made with nishijin-ori silk. Absolutely stunning!
Are there any other obi related questions you might have? Have you stumbled across a belt that you would love to share with us? Do you wanna say hi or blow us a kiss? Send us a message on Instagram and let us know!
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Modern Archive is an online space for textile lovers. We're especially obsessed with everything to do with Japanese Kimonos, Ai-zome and Shibori. We write about things that we like in our kimono magazine and occasionally host pop-up events. Find us on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. Send us an email to hellomodernarchive@gmail (or blow us a kiss)