You Can`t Judge A Book By Its Cover- the Kimono

The kimono. Long thought by Western cultures to be an elegant robe, loosely wrapped and cinched with an elaborate belt allowing Japanese men and women to conduct the business of daily living devoid of the discomforts associated with ties and stockings. The kimonoย  transcends fads such as those producing leggings and minis on a woman too old to know better. I recently discovered this traditional dress worn for centuries is the example of a wolf in sheep`s clothing. Their robe like appearance belies the vice-like constriction which categorizes them as a little known instrument of torture. It is also possible that the kimono could be used as a diet aid since eating is impossible while wearing one. As is breathing.

Recently I attended a traditional New Years Luncheon hosted by a group of Japanese women.ย  Hidden among the sky scrapers of downtown Tokyo, Happo-en is an oasis of old Japan. The imposing wooden gates mark the entrance in Japanese. A large garden containing 500-year-old Bonsai trees, cascading waterfalls, and cherry blossoms surrounds the building. A picturesque tea house sits beside a lake. I expected powdered Geisha to parade around the perimeter to complete the picture.

Picture by Heidi Sanford

500 Yr Old Bonsai Trees

It seemed appropriate to wear a kimono.

As I investigated renting a kimono, I discovered two unfortunate facts. The first was that renting the kimono along with the other undergarments would cost between $600-1000. As if. And, it takes two to get one in to a kimono. So difficult, in fact, is the tying of this robe that training is required. Huh? So when one of my friends offered a kimono of her mother`s for me to wear I pounced and requested something indestructible and preferably not a family favorite. My own clothes leave a luncheon looking like I sat in a high chair. Wearing a bib over a kimono might appear disrespectful even if I did have its welfare in mind.

As is typical of the Japanese, my friend called having already thought through every detail.

“Ouisar-san, I have dropped off the kimono. Be there at 10:40 to get dressed. I have made all the arrangements. Bring some dish towels.”

I know not to ask. Just do it. There is a good reason for everything.

When I arrived at the Beauty Salon, several of my friends were already getting their hair done. Two tiny ladies ushered me in to a tatami matted room surrounded with mirrors. The kimono appeared to be a small portion of what I was to wear. I had no idea what was to come.

That`s when the man handling started. The two ladies dressing me may have been half my height but prior to being dressers they were sumo wrestlers.

First came the underwear. It is the only part that isn`t painful.

Here I am in my underwear- don`t pass it around the internet.

“Ouisar-san- are those dish towels strapped around your waist?”

Why yes. They are in fact dish towels wrapped around my waist. Their function is to flatten out the buttocks region. A woman in kimono should appear as a perfect cylinder and flat when viewed from the side. (I didn`t require any stuffing for the front as it was already perfectly flat) She also put cotton along my shoulders. Probably to absorb the impact from any falls I might take once fully dressed.

Next came an under kimono.

Sash number two above. She was wrapping them as tightly as she could. I soon lost track of all the sashes. I renamed them “Sashes of sufferance.” The Social Chairman documented the process. Not all sashes are included.


I struggled to describe “Too tight” in Japanese.

The evil ladies laughed and pulled harder thinking my ability to talk indicated a failing on their part to get my waist down by 15 inches.

At this point I blew out my stomach to gain room as they pulled. Knowing all the tricks, they smiled sweetly,waited for me to breathe, and pulled tighter. A mother boa constrictor would have been proud if her offspring could accomplish such constriction. They must know something about saddling horses. When they heard ribs cracking, one declared the obi drawn.

All my organs were now either above or below my obi. My lungs and stomach were both fighting for space in my throat. The more discomfort I felt, the happier these ladies became.

And I still had to squeeze in to the shoes.

Also designed to be irritating, the zori sandals and tabi socks are supposed to be three sizes too small. The heel of the foot must overhang the back of the sandal as a marker of proper fit.

Did I mention I was roasting from the inside out? Between the layers, the stuffing, and the tightly bound clothing holding in body heat, I was concerned that my spontaneous combustion might ruin the party.

The kimono and obi I wore were antiques. Many of the kimonos are handed down through the generations. These are stunning works of art as opposed to my mother`s red,white and blue paper dress from the 70`s.

Hair is usually worn up to highlight the back of the neck. The poor woman in the salon attempted to hairspray the hair on my neck away; she didn`t know it only responds to wire clippers and dippity doo.

Antique obi and kimono

Hand embroidery

New Years Toast- The kimono I`m wearing belongs to my friend on the far right

In Japan, if you want something a Japanese friend owns, simply compliment that person on it. Chances are good they`ll feel obligated to give it to you. The Social Chairman learned this lesson during the luncheon. She complimented the hostesses on the choice of sake. Soon the bottles were back out and being passed around. Then one of the uber sophisticated ladies hurried behind the bar to snatch a bottle. And put it in her purse.

My purse wasn`t quite large enough to carry a bottle of sake. However, my kimono was. It was then the ladies showed me the hidden pockets in the kimono. The sleeves are cavernous pockets, large enough for several bottles of sake, the flower arrangements, some desserts, and anything else I may have wanted to filch on my way out.

All dressed and ready to go

A kimono makes every woman beautiful. Elegant. Graceful. It`s no wonder they`ve been worn for centuries.

All photos taken by Heidi Sanford

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63 Responses to You Can`t Judge A Book By Its Cover- the Kimono

  1. Rurousha says:

    Serendipity that I noticed this post so soon, because I’ve been waiting for it! ^^

    First of all, you looked gorgeous. Worth the pain, at least for the observer! Secondly, the women who tied the obi are clearly experts. That is not an easy bow to make!

    A kimono is interesting, isn’t it? Instead of a garment that’s made to fit the figure, the figure in this case has to adjust to the garment. Did you also get an awful backache?


    • Thanks Rurousha! These ladies absolutely knew what they were doing. They work at Happo-In and no one is walking out of there with a badly formed kimono! My main problem was I couldn`t take a deep breath- it was really hard to breathe! Almost impossible to eat – but I managed. I think my back didn`t hurt because it`s almost like having a back brace on! The kimono I had was just stunning- and the obi – amazing. Thanks for noticing!


  2. The nose says:

    That was so interesting! Thanks for the step by step photos showing what an ordeal to get dressed! Also, so sweet and generous of your friend to lend it to you and a beautiful good will gesture of yours to wear one! Thanks for sharing!


    • I just could not get over how much effort she went through to get me in to this kimono. Picking a color for me she thought would look good and not show anything if I spilled- she knew I was worried about that. Bringing it all over. And it was A LOT of stuff!


  3. Angela says:

    As always, a very entertaining article. Happo En is a beautiful place, somewhere that I visited several time whilst living in Tokyo, now unfortunately, I have to resort to photographs that I took there (many!) as we are living back in Europe ๐Ÿ˜ฆ


  4. Ain’t your average bathrobe that’s for sure !


  5. clairegirl says:

    Loved this post! I have been wondering what occasion you were dressed for when you sent these pics a few weeks ago on email. I kept forgetting to ask you while skyping.


  6. Sue Payne says:

    Emily…..this is FABULOUS!!!! I’m glad to see they let you keep a little southern height on the hair for the occasion:)


  7. J Holmes says:

    Hi Emily. What a delightful article. I’m so American that I find wearing a Hakama for Aikido or Kendo practice to be a punishing experience. Once again, forgive me but I’m glad I’m a guy. My elaborate ten minute shave/shower/dress routine is fine for me.

    Domo Arigato.


  8. Maria says:

    Fantastic, from start to finish. How long did it take to get it all off? I’m bookmarking this one so I can read it again!


  9. Emiel says:

    Wonderful! Emily in Kimono, 500 year old bonsai and an impressive obi. Thanks for sharing this and you look great in kimono, really elegant!


    • Thanks Emiel! I was watching “Memoir of a Geisha” on tv the other night and kept thinking of you and your Geisha encounter! That movie has exquisite scenery and kimono.


      • Emiel says:

        You were thinking of me! You have no idea how much I want to return to Kyoto to wander around in Gion. It must have changed a lot, but I still want to show my kids why daddy is always talking about Japan ๐Ÿ™‚


      • It hasn`t changed a bit since you were there I bet. It is one of my favorite places. Every time I go I find something new! My kids actually like it also which I find interesting as they usually find temples boring.


  10. Priceless post, Emily. Still wondering why the heel hanging off the back of the shoe indicates a proper fit–the same seemed to be the case with women wearing flip-flops in Vietnam.


  11. Mandy says:

    I love this post. I’m an American living in Taiwan, and my first trip up to Japan may come at the end of next month. I’d love to try on a traditional kimono while I’m there, especially now that I won’t be surprised by the suffering involved in the dressing process. Thanks for sharing!


  12. thirdeyemom says:

    Wow… I can’t imagine all the steps in loved and sacrifice of putting a kimono on! It is beautiful but sounds like a corset. Excellent post!


  13. stacy says:

    Beautiful – thank you for the wonderful detail! You looked amazing – as always – another great experience that you allowed us all to share in – thank you.


  14. Jackie Cangro says:

    These kimonos are stunning. Each one seems to be a beautiful work of art. Though it is deceptive because they look so comfortable. I never knew how involved it was to put one on. How on earth does one go to the bathroom?


  15. Axel Pliopas says:

    Looks so beautiful! I was in Japan for 3 months, but I didn’t have access to this “hidden universe” of the kimono in this way, so it was very interesting to read this post. And when I read “As is typical of the Japanese, my friend called having already thought through every detail.” I really missed Japan… it is really always like this!!!! ๐Ÿ™‚


  16. Tori Nelson says:

    Tempted to say OUCH and LOVELY all at once! I particularly love the ninja turtle socks ๐Ÿ™‚


  17. Dana says:

    This is incredible! Who knew there was so much work (and underparts) involved in wearing a kimono? It’s really gorgeous, though– well worth not being able to eat, stand, sit, or breathe for a few hours. ๐Ÿ™‚


  18. Seems looking beautiful requires some suffering wherever you live . . .You look really beautiful in the kimono! It’s a gorgeous colour too.


  19. Olga 0207 says:

    Emily, you look gorgeous! Thanks for sharing the photos. ๐Ÿ™‚


  20. Michi says:

    Another favorite!! You look GORGEOUS in a kimono, and the step-by-step pictures are great. Purple is definitely your color! ๐Ÿ˜‰


  21. Yousei Hime says:

    I am, foolishly I know, jealous. You look lovely. One observation, I don’t think looking beautiful has changed much, just in its degrees of torture. Still I’d endure it to wear something that lovely once. Thank you for the stories and laughs you share.


  22. Diane Goldstein says:

    Emily – This was a really fun post!


  23. sweffling says:

    What a wonderful post, I have always wondered how the kimono was constructed. And you look fabulous!! But the shoes look like torture, your poor toes. Well done.


  24. You look absolutely gorgeous ! Thanks also for the step by step demonstration. I lived many years in Japan but I never dare to wear a kimono ! I really missed something !Worth making a new expatriation just for this experience ๐Ÿ™‚


  25. 2summers says:

    OMG. So hilarious. You looked gorgeous.


  26. Lu says:

    I never realised that there was padding involved!
    Kimonos are such beautiful works of art; I love the detail in the embroidery – fascinating. You look great in it ๐Ÿ™‚


  27. Kate Terence says:

    I am enjoying reading your blog as it chimes with memories of mine. I was brought up in South East Asia spending three years in Kobe/Osaka. We had to learn Japanese at school, and we all had kimonos and yukatas. My mother recalls being at the bus stop when two little Japanese ladies pressed her chest and asked her, “Are they real?” in a strong Japanese accent. Fond memories, thank you for bringing them back to me so elegantly, Kate Terence


  28. Don’t worry you’ll get use to it. Just reminds me of the corset Western ladies used to wear…i think similar concept. Man tortures women to look their “best”. Like the descriptions you used in your post, it’s comical.


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