The obi for men's kimono is rather narrow, 10 centimetres (3.9 in) wide at most, but a woman's formal obi can be 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and more than 4 metres (13 ft) long. Nowadays, a woman's wide and decorative obi does not keep the kimono closed; this is done by different undersashes and ribbons worn underneath the obi. The obi itself often requires the use of stiffeners and ribbons for definition of shape and decoration.
There are many types of obi, most for women: wide obis made of brocade and narrower, simpler obis for everyday wear. The fanciest and most colourful obis are for young unmarried women. The contemporary women's obi is a very conspicuous accessory, sometimes even more so than the kimono robe itself. A fine formal obi might cost more than the rest of the entire outfit.
Obis are categorised by their design, formality, material, and use. Informal obis are narrower and shorter.
In its early days, an obi was a cord or a ribbon-like sash, approximately 8 centimetres (3.1 in) in width. Men's and women's obi were similar. At the beginning of the 17th century, both women and men wore a ribbon obi. By the 1680s the width of women's obi had already doubled from its original size. In the 1730s women's obi were about 25 centimetres (9.8 in) wide, and at the turn of the 19th century were as wide as 30 centimetres (12 in). At that time, separate ribbons and cords were already necessary to hold the obi in place. The men's obi was at its widest in the 1730s, at about 16 centimetres (6.3 in).
Before the Edo period, which began in 1600, women's kosode robes were fastened with a narrow sash at the hips. The mode of attaching the sleeve widely to the torso part of the garment would have prevented the use of wider obi. When the sleeves of kosode began to grow in width (i.e. in length) at the beginning of the Edo period, the obi widened as well. There were two reasons for this: firstly, to maintain the aesthetic balance of the outfit, the longer sleeves needed a wider sash to accompany them; secondly, unlike today (where they are customary only for unmarried women) married ladies also wore long-sleeved kimono in the 1770s. The use of long sleeves without leaving the underarm open would have hindered movements greatly. These underarm openings in turn made room for even wider obi.
Originally, all obi were tied in the front. Later, fashion began to affect the position of the knot, and obi could be tied to the side or to the back. As obi grew wider the knots grew bigger, and it became cumbersome to tie the obi in the front. In the end of the 17th century obi were mostly tied in the back. However, the custom did not become firmly established before the beginning of the 20th century.
At the end of the 18th century it was fashionable for a woman's kosode to have overly long hems that were allowed to trail behind when in house. For moving outside, the excess cloth was tied up beneath the obi with a wide cloth ribbon called shigoki obi. Contemporary kimono are made similarly over-long, but the hems are not allowed to trail; the excess cloth is tied up to hips, forming a fold called ohashori. Shigoki obi are still used, but only in decorative purposes.
The most formal of obi are about to become obsolete. The heavy and long maru obi is nowadays used only by maiko and brides as a part of their wedding outfit. The lighter fukuro obi has taken the place of maru obi. The originally everyday nagoya obi is the most common obi used today, and the fancier ones may even be accepted as a part of a semi-ceremonial outfit. The use of musubi, or decorative knots, has also narrowed so that women tie their obi almost solely in the simple taiko musubi, "drum knot". Tsuke obi with ready-made knots are also gaining in popularity.
The wide women's obi is folded in two when worn, to a width of about 15 centimetres (5.9 in) to 20 centimetres (7.9 in). It is considered elegant to tie the obi so that the folded width is in harmony with the wearer's body dimensions. Usually this means about a tenth of her height. The full width of the obi is present only in the decorative knot, musubi.
A woman's obi is worn in a fancy musubi knot. There are ten ways to tie an obi, and different knots are suited to different occasions and different kimono.
There are many different types of women's obi, and the usage of them is regulated by many unwritten rules not unlike those that concern the kimono itself. Certain types of obi are used with certain types of kimono; the obi of married and unmarried women are tied in different ways. Often the obi adjusts the formality and fanciness of the whole kimono outfit: the same kimono can be worn in very different situations depending on what kind of obi is worn with it.
Women's obi types
- Darari obi (だらり帯?) is a very long maru obi worn by maiko. A maiko's darari obi has the kamon insignia of its owner's okiya on the other end. A darari obi can be 600 centimetres (20 ft) long.
- Fukuro obi (袋帯 , "pouch obi"?) is a grade less formal than a maru obi and the most formal obi actually used today. It has been made by either folding cloth in two or sewing two pieces of cloth together. If two cloths are used, the cloth used for the backside of the obi may be cheaper and the front cloth may be, for example, brocade. Not counting marriage outfits, the fukuro obi has replaced the heavy maru obi as the obi used for ceremonial wear and celebration. A fukuro obi is often made so that the part that will not be visible when worn is of smooth, thinner and lighter silk. A fukuro obi is about 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and 360 centimetres (11.8 ft) to 450 centimetres (14.8 ft) long.
When worn, a fukuro obi is almost impossible to tell from a maru obi. Fukuro obi are made in roughly three subtypes. The most formal and expensive of these is patterned brocade on both sides. The second type is two-thirds patterned, the so-called "60 % fukuro obi", and it is somewhat cheaper and lighter than the first type. The third type has patterns only in the parts that will be prominent when the obi is worn in the common taiko musubi.
- Fukuro Nagoya obi (袋名古屋帯?) or hassun Nagoya obi (八寸名古屋帯 , "eight inch Nagoya obi"?) is an obi that has been sewn in two only where the taiko knot would begin. The part wound around the body is folded when put on. The fukuro Nagoya obi is intended for making the more formal, two-layer variation of the taiko musubi, the so-called nijuudaiko musubi. It is about 350 centimetres (11.5 ft) long.
- Hoso obi (細帯 "thin sash"?) is a collective name for informal half-width obi. Hoso obi are 15 centimetres (5.9 in) or 20 centimetres (7.9 in) wide and about 330 centimetres (10.8 ft) long.
- Hanhaba obi (半幅帯 or 半巾帯 , "half width obi"?) is an unlined and informal obi that is used with a yukata or an everyday kimono. Hanhaba obi are very popular these days. For use with yukata, reversible hanhaba obi are popular: they can be folded and twisted in several ways to create colour effects. A hanhaba obi is 15 centimetres (5.9 in) wide and 300 centimetres (9.8 ft) to 400 centimetres (13 ft) long. Tying it is relatively easy, and its use does not require pads or strings. The knots used for hanhaba obi are often simplified versions of bunko-musubi. As it is more "acceptable" to play with an informal obi, the hanhaba obi is sometimes worn in self-invented styles, often with decorative ribbons and such.
- Hara-awase obi (典雅帯?) or chūya obi is an informal obi that has sides of different colours. It is frequently seen in pictures from the Edo and Meiji periods, but today it is hardly used. A chūya obi ("day and night") has a dark, sparingly decorated side and another, more colourful and festive side. This way the obi can be worn both in everyday life and for celebration. The obi is about 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and 350 centimetres (11.5 ft) to 400 centimetres (13 ft) long.
- Heko obi (兵児帯 , "soft obi"?) is a very informal obi made of soft, thin cloth, often dyed with shibori. Its traditional use is as an informal obi for children and men, and there were times when it was considered totally inappropriate for women. Nowadays young girls and women can wear a heko obi with modern, informal kimono and yukata. An adult's heko obi is the common size of an obi, about 20 centimetres (7.9 in) to 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and about 300 centimetres (9.8 ft) long.
- Hitoe obi (単帯?) means "one-layer obi". It is made from silk cloth so stiff that the obi does not need lining or sewn-in stiffeners. One of these cloth types is called Hakata ori (博多織?), which consists of thick weft thread interwoven with thin warp thread with a stiff, tight weave. (Obi made from this material are also called Hakata obi (博多帯?).) A hitoe obi can be worn with everyday kimono or yukata. A hitoe obi is 15 centimetres (5.9 in) to 20 centimetres (7.9 in) wide (the so-called hanhaba obi) or 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and about 400 centimetres (13 ft) long.
- Kyōbukuro obi (京袋帯 , "capital fukuro obi"?) was invented in the 1970s in Nishijin, Kyoto. It lies on the usage scale right between Nagoya obi and fukuro obi, and can be used to smarten up an everyday outfit. A kyōbukuro obi is structured like a fukuro obi but is as short as a Nagoya obi. It thus can also be turned inside out for wear like reversible obi. A kyōbukuro obi is about 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and 350 centimetres (11.5 ft) long.
- Maru obi (丸帯 , "one-piece obi"?) is the most formal obi. It is made from cloth about 68 cm wide and is folded around a double lining and sewn together. Maru obi were at their most popular during the Taishō- and Meiji-periods. Their bulk and weight makes maru obi difficult to handle and nowadays they are worn mostly by geishas, maikos and similar. Another use for maru obi is as a part of a bride's outfit. A maru obi is about 30 centimetres (12 in) to 35 centimetres (14 in) wide and 360 centimetres (11.8 ft) to 450 centimetres (14.8 ft) long, fully patterned and often embroidered with metal-coated yarn and foilwork.
- Nagoya obi (名古屋帯?), or when differentiating from the fukuro Nagoya obi also called kyūsun Nagoya obi (九寸名古屋帯 , "nine inch nagoya obi"?)) is the most used obi type today. A Nagoya obi is set apart by its distinguishable structure: one end is folded and sewn in half, the other end is of full width. This is to make putting the obi on easier. A Nagoya obi can be partly or fully patterned. It is normally worn only in the taiko musubi style, and many Nagoya obi are designed so that they have patterns only in the part that will be most prominent in the knot. A Nagoya obi is shorter than other obi types, about 315 centimetres (10.33 ft) to 345 centimetres (11.32 ft) long, but of the same width, about 30 centimetres (12 in).
The Nagoya obi is relatively new. It was developed by a seamstress living in Nagoya at the end of the 1920s. The new, easy-to-use obi gained popularity among Tokyo's geisha, from whom it then was adopted by fashionable city women for their everyday wear.
The formality and fanciness of a Nagoya obi depends on its material, just as with other obi types. Since the Nagoya obi was originally used as everyday wear, it can never be part of a truly ceremonial outfit, but a Nagoya obi made from exquisite brocade can be accepted as semi-ceremonial wear.
The term Nagoya obi can also refer to another obi with the same name, used centuries ago. This Nagoya obi was cord-like.
- Odori obi (踊帯 , "dance obi"?) is a name for obi used in dance acts. An odori obi is often big, simple-patterned and has patterns done in metallic colours so that it can be seen easily from the audience. An odori obi can be 10 centimetres (3.9 in) to 30 centimetres (12 in) wide and 350 centimetres (11.5 ft) to 450 centimetres (14.8 ft) long. As the term "odori obi" is not established, it can refer to any obi meant for dance acts.
- Sakiori obi is a woven obi made by using yardage or narrow strips from old clothes as weave. Sakiori obi are used with kimono worn at home. A sakiori obi is similar to a hanhaba obi in size and extremely informal.
- Tenga obi (典雅帯 , "fancy obi"?) resembles a hanhaba obi but is more formal. It is usually wider and made from fancier cloth more suitable for celebration. The patterns usually include auspicious, celebratory motifs. A tenga obi is about 20 centimetres (7.9 in) wide and 350 centimetres (11.5 ft) to 400 centimetres (13 ft) long.
- Tsuke obi (付け帯?) or tsukuri obi (作り帯?) or kantan obi is any ready-tied obi. It often has a separate, cardboard-supported knot piece and a piece that is wrapped around the waist. The tsuke obi is fastened in place by ribbons. Tsuke obi are normally very informal and they are mostly used with yukatas.
Accessories for women's obi
- Obiage is a scarf-like piece of cloth that covers up the obimakura and keeps the upper part of the obi knot in place. These days it is customary for an unmarried, young woman to let her obiage show from underneath the obi in the front. A married woman will tuck it deeper in and only allow it to peek. Obiage can be thought of as an undergarment for kimono, so letting it show is a little provocative.
- Obidome is a small decorative accessory that is fastened onto obijime. It is not used very often.
- Obi-ita is a separate stiffener that keeps the obi flat. It is a thin piece of cardboard covered with cloth and placed between the layers of obi when putting the obi on. Some types of obi-ita are attached around the waist with cords before the obi is put on.
- Obijime is a string about 150 centimetres (4.9 ft) long that is tied around the obi and through the knot, and which doubles as decoration. It can be a woven string, or be constructed as a narrow sewn tube of fabric. There are both flat and round obijimes. They often have tassels at both ends and they are made from silk, satin, brocade or viscose. A cord-like or a padded tube obijime is considered more festive and ceremonial than a flat one.
- Obimakura is a small pillow that supports and shapes the obi knot. The most common knot these days, taiko musubi, is made using an elongated round obimakura.
Formal obis worn by men are much narrower than those of women (the width is about 10 centimetres (3.9 in) at its most). The men's obi is worn in much simpler fashion than women's: it is wrapped around the waist, below the stomach and tied with a simple knot in the back.
Men's obi types
- Heko obi (兵児帯 , "obi for men between 15 and 25"?) is an informal, soft obi, free flowing and made of tie-dyed fabrics, made from silk crape, habutai, cotton, or others. It is tied very informally. The adult's heko obi is as long as a normal obi at 350 centimetres (11.5 ft) to 400 centimetres (13 ft), but relatively wide at up to 74 centimetres (29 in). Adult men wear the heko obi only at home, but young boys can wear it in public, for example at a summer festival with a yukata.
- Kaku obi (角帯 , "stiff obi"?) is another obi used by men. A formal kaku obi is about 10 centimetres (3.9 in) wide and 400 centimetres (13 ft) long and depending on its material, colours and pattern is suited to any and all occasions from everyday wear to a close relative's funeral. A kaku obi typically is made of hakata ori (and thus a Hakata obi) which has length-wise stripes), or from silk pongee, silk gauze, silk damask. It is worn in the simple kai-no-kuchi knot.
A Netsuke is an ornament suspended from the obi and worn by men.
Children are dressed in kimono especially for the Shichi-Go-San (Seven-Five-Three) celebration, when girls aged three and seven and boys aged five are celebrated. Children's kimono outfits resemble those of adults and their parts are basically miniature versions from adult's pieces. The youngest children wear soft, scarf-like obi.
Children's obi types
- Sanjaku obi (三尺帯, さんじゃくおび , "three foot long obi"?) is a type of men's obi. It is named for its length, three old Japanese feet (鯨尺, about 37.9 centimetres (14.9 in)). The obi is sometimes called simply sanjaku (三尺?). During the Edo period it was popular among the people as the obi for yukata-like kimono because of its ease of use. According to some theories, the sanjaku obi originates from a scarf of the same length, which was folded and used as a sash. A sanjaku obi typically is shaped like a kaku obi, narrow and with short stitches. It is usually made from soft cotton-like cloth. Because of its shortness, the sanjaku obi is tied in the koma musubi, which is much like a square knot.
- Shigoki-obi (しごき帯?) was utility wear in the time of trailing kimono, and was used to tie up the excess length when going out. Nowadays the shigoki obi's only function is decorative. It is part of a 7-year-old girl's outfit for celebration of shichi go san.
- Tsuke obi is a popular obi used for children because of its ease of use. There are even formal tsuke obi available for children. These obi correspond to fukuro obi on the formality scale.
Obi in martial arts
Many Japanese martial arts feature an obi as part of their exercise outfit. These obi are often made of thick cotton and are about 5 centimetres (2.0 in) wide. The martial arts obi are most often worn in the koma-musubi knot; in practice where hakama is worn, the obi is tied in other ways.
In many martial arts the colour of the obi signifies the wearer's skill level. Usually the colours start from the beginner's white and end in the advanced black, or masters' red and white. When the exercise outfit includes a hakama, the colour of the obi has no significance.
The knot of the obi is called musubi (結び, むすび , literally "knot"?). These days, a woman's knot often does not keep the obi in place as much as it functions as a large decorative piece in the back. The actual knot is usually supported by a number of accessories: pads, scarves and cords. While putting on the obi, especially when without assistance, there is a need for several additional temporary ribbons.
There are hundreds of decorative knots and they often represent flowers or birds. As everything else in a kimono outfit, the knots are regulated by a number of unwritten propriety rules. Generally the more complex and showy knots are for young unmarried women in festive situations, the more subdued for married or mature women or for use in ceremonial situations.
Types of knots
- Asagao musubi (朝顔, あさがお , "morning glory"?) is a knot suitable for yukata. As its name suggests, it resembles the Japanese morning glory. The knot requires a great length of obi so it can be usually only be made for little girls.
- Ayame musubi (菖蒲, あやめ , "Iris"?) is a very decorative and complex knot that resembles a blossom of iris. It is considered suitable for young women in informal situations and parties. Because of the complexity and conspicuousness of the knot it should be worn with more subdued, preferably monochrome kimono and obi.
- Bara musubi (薔薇, バラ , "rose"?) is a contemporary, conspicuous knot. It is suitable for young women and can be worn to informal parties. Because of the complexity of the knot, a multi-coloured or strongly patterned obi should not be used. The patterns of the kimono should match the knot representing an occidental flower.
- Chōchō musubi (蝶蝶, ちょうちょう ,"butterfly"?) is a version of the bunko musubi, tied using the hanhaba obi. Most ready-made obi (tsuke obi) are made with the butterfly knot.
- Darari musubi is a knot nowadays used only by maikos, dancers and kabuki actors. It is easily distinguishable by the long "tails" hanging in the back. In the past also courtesans and daughters of rich merchants, among others, would have their obi tied in this manner. A specific darari obi, about 600 centimetres (20 ft) long, is needed for making this knot in full length.
There also exists a half-length version of the darari musubi, the so-called handara musubi. According to tradition, a minarai (a maiko-to-be in training) wears her obi in this style. Maikos wear this knot for specific dances.
- Fukura-suzume musubi (ふくら雀 ,"puffed sparrow"?) is a decorative knot that resembles a sparrow with its wings spread and is worn only by unmarried women. It is suitable for formal occasions and is only worn with a furisode. Traditionally, the fukura-suzume musubi worn with a furisode indicated a woman was available for marriage.
- Kai-no-kuchi musubi (貝の口 , "clam's mouth"?) is a subdued obi which is often worn by men. Sometimes older women or women seeking a somewhat masculine air to their outfit tie their obi in this knot.
- Koma musubi (駒結び , square knot, literally "foal knot"?) is often used with haori strings and obijime. The short sanjaku obi for children is also tied in this way.
- Taiko musubi (太鼓 "drum"?) is the most used musubi these days. It is simple and subdued and resembles a box. The taiko musubi is suited for both old and young women in almost any occasion and goes with almost any kind of kimono and in some cases even with yukata. Only furisode are considered too formal and youthful to be worn with the taiko musubi.
Nowadays the taiko musubi is usually associated with the taiko drum, but the origin of the name does not relate to the instrument. The knot was created at the time of the festive opening ceremony of the Taikobashi bridge in Tokyo in 1823. Some geisha attending to the event tied their obi in a new, conspicuous way that was thought to resemble the shape of a "playing card", ichimai karuta). The knot was a variation of a simple men's knot used then. The knot worn by trendsetting geisha was later adopted by other women. By the creation of the taiko musubi, the accessories obiage, obijime and obimakura were also established. These accessories belong to most kimono outfits used today.
- Nijūdaiko musubi (二重太鼓 "two layer drum"?) is, as its name suggests, a version of the common taiko musubi, worn with the formal fukuro obi. Fukuro obi are longer than the more commonly used Nagoya obi, so the obi must be folded in two during the tying of the knot. The knot has an auspicious double meaning of "double joy".
- Tateya musubi (立て矢 , "standing arrow "?) resembles a large bow and is one of the most simple musubi worn with furisodes. According to the kitsuke authority Norio Yamanaka, it is the most suitable knot to be used with the honburisode, the furisode with full length sleeves.
- Washikusa musubi (鷲草 , "eagle plant"?) is basically a bow which resembles a certain plant thought to look like an eagle taking flight.
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