“Iki, wabi-sabi, what now?” – The language of Japanese aesthetics

Language is a fascinating thing. There are so many different ways to express certain things. Nowhere is this more apparent than when dealing with multiple languages. Often, there is no way to translate a kimono-specific word into English, because there’s not been a need for it. Loanwords are a fantastic solution for most of these, things that can easily be clarified with a glossary or reference chart with a short definition.

Sometimes, however, a simple glossary isn’t enough. These concepts are more abstract and can’t easily be translated into English or explained in a sentence or two. I thought it would be both useful and interesting to break down some of the more common terms or expressions that often get used when describing certain styles. I use several of these, and they’re more complex than any floating tool-tip or single line definition, so here they are collected in one easy reference.

Iki – いき

The concept of iki evolved from the streamlined and urbane sense of style of the merchant class during the Edo era. In stark contrast to the overly ornamented, almost gaudy fashions worn by samurai and the ruling classes, a sense of iki evolved from simple colours and patterns and thoughtful unexpected touches. A sense of refinement would be clear in the quality of fabric and attention to detail more than flamboyant colour and embroidery. Think of the fashionably effortless appeal of a young Parisian woman, and there you will find a western analogue for iki.

Wabi-Sabi – 侘寂

Wabi-sabi is probably the aesthetic term most commonly referenced in English when discussing Japanese style. Here in the west, it has almost come to mean “anything Japanese”, but in reality it has a more precise usage. When something is truly wabi-sabi, it embraces the fragile imperfection of nature. It evokes a sense of transience, a slight roughness of aspect that reminds us all of where we came from. Raw slubbed silk, uneven handmade pottery, naturally winding and twisted branches are all wonderful examples of wabi-sabi.

Shibui – 渋い

Shibui is quite possibly the most straightforward of these terms. Like a sense of excellent, refined taste, shibui is simple and elegant, again focusing on quality craftsmanship and sparse lines. If iki is a stylish young woman, shibui is her refined grandmother. Unlike some of the others mentioned here, shibui may aim for perfection, but with the implicit understanding that it will never be fully achieved. Subtle but exceptional decoration and luxurious fabrics and materials are essential here.

Mono no Aware – 物の哀れ

When you think of the fleeting, ephemeral beauty of the short-lived sakura blossom, appreciating the moment all the more because you know it’s going to be over soon, you’re experiencing mono no aware. There is a distinctly Japanese awareness of the constantly changing essence of the natural world around us, as evidenced by the seventy-two micro-season calendar.Mono no aware not only acknowledges the impermanence of things, it focuses on that impermanence, as well as the wistful feelings it engenders.

Mottainai – もったいない

A bit of an outlier, mottainai isn’t a sense of aesthetics so much as a general philosophy of regret about waste and excess. It comes into play especially when it comes to vintage pieces, which are often remade into new things. It’s very common to find fukuro obi that may have been stained or are too small converted into hanhaba obi or tsuke-obi. Less common but still frequent are conversions like turning a kimono into a haori, or into a western-style dress. There is beauty in the history of a garment, and in giving it new life instead of creating more waste. This becomes more and more vital as a preservation method as traditional techniques start to die off, and a way to protect our increasingly fragile environment.

Kawaii – かわいい

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, odds are you’ve encountered kawaii. It’s absolutely a more modern concept than the others mentioned here, and may not necessarily be as relevant in the world of kimono, but it’s definitely starting to have more of an influence. We’re seeing more pastels, more frills, more lace, than ever before. Kawaii as an aesthetic isn’t just “cute”. It’s cute beyond cute. Cute as a lifestyle choice. It’s about embracing the youthful and girly in a way that can feel almost subversive in a world that encourages us all to grow up fast.

Are there any other terms like this you think should be included? Something you’ve heard or read but aren’t sure about? Please leave a comment below!

Adjusting obi width to your proportions

Recently, a discussion on the Immortal Geisha facebook page got me thinking about folded obi width and size. Typically, a fukuro obi is folded in half before wrapping it around your torso, and for the average Japanese frame this looks balanced and proportional. However. many of us are not lucky enough to have a typically petite, slight build, and sometimes a narrower obi can make us look oddly cut-off or silly.

So what I thought I would do was take multiple pictures of the mannequin at differing heights, in the same outfit but with the obi tied at different widths. Obviously, this can only be done most easily with a full-width or unsewn obi, but the principle can be applied to tying a hanhaba or nagoya obi as well; just overlap the wraps to give the impression of a wider or narrower band.

The following two sets of photos have the mannequin set at approximately 167 cm (5’6″) and 180 cm (6′). The first obi on each is folded to roughly 12 cm (5″), the second is folded in half at roughly 16 cm (6″), and the third is folded to 20 cm (8″). As you can see, the obi width changes the overall balance of the outfit without being obviously “incorrect”. It’s a subtle difference, but if you’re very tall like I am, or very short, adjusting your obi can make a significant difference.

Love your height, be it “too tall” or “too short”! We’ve all got our challenges, and there are always tricks to making things work. 🙂

Items used in this coordination

Furisode Dress Tutorial

Several months ago, some photos started making the rounds of an awesome way to temporarily modify a kimono to wear over a Western-style dress, as a sort of reversible fusion of traditional and modern. I was determined to figure out how to do it, and I think I succeeded quite well back then. While commonly suggested for a wedding, these would also be a really special and unique outfit for a prom, ball, sweet sixteen, quinceañera, or any other event where a ballgown would be worn.

Since then, several people have asked me for a tutorial and I kept getting sidetracked by other projects and my own squirrel brain. The original photos, as well as new ones, are now making the rounds again so it felt like a good time to revisit it and do a proper step-by-step breakdown for you all.

This can be a bit tricky, so if you’re hoping to do it for an event I’d absolutely suggest practising a few times and having someone to help you out.

You will need:

  1. Dress with voluminous skirts
  2. Kimono (furisode work best)
  3. Fukuro obi
  4. Obijime
  5. Obiage
  6. Koshihimo (several)
  7. Kasane-eri (optional)
  8. Accessories (optional)

Other dressing accessories such as an obi-ita, obi-makura, dressing clips, etc, are optional but helpful, depending on what kind of obi musubi you have in mind. Make sure you have everything near at hand, because once you start tying and bustling the kimono it’s not the sort of thing you can pause and walk away from.

Step 1 – A naked mannequin! How scandalous! Seriously though – if you’re dressing a mannequin this is your starting point. If you’re dressing yourself, put on whatever traditional foundation garments you’d wear under your dress. Forget kimono underwear now, just wear something comfortable that won’t show under your gown (unless that’s what you’re going for, in which case, you do you. A harness bra would add a really fun gothic element with the right kimono)

Step 2 – Put your dress on, make sure it’s fully secured and done up. It will be carrying some extra strain, so you want to make sure it fits you properly and won’t go sliding around when you adjust the kimono over top.

Step 3 – This is where things get fun. Pick up your furisode and hold it up in front of you, with the back facing outwards. You’ll be putting it on backwards. Find the centre point of the collar, align it at your sternum. If you want to add a kasane-eri for a bit of colour and contrast, now’s the time. Once you’ve got your kimono arranged across your bust, wrap it around your torso and hold it snug while you tie everything in place with a koshi-himo. Make sure to leave the sleeves free, you will be adjusting them later. This is where a second set of hands definitely helps. If you have someone to hold everything in place for you while you tie the kimono in place, it will be much easier.

Step 4 – Once you have the kimono tied snugly in place, you can start pulling up the excess and folding it over the himo tied at your waist. If you’ve worn kimono traditionally, this part is very similar to adjusting your ohashori. You can have some fun here; there’s no specific length that the kimono has to reach. You can hike the kimono up far enough to show the hem of your dress, or you can have it almost dusting the ground.

Step 5 – Once you have the length determined, arrange the sleeves behind the dress and snugly tie everything in place with another himo. You can arrange the sleeves in the back like this, and it almost forms a train. You can also have them draped around the front like I did with the previous furisode dress, which gives a more youthful vibe, almost reminiscent of an apron or jumper. Have fun and experiment.

Step 6 – Smooth everything out with an obi-ita, and take the time to smooth everything out. If you need an extra koshi-himo or two don’t hesitate to use them. Make sure everything is snug and secure, especially if you’re dressing yourself (or another person) and not a mannequin.

Step 7 – Once everything is good and tight, you can begin wrapping your obi. This part is going to be essentially the exact same as when wearing kimono. Wrap twice around the torso and use the rest to tie your musubi. You can have fun here too; this outfit is so non-traditional you can really go wild with how you tie the obi. For simplicity’s sake I did a sort of bunko variant but there are really no rules here.

Step 8 – Secure the obi with an obijime, make sure it’s good and snug. If you used an obi-makura, hide it with an obiage. Even if you don’t need the obiage, it’s a nice way to add a little more colour and texture to your “dress”. Again, have fun! We’ve broken so many rules by this point there’s no real reason to worry about the others.

Step 9 – Voila! Your new ballgown is ready for the runway, with no modification or damage to the kimono.

I hope this is easy enough to follow along. Feel free to ask for clarification if you need help, and if you attempt this I would love to see photos!

Affordable and Accessible Display Rack

Yesterday evening, yours truly managed to get her finger caught in the exterior door while it was closing. Thankfully nothing is broken, and it was my most useless finger (left hand, pinky) but it’s taped up and quite painful at the moment so unfortunately the Princess Project will be on a short hiatus until likely sometime next week. Thanks for understanding!

Since I can’t dress the mannequin, I figured it would be a good time to share something a little simpler, how I display and photograph my collection. Naomi recently asked me what the rig I used to display my kimono was, so here’s a simple breakdown of what all went into it for those of us who may not have the funds or access to a traditional ikou.

I started with the Honey Can Do expandable garment rack. It has a maximum adjustable width of 60″, and the interior measurement not including the extendable rods was nowhere near wide enough to put a kimono on, so rather than using the included cross-bars, I picked up some 1 1/4″ diameter solid (not extendable) closet rods and cut them to 60″ length. You can do this using a hacksaw but it will take hours, so I recommend a power tool. Ask someone for help if you need to, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I also picked up a couple of narrow black tension rods to stabilise the base. I can’t find similar ones online, and these aren’t entirely necessary, they just help the unit look a little more balanced and keep the feet from rotating.

The last step was to make a pair of decorative clips to hold the kimono open during display/photography. I used a pair of inexpensive alligator clips and glued some cute rose cabochons to them to make them a little nicer to look at. You can really be creative here. Fans are a very traditional motif for these clips, but go wild and use anything you like! Once you’re happy with your clips, use some sturdy elastic or nylon thread to attach them to the uprights of the rack. Don’t tie them on too tightly so you can slide them up or down as needed. The top half of the rack can be slid down for storage, and if you make the clips too snug they can get in the way.

To take the photos I’m using in my new visual catalogue, I start by setting up my tripod. I actually use the exact same spot in the house as I use to take the mannequin photos. My backdrop is simply a plain white flat sheet with the top hem carefully sliced open at the ends so I can thread it onto the curtain rod. From there, I just put the rack in place, take my photos, and pack it all up until I need it again.

I hope you found this post helpful if you’re looking for an affordable and accessible solution for display or catalogue purposes! If you make a similar stand, I’d love to see it 🙂

This post contains affiliate link(s). If you choose to purchase, I receive a small rebate or commission which goes to the continued maintenance of this site.

Heart Obijime Knot Tutorial

Recently, someone posted a photo of this adorable heart-shaped obijime knot in a Facebook group I’m in. I fell in love and decided I would figure out how to tie it, and it’s surprisingly simple! It works best with a slightly longer than average round obijime. The one I used has contrasting colours which looks very sweet and also makes the tutorial easier to follow, I hope.

Step 1 – Begin with a standard obijime knot (if you occasionally have trouble with this, don’t fret! A lot of folks do. This tutorial is a great place to start).
Step 2 – With the long ends of the obijime coming out of the top of the knot, tuck them down behind the cord around your waist.
Step 3 – Make loops with the long ends and bring them back up behind the central knot.
Step 4 – Bring the long tails in front of the obiime and through the loops made in Step 3.
Step 5 – Tighten and adjust the loops and tails as need be until everything is nice and snug and in the right shape. Cross the tassels over each other, and voila! A sweet heart knot, perfect for Valentine’s Day!

I hope that was easy for you to follow. If you try this knot, I would love to see it. Please feel free to post photos or links in the comments. ♥