Obi: a sash for traditional Japanese dress, also known as a wide or long belt worn by women.
Obi are categorized by their design, formality, material, and use. They began as functional, as means to secure the kimono, but as they became wider and more decorative, they became an indicator of status and standing – this obi might cost more that the rest of the outfit.
Dancing matters: For 300 years (1300-1600) the obi was just a thin waist cord to tie the Kimono. Then from around 1600 braided sashes began to be worn. But it was the Geisha of the mid Edo period (1620-50) that transformed this simple sash into something much more eye-catching. Reputedly it was a man Kichiya Kamimura, an outstanding dancer of the time, who by wearing kimono with a wider Obi on the stage of Kabuki set the trend forever. Kichiya also put lead on both ends of Obi and tied them in a big bow. Everyone called the way of making knot as “Kichiya Knot” and it became hugely fashionable for women in Japan big cities. (After retirement, Uemura Kichiya I became a prosperous shop-owner.)
Size matters: 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 1680’s, the width of women’s obi had already doubled from its original size. In the 1730’s 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 1730’s, at about 16 centimetres (6.3 in).
Knots matter: During the Meiji Period (1868 -) the placing and type of knot became standardized and unified. Originally, all obi were tied in the front. Later, obi tied at the back were worn by married women and tied in the front by unmarried or widow women. Then fashion dictated 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, hence the big back knots. Often it’s said front-knotted obis are associated with loose women; common prostitutes were said to wear their obi in the front for ease, whilst courtesans flaunted their patrons’ wealth and their own popularity by showing off their obi—likely the most expensive piece in their outfit—very visibly in the front. But elderly people who dressed themselves could tie in the front, to spare their stiffer joints.
Colour matters: Over time the obi has come to represent societal custom and wealth, equivalent to Kimono itself. Obis can be made out of silk, cotton, or brocade, and can be plain or decorative on one or both sides. The colour of the fabric can be significant; modern Japanese brides, for instance, often wear a pure white obi with their wedding dress. An older custom also calls for white obis to be worn as mourning clothes by widows, but in today a black sash is more likely to be worn instead. Traditional obis are often made to match or complement a specific kimono, thus people may own several different varieties and colours to match a large wardrobe.
Defiance matters: Up until the WWII the Japanese prided formal wear including back tied obis. But as the century progressed the young began to challenge society’s strict conventions, mixing traditional Japanese wear with western wear, donning any accessory, and indeed breaking many propriety rules, including the tied-in-front obi. A distinctive, punky/grungey look of clashing clothing grew from the streets of Japan and spread worldwide.
Custom matters: The trend for wearing elaborate obi has now come full circle. For the country’s Coming of Age Day (celebrated in Japan since at least 714 AD, when a young prince donned new robes and a hairstyle to mark his passage into adulthood), young women dazzle in expensive and elaborate kimonos. The dress is an important as the make-up and hair – some women plan their look a year in advance.
Coming-of-age ceremonies to which all those who have turned 20 are invited, reflect the expanded rights and increased responsibilities expected of new adults. Generally held in the morning at local city offices throughout Japan, government officials give speeches, and small presents are handed out to the newly recognized adults. The girls then spend the day celebrating in their finery.
Trend matters: For everyone outside Japan Obi belts have had a fashion moment in various guises since the 1970s. Today designers like them for the accentuated waist they give and the choice of material they offer; from leather to metal.
Featured image: http://miicherry.deviantart.com/art/Obi-Sash-283802620