The History of the Obi

Traditional clothing of the Edo period, (1600-1868), included the kimono and obi as we know them today. The obi did not, however, become a prominent part of a woman’s ensemble until the mid Edo period. It was then that designers, weavers and dyers all focused their talent on creating a longer, wider and more elaborate obi. Obi measurement was then standardised to 360cm long by 30cm wide.

Edo fashion was influenced by the design and style that courtesans and actors wore. For many years, the obi bow was tied either at the front or on the side. By the mid-Edo period, the obi bow was tied in the back position. It was said that this style started in the mid-1700s when a Kabuki actor, imitating a young girl, came on stage with his obi tied in the back. Another reason that the back position became more acceptable was that the sheer bulk of the wider obi became too cumbersome to be positioned in the front of the kimono.

Like a glamorous necklace, the obi belt can make or break a kimono outfit. It is often a signature, a fashion statement, a focus point for the whole look. In fact, it is the obi that determines the formality of a kimono, so the same kimono worn with different obi can give a totally different impression.

There have been infinite obi patterns over the centuries, but there are some that have stayed popular through the ages. As with kimono, floral themes are crowd-pleasers, and they can be worn seasonally, although you’ll see the national flowers chrysanthemum and sakura throughout the year. Auspicious bamboo and pine feature prominently on obi, as well as waves for another natural theme. Animals like cranes and pheasants are found on many classical obi patterns too. There are also fans, hexagons and other geometric patterns, and even whole scenes from literature and art embroidered on an obi.

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