Lesson 5: English-language books on kimono

After recommending Basic Kitsuke Books and Advanced Kitsuke Books in Japanese, here are some of the best English-language books on kimono.

1. Kimono: Fashioning Culture, by Liza Dalby

An excellent book covering kimono past and present. The author covers not only “familiar” – i.e., formal – kimono, but also work clothes, folk clothing, and the modest beauty of stripes and ikat. Illustrations throughout the book are well annotated and informative.

There are two chapters on kimono in specific eras: Heian and Genroku (1688-1704). The chapter on the Heian era covers, among other things, seasonal color combinations, with color depictions of how the layers would look. The Genroku chapter covers kosode, with commented (black and white) illustrations from pattern books of the time. These two chapters are my favorites with their wealth of information and beauty.

For those interested in wearing modern kimono, the chapter “The Structure of Kimono” includes information on several different aspects of what a kimono, obi and their accessories can mean according to how they’re worn. For instance, how the V-shape formed by the collar differs according to age. It also includes charts on kimono formality (a wonderful resource) and descriptions – accompanied by illustrations – of the different kimono and obi types.

2. Make Your Own Japanese Clothes: Patterns and Ideas for Modern Wear, by John Marshall

As the title says, this book describes how to make your own Japanese clothes, including kimono, uchikake, haori, hanten, wraparound tops, vests, slacks (not traditional hakama), obi and tabi. An excellent book for someone with previous sewing experience, especially hand sewing. There is also valuable background on Japanese hand sewing, however, the stitches are not as clearly illustrated as they could be (would probably be very difficult to understand for a beginning sewer). As for the other illustrations, arm yourself with patience and re-read the explanations several times through.

This is a great resource for authentic patterns. It also includes a section on care and storage – how to properly fold kimono and obi. I was able to successfully complete my kurotomesode thanks to this book.

3. The Book of Kimono: The Complete Guide to Style and Wear, by Norio Yamanaka

This is a good book, but only when taken in the context of the lack of books on kimono in English. Compared to the books in Japanese that I’ve recommended it most certainly falls short, and is not a “complete guide”. That said, if you want information in English, it’s a good buy.

There’s a brief history of kimono, description of kimono patterns (weaves and dyes), chapter on the haori and kimono accessories, and description of the different obi types. There are some nice photos of obi bows, but his annotations are to be taken with a grain of salt – for example, brides do not always wear the tateya musubi, in fact they most often wear the bunko musubi tied with a fukuro obi. There are instructions for wearing kimono and tying obi, but they’re confusing – this Kimono FAQ from Japan Culture Club is much clearer, and free! (Scroll down to the bottom for the instructions.)

The strong points of this particular book are its numerous color and black-and-white photos, along with the chapters on kimono care and etiquette.

4. The Techniques of Japanese Embroidery, by Shuji Tamura (The Japanese Embroidery Center)

One word: wow. This is not a book on kimono, but on one of the techniques used for them. The color photographs are breathtaking, and the first chapters on the history of and motifs used are wonderful. An extra for those kimono fans who have fallen under the charm of Japanese embroidery and would like to better appreciate its intricacies.

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