Kimono vs yukata

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When does a yukata become a kimono?

We are in the long, hot, sweltering days of August now, the days of usumono silks and, above all, yukata.

But what makes a yukata a yukata? If you wear a yukata with a juban and collars, does it magically transform into a kimono?

The question of what makes a yukata a yukata and a kimono a kimono is one with which the Japanese have no problem, but it’s liable to puzzle westerners. The garments, after all, look pretty much the same to a western eye. But the fabrics from which they are made and the way in which they’re worn is crucially different.

You could compare it to a nightie and a dress. A nightie and a dress might be exactly the same shape, but a westerner would instinctively know which was which – the nightdress would be in a thinner fabric, in a boudoir colour and the kinds of patterns and trims used would say ‘bedroom’, not ‘living room’. The same shape in a heavier fabric or louder pattern would become a dress. Women have always played with this confusion, too, wearing little satin slip dresses to go clubbing, etc – ie: if you wear it as a dress, it becomes a dress.

So it is with yukata. To start with their distinctive features, yukata are always unlined (except sometimes on the seat and at the shoulder). If you have a cotton kimono and it has a lining, it’s not a yukata. Also, yukata are traditionally in shades of blue, to evoke a cooling atmosphere in the fierce, humid heat of the Japanese summer. This doesn’t mean to say a yukata can’t be other colours, of course – one of my favourite yukata is yellow, for instance.

The collars on a yukata are always folded and sewn down, never left open for the user to arrange in a more formal fashion. And many are made of thin cottons such as cotton ro, which have a degree of transparency.

cotton ro kimono with stencilling

But for all that, I still have a kimono that ticks all those boxes. It was sold to me as a kimono, not a yukata. It’s this one, in cotton ro, and I think the reason the vendor labelled it a kimono is the quality of the beautiful stencilling. This makes it a very ladylike and not very casual garment – it cries out to be worn with a collar and juban, even if it’s only an eri sugata or hanjuban with attached sleeves. I usually wear it this way for a day, then wear it as a nightie for a couple more before chucking it in the wash.

There is a fashion now for Japanese women to wear their yukata out and about as if they were kimono, adding a collar in the evening if need be, and sticking to subdued patterns so the garment doesn’t scream: ‘holiday!’. it shocks the older generation as being far too casual, but I feel that anything that gets people wearing kimono, even in its most casual incarnation, can only be a good thing.

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