From Liza Dalby's "Geisha", pp268, 293-300, 327
There are two different verbs for sitting in Japan; one for sitting on the floor, one for sitting in a chair. When one sits in a chair, it's literally "draping one's hips" there.
The most basic distinction in traditional Japanese clothing is that between fudangi, everyday wear, and haregi, formal wear. Formal kimono (kimono being from mono, thing, and ki-, from kiro, "to wear," so is literally "thing to wear") are those with family crests, and the most common type is homongi, literally, dress suitable for visiting. Fudangi and haregi create a dichotomy of informal versus formal, and because a geisha is formally presenting herself to guests when she works, she most often wears homongi or other kimono types of approximately the same level. Homongi are always silk, although not all silk kimono are homongi. Geisha never wear fudangi (wool, cotton, or certain weaves of silk like pongee) when they entertain.
Like hierarchy, formality can be graduated into ever finer degrees. Because clothing is one of the prime ways by which people in any culture demonstrate the differences between ordinary and extraordinary occasions, many levels exist within the basic dichotomy of formal wear/informal wear in kimono.
The weave of cloth and type of pattern both help establish the place of a particular garment along the scale of formality. Even among silks, an ori, or "woven" kimono, in which the thread was dyed before weaving, differs from a some, or "dyed" kimono where the silk was colored after being woven into cloth. With a few exceptions, the woven kimono are usually classes as ordinary wear and the dyed silks are considered dressier.
Among dyed kimono, crests mark the most formal. Dyed silks without crests are arranged below homongi, according to the type and placement of the dyed design. The tsukesage, for example, is a useful garment appropriate for all but truly formal occasions. Its pattern comes on the bolt, with a definite front and back side that are divided at the shoulder, and its motifs are concentrated on the upper torso and the hem. A geisha will own many kimono of this type. The parties she attends vary in their level of formality, so her wardrobe must cover the range. A party by definition excludes fudangi, but a crested kimono would also be out of place in a small, relaxed gathering.
Just below the tsukesage is the komon kimono, with an allover pattern of some small design. This type of kimono can, to some extent, be dressed up or down depending on the obi worn with it. A geisha might wear a komon-pattern kimono to a small party of familiar customers.
There are many other varieties of kimono, but these, along with the solid color iromuji kimono, are the most popular today. A five-crested kimono is the most formal anyone can wear, as for example, at a wedding. The geisha's version of this most formal level of clothing is her desho, literally, her "going out wear," a trailing black kimono marked by five crests, with a pattern dyed and embroidered at the hem.
Formality is just one dimension defining the appropriateness of a particular garment. Age is another. Bright colors are seen in great profusion on young women's kimono, but they are supposed to become more subdued as a woman ages. The placement of the design on the hem of a formal kimono also changes according to the age of the wearer. The higher up it extends, the more appropriate to youth. But, though color and design are dimensions eminently capable of gradation along the scale of age, they are not the primary categories of relevance. The most basic division centers on the type of sleeve: the place where the difference between girlhood and womanhood is signified.
A furisode, or "swinging sleeve," is worn by a nonadult female and is considered the most formal type of kimono for a young girl. This is what a bride wears at her wedding. When the arms are held at one's side, the sleeves of the furisode reach to the ankle. The maiko's kimono is of this type. once a woman becomes an adult, most commonly signified by her marriage, she puts away her swinging sleeves and changes to a type of kimono called tomesode, the sleeves of which reach just below the hip. The name refers to the sleeves (sode) of the one who has to stay here (tomeru), that is, who marries into (this) house.
In the past, most women appeared in the shorter sleeved tomesode from their late teens on merely because a single woman in her twenties was a social anomaly. A twenty-two-year-old virgin geisha would traditionally have been just as odd. Nowadays, when it is no longer unusual for twenty-five-year-olds to be maidens, social adulthood involves many other things besides sex. Somewhere around age twenty-three, a young lady will probably put away her long sleeves, and a maiko, virgin or not, will also change to tomesode.
Even if they are unmarried, women in their twenties still in furisode look a little silly. This is true of maiko as well, because they often do not become full geisha until they are twenty-one or twenty-two, yet they are still traipsing about in the "little girl" paraphernalia of the apprentice.
In the past, an apprentice geisha did not graduate to a tomesode until she had gone through her sexual initiation and her patron had paid for an entire new adult-style wardrobe. Adulthood in the geisha world was traditionally begun when a woman became sexually active - an event that occurred and was celebrated around the same age (seventeen to nineteen) when other women would marry. Because of their connection with a woman's sexual status, the symbolic overtones of sleeves are very evocative. Long, swinging sleeves connote innocence and purity and are appropriate to little girls and maidens. It is not seemly for a woman who is no longer chaste to wear furisode.
In the modern geisha world, the apprentice's "deflowering ceremony," the mizuage, is no longer practiced as such. Young geisha seldom obtain a patron until they are in their mid- to late twenties, by which time they are usually not particularly virginal even if they are virgins. That is why they will long since have left their maiko kimono and hairstyles behind. For geisha, as well as for society at large, a discrepancy often exists between a woman's socially defined adulthood and her kimono.
The season is yet another index of appropriateness for kimono. Like a traditional haiku poem, a kimono should have a discernible seasonal motif. Seasonality is expressed broadly in three distinct types of the garment, as well as in the colors and design.
From September through April, women should wear kimono of the lined type called awase. Commonly, this kimono will be a weighted silk crepe de chine garment with a lining of lighter crepe or silk mousseline. Red lining was popular twenty to thirty years ago, but now cream, white, pastels, or bokashi (one color fading into another) are more fashionable.
Awase kimono are worn eight months out of the year, so a woman's wardrobe will have more of these than the unlined hitoe kimono, which is worn only in May and possibly June, or the light silk leno-weave ro kimono for June through August. A good summer ro kimono might cost more than an ordinary awase, but a very good awase kimono will be the most expensive kind of kimono there is.
Unlined hitoe kimono are not much in demand today. Women usually do not have a kimono wardrobe large enough to justify buying a garment that can be properly worn for only two months of the year. Nobody would raise an eyebrow of a woman wore an awase kimono in May, but hitoe would be out of place for ten of the twelve months. Although relatively inexpensive because unlined, such a kimono remaines a luxury because it has such a short season.
A geisha's kimono wardrobe takes even more account of the seasons than does that of an ordinary woman. Her formal, long black robe (kuro mon-tsuki) at New Year is succeeded by the same type of robe in a color (iro mon-tsuki) for the rest of January. During February and March she should wear two layers of kimono (nimae gasane). In April a formal occasion demands a single lined robe with padded hem and in May one without padding. June brings out the unlined hitoe, July light silk crepe, and August leno-weave striped silk; from September, one returns to lined awase.
Japanese are fond of saying how much the natural change of seasons has affected the development of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. It is also true that cultural categories of nature (for example, the seaosns) have been turned back upon those same natural phenomena. No matter how hot the weather may get in May, one cannot appear in the summer ro kimono, the light, open weave designed to express coolness. The physical fact of summery weather, in other words, is not as important as the cultural fact that summer does not begin until June.
On June first, in every house in Pontocho where geisha live, the same activity takes place. Kimono undergarments are spread out on the tatami mats, and the mother of the house snips the threads that attach the white silk grosgrain collar to the under-robe. The wide collar is the only part of this robe that shows, but it is very conspicuous. The geisha then use benzine to dab at the makeup stains that inevitably soil it, but after a point it will have to be taken off and a clean one sewn on. Women feel they are sloughing off the last remnants of winter when, dirty or not, the old collars come off on June first, and a silk collar of the open-weave striped ro is attached.
Flowers, birds and insects are common design motifs for kimono. Unlike more abstract patterns, or representations of such auspicious objects as fans, the natural objects usually have a seasonal significance. Some are expressly associated with a particular month -- pine for January, plum for February, iris for May -- but most are more broadly approopriate for a season: cherry blossoms in the spring, little trout for summer, or maple leaves in the fall.
The sheer number of seasonal designs for spring and fall greatly outnumber those for summer and winter. Patterns for representing flowing water are often seen on summer clothing, but the water motif is not limited to summer. A stylized design of a snowflake is also popular, but it is not limited to winter. The winter season, however, includes the New Year, which calls for cranes, rising suns, and the auspicious shochikubai (pine, bamboo, plum) combination.
When a woman has only a few kimono, she may purposely avoid buying those with too obvious a seasonal design because she wants something she can wear at almost any time of year. But the fact that seasonal desings limit the times a particular garment can be worn merely increases its cachet when it is brought out. Geisha wear kimono through every month of the year, so they are in a perfect position to season their wardrobes with spring plums, summer plovers, and autumnal deer.
Colors can also have seasonal flavors. Traditional color combinations, for the most part named after flowering plants, are specific to each month. For example, January's colors are pale green layered on deep purple. The combination is called pine. october's are rose backed with slate blue, called bush clover. These are preeminently cultural categories, for although the names of the combinations -- peach, pine, cicada wing, artemisia, and so on -- reflect a connection to the natural world, the colors themselves have little to do wth the name. May's combination, called mandarin orange flower (the actual blossom of which is white), consists of purple and a color known as deadleaf yellow.
An extensive knowledge of these traditional seasonal layers of color is, admittedly, rare in modern Japan. But the artists who dye or handpaint the finest silk kimono are aware of the traditions, and connoisseurs still appreciate these expressions of the gradual and subtle change of the seasons.
A geisha's kimono constitute a large part of her life as art. It is not only her dancing or singing, or any other specific sort of gei she has, but the presentation of her self in an aesthetic fashion that makes her kimono such an important part of her profession. The amount of money geisha spend on clothes makes many people gasp, yet expense as such does not mean one is a clothes horse. American high fashion encourages a woman to display herself in a paroxysm of individuality; the eternal quest to find exactly the right peaces of clothing to create the ever-elusive individual image. The purpose is to make oneself stand out, within an acceptable range of what is "in," of course, and one must always keep pace with the changing definition thereof.
The kimono aesthetic is different. The point is not to stand out, but to harmonize with one's surroundings, both natural and social, mindful of the season and the event. The criteria defining the appropriateness of kimono are highly ramified, yet while some of the rules are quite strict (woll kimono are not worn to a party, married women to not wear swinging sleeves, ro is not worn in the fall), a range of choices exists in all of these dimensions: formality, age, and seasons.
Within the framework of the times of year, a woman's age, and the occasion, personal taste enters in to combine these elements into an expression of an individual woman in a particular setting. Of course, a calibration so fine demands a keen aesthetic sensibility, as well as knowledge of the domain of kimono, and it is not something that can be observed every day. Bad taste in kimono is as common as bad taste in anything else. But when all these things do come together, and one meets a woman whose carefully chosen outfit is precisely right in every detail, the sense of harmony of time, place and person can be breathtaking.