The obi (OH-bee) is the waist wrapper that is always worn with the kimono and is essential to Japanese dress. The kimono, a long robe with wide sleeves worn as an outer garment, has no fastenings of its own. A kimono's length can be adjusted by how much it is folded over when the obi is tied and its width can be varied by how much it is wrapped and how tightly the obi is tied. The obi adds padding to the middle so that the body is tubular looking, the preferred silhouette in Japan.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the obi was merely a narrow strip of plain cloth, wrapped around the waist and tied securely. The wider and more decorated obi became fashionable in the eighteenth century. The women's kimono became even more elaborate during the Edo period, later in the eighteenth century, and the obi developed along with the kimono. Women's obi became wide decorative bands made from stiff, luxurious material and were made in a variety of styles. With each elaboration, the obi became more symbolic. Obi for men's kimonos have tended to remain practical and less ornamental. They are usually made of unsewn bands of crepe or other soft fabric.
The methods of tying the obi varied with fashion, and the elaborate fabrics and patterns made obi both costly gift items and collectibles. Among the accessories for a properly tied obi are the obijime, a sash of braided ribbon or stuffed fabric that holds the wider obi in place, and the obiage, a shawl tied around the top edge of the obi to hide the inner support.
Dalby, Liza Crihfield. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993. Reprint, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2001.
Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Minnich, Helen Benton. Japanese Costume and the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1963.
[ See also Volume 2, Early Asian Cultures: Kimono ]