What is a Geisha Kimono?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Woman posing
Woman posing

A geisha kimono is a complex traditional garment worn by Japanese geisha. True geisha kimono must meet certain standards; they differ considerably than kimono worn by women who are not geisha, as well as from those worn by apprentices. The geisha kimono, along with its wearers, has a long and elegant history in Japan that stretches back for centuries.

Geisha kimono are not simply single dresses; instead, they are complicated outfits that comprise many pieces. Even a basic version will include an under-kimono, a colorful over-kimono, and a complicated belt called an obi. In colder months, the under kimono may be made out of thicker material or layered, while in summer, lighter versions are preferred. The main kimono is usually made of silk and may be hand-painted or hand-embroidered in complex, stunningly artistic patterns of birds and flowers. The top kimono is fastened by wrapping the layers of the robe-like garment around the body, then securing with the obi. Most kimono also feature floor-length sleeves that can be wrapped around the arms to prevent soiling or tripping.

Most geisha will have specific kimono for different seasons. Each shows a color palette and decoration that is considered seasonally appropriate; spring kimono may have spring flowers, but not plants seen in autumn or winter. Wearing a seasonally incorrect geisha kimono is considered quite tasteless; nearly as bad as a reindeer sweater in April.

Though geisha are usually required to have several kimono, they are quite expensive. Since many are handmade and the best feature elaborate hand painting, it is not unusual for geisha kimono to cost thousands of dollars. Traditionally, new kimono were gifts from patrons, but geisha who worked with a geisha house might also receive an allowance for clothing.

One feature common to a geisha kimono is an exposed neckline that dips slightly in the back. Geisha, along with being dancers, musicians, and artists, are renowned for their charm and flirtatious behavior. Since the neck is traditionally considered a sensual part of the body in Japan, geisha opted to take the slightly risque chance of allowing a peek at their necklines. This is not customary throughout all of Japan, however. Different regions have very specific and long-standing customs about the style and appearance of a geisha kimono.

Tying the obiof a geisha kimono can be done in many different ways. Apprentices spend hours learning to wrap and tie the traditional knots, each of which may have a special significance. Adult geisha wear different knots than apprentices, and in general the style of a mature geisha is more refined and muted than that of a young one. Nevertheless, the garments and the obi still make a striking combination, turning their wearers into colorful displays of beauty.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a writer.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a writer.

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Discussion Comments


It's interesting how the slightly lower cut of the back of a geisha kimono was considered to attract men sexually. The kimono is actually a very modest dress. Yes, the layers and colors are beautiful and catch everyone's eye. But there isn't really much skin show, except for that small area in the neck and back.

Today's modern dress exposes far more than a kimono and could be considered very suggestive when compared to a traditional geisha kimono.


@burcinc-- That's right. A kimono worn by geisha is different and is distinguishable. Geisha's kimono is actually called "susohiki" because it's very long and the tail of the kimono sweeps the floor as one walks. Regular kimonos are not so long. But someone wearing a susohiki may not be a geisha either. She may also be a stage performer.


@Pippinwhite-- I think it's wrong to come to such a conclusion because kimono is not only worn by geishas. Kimono is the traditional outfit of the Japanese. It's history in Japan goes as far back as 5th century, although the style of kimono worn by Japanese today have essentially been around since only the 1800s.

Needless to say, a kimono can be worn by anyone. Although most Japanese prefer this outfit only on special occasions, there is no rule on who can wear it. It's true that the kimono worn by a geisha may have some distinctive characteristics. But it is definitely wrong to assume that those who wear a kimono are a geisha. And keep in mind that men wear kimono as well.


I went to Japan as part of a homestay program and stayed a week in Kyoto, and a week in Osaka. I actually saw a couple of real geisha in Kyoto, and I admit, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head. Geisha are not at all common anymore, and it's even less common to see them in full kimono, but it was a festival day and they were wearing their best.

I know I looked so rude goggling at those gorgeous kimono. I don't know if they were apprentices or what -- or even if they still use the apprentice system -- but they looked as exotic as it is possible for a human being to look. I was pretty overwhelmed, and our guide was tickled with herself because she picked a good time and we all saw real geisha.


When I read "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden, I was especially fascinated by the descriptions of the kimono. I remember from the book that many of the geisha houses had large kimono collections that were fabulously valuable. "Mother" in Golden's book was terrified of fire because it could destroy the kimono collection.

Golden definitely made a distinction between the elaborate kimono the apprentices wore and the less showy ones the full-fledged geisha wore.

I have known a few Japanese women who had beautiful kimono and they are very proud of these garments. One lady I know inherited her most formal kimono from her great-grandmother. It is pure silk, with hand painting and embroidery, and is gorgeous. She was a little cagey about how her great-grandmother acquired the kimono, which made me wonder if the lady was a geisha.

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