Key Japanese Clothing Terms Explained
Do you know your shibori from your sashiko? Here’s a short glossary to help you out
It’s a running joke in menswear circles that, if your clothes are from Japan, they are largely immune to criticism. That’s simply the way it works. Wear something from Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, KAPITAL, TAKAHIROMIYASHITA The Soloist. and a roster of other erudite Japanese brands, and it’s hard to look anything other than well-dressed. The reasons for this borderline religious veneration for Japan’s designers are manifold: fastidious manufacturing practices, studied pattern cutting, a biting esotericism, not to mention the legendary and enigmatic designers that call Japan home (Ms Rei Kawakubo, for one).
Still, after many traditional Japanese clothing norms were usurped by or meshed with Western fashion influences over the past couple of centuries, it’s the decorative practises and silhouettes that have survived. Pleasingly, terms such as sashiko and boro refer to techniques that are not simply decorative, but are also practical, working to strengthen garments as well as make them look good (more on that later).
While these decorative practises and silhouettes may not be ubiquitous in Japan’s clothing output today, they do represent the country’s rich and storied fashion history, and they are present on many of the garments you’ll find on the Japanese labels we stock at MR PORTER. Below, we’ve put together a small glossary of some Japanese clothing terms that highlight these practices and styles, and the homegrown brands that continue to use them today.
The word shibori comes from the Japanese verb shiboru, which means “to wring, squeeze or press”. It refers to the general practise of indigo dyeing fabric with various resist techniques, meaning, if you were being reductionist, you could just call it “tie-dye”. That would be a mistake, though: as with many Japanese crafts, shibori comes with its own wide range of customs and techniques insofar as folding and tying the fabric before it is dunked. Arashi shibori involves wrapping it around a long cylindrical pipe. In itajime shibori, the fabric is clamped around wooden blocks, making for repeat geometric shapes. And the list goes on. The technique’s appeal lies in the uncertainty of the outcome: you never know quite how all that folding, pinching and tying will turn out and thus it’s the perfect expression of the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of “wabi-sabi” – the beauty of imperfection. As is plain to see in this T-shirt from Blue Blue Japan, a brand that incorporates many of these traditional techniques in its indigo-heavy wares.
Another type of traditional Japanese dyeing, bassen comes at the problem from the opposite direction as shibori, that is, it involves using a powder to discharge indigo from a fabric that has already been dyed, rather than using binding and clamps to prevent segments from being dyed in the first place. If it sounds tricky, it is, which explains the relative dearth of bassen-dyed pieces on MR PORTER. Yet, we do like to be comprehensive, so are pleased to let you know that Blue Blue Japan has also created a bassen-dyed shirt and matching shorts – featuring an abstract pine-needle pattern – as part of our exclusive offering in The Japan Edit.
Not to be confused with English football team Middlesbrough FC, who go by the same moniker, boro is a type of patchworking that has deep roots in rural Japan, where it was used to construct piecemeal garments from rags and scraps at a time when cloth was scarce and therefore more expensive. Characterising the craft simply as a utilitarian one misses the point, though: over time, it’s transcended its practical applications to become tantamount to an art form in its native Japan, where brands such as Beams Plus reappropriate it by modern (and very stylish) means. This charmingly folksy cardigan, for example.
Similar to the make-and-mend craft of boro, sashiko is a particular type of evenly spaced graphic stitching that has been in use in Japan for centuries. It’s executed by means of a long needle that is pushed through several stitches at once with a palm-mounted thimble, resulting in a stitch that looks like a thick dotted line. Though it has a firmly practical use, in its ability to patch and repair fabrics, it also has an aesthetic purpose, with many practitioners using it to embroider elaborate geometric patterns on garments. And it is this latter quality that informs this gilet from KAPITAL, which, though not stitched per se, is knitted with a sashiko-esque pattern. (If you’re after the real thing, perhaps investigate some of the patchwork pieces currently on offer from Blue Blue Japan, or look out for upcoming wares from Sasquatchfabrix.).
A few of us sat down on a conference call with our US office recently and witnessed one of the marketing folk exiting the room in a mysterious cardigan-like woven garment with three-quarter-length sleeves, fastened at the side with a knot. We shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were – there’s a quite a few such pieces on MR PORTER at the moment. But what, asked many of us, should we call such a thing? In the case of this piece from denim specialists OrSlow, the closest we can get is that this is a modern interpretation of a traditional Japanese summer jacket, known as a jinbei. Not to be confused with a kimono (which is formal, made out of silk, and has wide dolmen sleeves), or a haori (a cotton jacket traditionally worn by Zen monks) or a yukata (a casual, unlined summer kimono). Got that?
We talk a lot on MR PORTER about how the principle tenets of Western menswear have hardly changed for the last 50 years or so. Formalwear especially hasn’t had an overhaul since the tuxedo became the new standard. It’s got nothing on the Tabi, though. The split-toe footwear has been a tradition in Japan since at least the 15th century, where they started life as a sock before becoming the shoe-of-choice and are still worn today by construction and agricultural workers. In the Western world, the cleft silhouette has been dividing opinion since it was turned into a cult shoe by Mr Martin Margiela in the early 1980s. But, love them or hate them, as we documented after seeing it worn by Mr Cody Fern and BTS’s very own Jin earlier this year, it’s already making a play for the shoe of 2019.