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What is an Obi?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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An obi is a type of belt, typically tied together rather than fastened with a buckle. Adapted from traditional Japanese fashion, obis are a popular method of adding Asian flair to modern outfits. An obi can be purchased or easily made with basic sewing skills.

The obi, meaning “sash” in Japanese, was traditionally worn by both men and women, beginning around the 16th century. Men's sashes are typically narrow strips of fabric, while women's can be more than 12 inches (30 cm) wide. Obis can be very long, but may be doubled or tied in elaborate, decorative bows. There are dozens of styles of obi, each associated with traditional tying and tucking methods.

Traditionally, an obi is made out of silk, cotton, or brocade, and may be plain or feature a decorative pattern on one or both sides. The color of the fabric can be significant to the wearer; modern Japanese brides, for instance, often wear a pure white obi with their wedding dress. An older custom also calls for white obis to be worn as mourning clothes by widows, but in modern times a black sash may be worn instead. Traditional obis are often made to match or complement a specific kimono, thus people may own several different varieties and colors to match a large wardrobe.

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Although the obi belt is an essential part of a Japanese kimono outfit, this type of sash has other traditional uses. Some Japanese martial arts forms include exercise outfits that are tied with an obi. The color of the sash indicates the wearer's skill level; new sashes are given to students that successfully complete skill tests. Children may also wear elaborate kimonos and obis for certain ceremonies, such as the Shichi-Go-San festival where seven-year-old girls, five year-old boys, and three-year-old children of both genders are celebrated.

In modern fashion, the obi belt is a wide sash that is used to accentuate the waist. Unlike traditional versions, this new interpretation may be buckled or feature hook-and-eye closures, although some incorporate decorative ties as well. Modern obis can be made out of any fabric, including leather, and often have spandex or elastic components to help the belt fit snugly. These belts can be worn with loose, tunic-style tops to give shape to the torso, or may be part of a snug outfit meant to draw attention to a narrow waist or hourglass form.

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