Traditional Okinawan Clothing: The Beauty of Ryusou Fashion
28 October 2016
When somebody says the words “Okinawan fashion,” most people automatically think about kariyushi, the colorful Hawaiian-like shirts worn as business casual in the sweltering months from May to October. However, while kariyushi wear is the most popular daily business attire for both men and women, it is not generally worn on ceremonial occasions such a school graduation or coming-of-age ceremonies. On such momentous days, Okinawans regale themselves in much more formal and traditional Okinawan clothing, kimono-style robes known around the world as Ryusou (“clothing of Ryukyu,” the original name of the Okinawan islands and the kingdom that ruled over them). Learn how they are different from traditional Japanese kimono, what kinds of designs and material you can expect to see, how to accessorize, and even where to try one on yourself!


Ryusou Kimono vs. Mainland Japanese Kimono

Ryusou kimono, referred to as ‘ushinchi’ in the local language, are easily distinguished from the iconic Japanese kimono in a number of ways. First and foremost, the sleeves of Okinawan kimono are much more open, allowing for a tropical breeze to flow through. Also, the fabric, made from fibers of the native bashofu plant, is much thinner than most mainland kimono.

In fact, Ryusou fabric is more akin to that used by mainland Japanese for their less formal version of the kimono, the yukata, which both men and women commonly wear to festivals or other events in the summer months.  One key difference between mainland and Okinawan kimono is the styling of the fabric itself. While Ryusou kimono may feature many different decoration, they very often employ traditional Okinawan patterns such as bingata, kasuri and Hana-ori.


Traditional Okinawan Clothing Patterns



Of all the possible designs that may adorn traditional Okinawan clothing, Bingata is probably the most well-known. Dating from the Ryukyu Kingdom period, bingata is made using a resist dyeing process adapted from methods common in China and India at the time. Often featuring brilliant colors, bingata generally depicts natural objects such as flowers, leaves or trees. Its central feature is the free-form styling of the patterns, with images often placed in various orientations. In the Ryukyu era, Bingata was so labor-intensive that only the wealthiest families could afford to have kimono made from bingata-style fabric and patterns were kept under strict control, with some reserved only for royalty or the nobility. Now, fortunately, everyone can wear bingata, which is often found on kariyushi shirts and Ryusou sold in local shops.



Another pattern, lesser known but of equal cultural import, is that of kasuri, based on a technique that creates patterns in the fabric by warp-and-weft weaving of pre-dyed threads. The technique is ancient, originating in the Ryukyu Islands around the 12th century, even before the rise of the Ryukyu Kingdom. What is very special about Kasuri is that even today, the origin of a Ryusou kimono can often be identified by the patterns woven in, with various regions in the Yaeyama Islands and the main island of Okinawa using their own characteristic weaves.



Another common pattern, quite similar to kasuri, is hana-ori, a distinctive pattern of complex weaves, often resembling flowers (hence the name ‘hana’, which means flower in Japanese). This technique hails from Yomitan in central Okinawa and is generally used for smaller items such as placemats and handkerchiefs, owing to the incredible labour intensiveness of the thread dying and weaving process. While is rare to find a genuine hana-ori kimono, it is quite common to see minsaa (Okinawan kimono belts, which are much thinner than standard Japanese obi) made this way. Minsaa featuring various hana-ori designs can be purchased at traditional craft shops throughout the islands.


Hairstyles and Accessories


Kanpuu and Jiiffaa

Women who wear traditional Okinawan clothing to festivals or other events very often style their hair in the Ryuku manner of yore (or as close to it as possible, given that women in the Ryukyu kingdom tended to wear their hair so long as to reach their waists). Called ‘kanpuu’ this hairstyle is, at its simplest, a ball at the top of the head, held in place with a silver hairpin called a ‘jiifaa.’ The jiifaa was pointed at one end, thick on top and narrow at the center to symbolize the figure of a woman. A Ryukyu woman would typically wear the same jiifaa every day, as this item was considered an extension of herself and her personality. Historians will point out that Ryukyu hairstyles - which were many and varied - were an important social class marker and as such were tightly regulated in terms of who could style their hair which way. But unless you’re a history buff or a member of the traditional performing arts community, the kanpuu style will more than suffice for most formal occasions.  If your hair is too short or just won’t cooperate, don’t worry. Shops that rent Ryusou kimono sometimes also furnish traditional wigs (or can direct you to a shop that does).



One of the best known symbols of Okinawan high-culture is the ‘hanagasa,’ the ornate flower-like hats worn by women who perform classical works on stage. Designed to resemble the hibiscus flower, considered a symbol of the islands, the hat is made with red petals interspersed with a blue background, symbolic of the ocean, an ever-present aspect of Okinawan life throughout history. Tourists should be advised that while this hat is often worn in tourist photoshoots, it is not an item that Okinawans would wear to a formal event and its use is currently reserved mostly for the stage.


Try Okinawan Fashion for Yourself

There are many places where you can try on Ryusou fashion. Okinawa World and Ryukyu Mura, two culturally oriented theme parks both offer services in which tourists can dress up in ancient royal garb. If you don’t feel like a theme park, you can go to a private business such at Ryuso Studio Chura Bijin, where the staff will dress you up in traditional ushinchi and take your picture with your own camera or smartphone, all for a very reasonable price. For a bit extra, you can wear the outfit for up to two hours as you walk around Makishi Public Market, a famed shopping district on Kokusai Dori, the bustling center of Naha City. Another option is Photo Studio OG, also located near Kokusai Dori in the basement of the Grand Hotel. This shop also uses your own camera and while it does not allow the walk-around experience, visitors invariably come away satisfied.


Ryusou Fashion, Dance and Festivals all go Together

While experiencing Okinawan fashion by actually trying it on is wonderful, there is nothing like witnessing traditional Okinawan dance performed on stage at one of the numerous festivals that take place all over the islands throughout the year. Here you can watch as dancers regaled in full traditional ushinchi (including hanagasa hats), wearing Ryukyu performing arts makeup and hair styled by highly trained masters, perform classical dances to music hundreds of years old. The natural shades of the sand and sky, contrasting beautifully with vibrant man-made colors—just one part of what makes the islands of Okinawa so worthy of a visit.


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