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April by Chikanobu Toyohara (1890)

 A young beauty glances behind her shoulder - perhaps she has crossed paths with a handsome man? Wearing a kimono made of intricate patterns, she is portrayed elegantly holding up her umbrella. The light pink kimono creates contrast with the richly patterned obi sash in greens and blues. The theme of "love is in the air" is further suggested by the swallow flying in the sky above the woman: associated with spring, in ancient times the bird was also a symbol of marital love.

Usually worn in contrasting colours to the kimono itself, the obi has grown dramatically in size since the beginning of the Edo Period. It is this increase in width that led to the custom of tying the obi at the rear, the large knot being too cumbersome to practically sit at the front of the outfit.

Moreover, during the Edo Period, the obi sash tied in front became associated with courtesans of the licensed pleasure districts - a rule enacted in law. When looking at Japanese woodblock prints featuring female portraits, pay attention to whether the obi sash is tied at the front or at the back, to distinguish courtesans from the Edo townswomen.

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