Steps in Silk: A Journey with Kimono

This article originally featured in the March 2021 issue of Connect.

Rowan Hatcher (Osaka)

 

It took me several years after moving to Japan to try wearing a kimono. While I had always wanted to, for many reasons I didn’t think I could.

There were industry-rooted reasons: the size of my body is not accounted for in the way tanmono, or rolls of fabric used in the making of traditional garments, are crafted and such patterns are cut. There were ethical reasons: I am European American, and I did not want my whiteness to allow me appropriation of something that was not mine to participate in. And there were practical and aesthetic reasons: the longstanding rules regarding how to wear kimono are detailed and daunting.

I have gained many bits of knowledge regarding the making and wearing of kimono and yukata. However, I am not a professional, and have not formally studied under any teacher of this topic. I hope my layperson’s understanding of this wonderful facet of Japanese history and culture can help you on your own journey with it. After all, each individual’s journey with a kimono will be like a kimono itself—unique and bespoke to the wearer.

I went shopping for my first kimono with a trusted colleague. We got along like close siblings and doted on each other constantly. We were searching for a kimono I could wear to the upcoming graduation ceremony at our school. She was certain she could find me something, with the help of the staff at her favorite shop, and I was . . . less so. With each piece I tried on, she understood with increasing clarity my trepidation. You see, the absolute basics of a properly fitting kimono, regardless of gender, have four points: collar, sleeve, hip, and hem.

You see, the absolute basics of a properly fitting kimono, regardless of gender, have four points: collar, sleeve, hip, and hem.

Photo: Bruno Aguirre (unsplash.com)

First, a feminine kimono has a collar that sits flat and crosses over the dip in one’s collar bone. Ideally it also gently rests on the side of your neck before it dips out and away from the nape in the back. How far it dips is a signal of propriety.

Second, the hem of the sleeves should come to rest at the dip between wrist bone and thumb joint. Not only does this add charm, but makes the sleeves, which can double as pockets, more easily accessible.

Finally, a kimono pattern is predominantly squares, which allows for the neat perpendicular lines from the obi to the bottom hem in a properly fitting kimono. As one would expect, this kind of pattern fits best on a boxy frame. The human body, however, has curves. In order to bridge this gap, the circumference of the fabric at the waist should be about 1.3 to 1.5 times the circumference of the hips, and the use of fabric and padding below the nagajuban, or skin-layer garment put on before the kimono, is common. The hem of the entire garment should fall at or just below the ankle.

The kimono I decided on was a fresh green silk kimono with yellow and orange flower accents. The collar was the only thing that fit appropriately; the sleeves were too short and the front wouldn’t close properly. Nothing could be done about the sleeves—after all, the width of the tanmono is predetermined—but I could cover the splayed fabric at my legs with hakama, and that’s what I did.

It was a smashing success; I had wanted to wear kimono to graduation after watching my coworkers wear it the previous years, and I knew seeing me in kimono would bring joy to the students who were graduating. And still, I wondered if it wasn’t appropriation.
About a year later, I was on a date with an American girl in Kyōto. We had many discussions about the ways in which our whiteness blinds us in the pursuit of our personal interests, and the ethical dilemmas presented by wearing the traditional clothing of another culture. Borrowing from Emi Ito’s open letter to white makers and designers who are inspired by the kimono and Japanese culture, we can consider the three P’s—power, profit, and people—when making our decisions.

While knowledge of kimono and its rules has long been cloistered away within the industry, this doesn’t mean that it is a closed practice. In addition, the kimono worn as rentals by tourists, or those that can be acquired at secondhand stores, or even those that can be made-to-order from a professional kimono shop, are different from the garments worn in religious or spiritual settings. While kimono may be part of a character’s design and thus worn during cosplay, the kimono itself is not a costume.

And yet, whether watching others in kimono or wear-ing one ourselves, we cannot remain unaware of how power plays into our access to and participation in the world of kimono. Even as a minority in Japan, those of us from Western countries, especially those of us who are white, must consider the space our more globally dominant cultural background gives us. Others from less dominant cultures do not have this space, because we have taken it. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the road to appropriation starts with indifference and minimization.

For much of Japanese history, the kimono was worn every day, by everyone. However, with the Westernization and industrialization of Japan, wearing kimono has fallen out of common practice. Now, we are experiencing a revival of sorts. Many young Japanese are falling back in love with kimono and bringing it into their everyday lives, and with them many non-Japanese both country-side and abroad are finding new appreciation for and inspiration in this part of the culture. For those without Japanese heritage that wear kimono, especially those that claim cultural understanding and inspiration from it, we must not dismiss the ingrained power dynamics surrounding us. It is important to be open to learning and to be humble to correction.

Many young Japanese are falling back in love with kimono and bringing it into their everyday lives, and with them many non-Japanese both country-side and abroad are finding new appreciation for and inspiration in this part of the culture.

Kimono is an art and a language; it requires curiosity and care to learn. If one is approaching it for cultural exchange and appreciation, deep respect and commitment from both learner and teacher are necessary for it to be truly mutually beneficial and break free from appropriation. A commitment to learning the rules will guide one away from careless, and sometimes harmful, application and elevate one’s outfit.

While there are a mountain of such rules regarding both the practical and aesthetic aspects of kimono outfit coordination, the detail and nuance of which would make anyone’s head spin, these rules can also be distilled down into more manageable guidelines. For aesthetics—material, color, and pattern. For practicality—sparkle, number, and difficulty.

The first of these is material. Silk will always make a kimono more formal than cotton or wool, let alone synthetic fabrics. If there is any gold stitching and embroidery, it’s formal. One must also consider the way the fabric was processed. There are renowned, and increasingly rare, processing techniques that will raise the level of formality of a piece.

Following that is color. Color is decided by season, both of the year and of one’s life. The color one chooses should evoke certain qualities associated with these seasons. A basic understanding of the elements of color temperature, hue, shade, tint, and tone will be of aid. For example, red may be worn at any time of year, but a lighter, cooler pink will work better in the spring; a clear, bright red in the summer; and a darker, warmer maroon in the fall or winter.

Kimono is a three-dimensional art that brings in a deep appreciation of the seasons and nature. Therefore, one must pay attention to what patterns are on a kimono to know when to wear it. While certain motifs can evoke a general meaning, much like how certain flowers can be used to convey a message, and can be worn year-round, that same motif presented in a different form can limit the time of year one can wear the piece.

Photo: Mitchell Luo (unsplash.com)

A good example of this is cherry blossoms, or sakura. Sakura are much beloved in all forms of Japanese art, and the kimono is included in this. A kimono with sakura petals or the blossoms themselves may be worn at any time of the year, invoking the meaning of rebirth, beauty, and appreciation for the current moment, while a kimono with a sakura tree may only be worn in spring.

Now, there are also practical considerations when wearing a kimono. There are many pieces in a kimono outfit, from the nagajuban to the obijime. If any of these pieces have gold, silver, or sparkly material incorporated into them, they will increase the formality of the overall outfit.

The number of pieces can also dress up or dress down an outfit. A simple obi can be dressed up with a sparkly obijime and the addition of an obiage. However, much like jewelry in Western fashion it is possible to overdo it, so keep the overall balance of the outfit in mind when selecting which pieces to use.

Finally, the difficulty of the knot used on the obi, and any additional styling of the obijime, may also increase the overall formality of the outfit. You can find tutorials on sites like youtube for simpler knots, but it is recommended to invest in kimono lessons to learn the more challenging ties.

Even with these simplifications, the task of creating the so-called perfect kimono outfit is a dizzying one. It is here we see how today’s kimono practitioners are softening these rules, stretching what it means to wear kimono both on the fashion stage and in their everyday lives.

While the old rules such as what colors to wear and when, the formality of different patterns and designs, which knot to use on the obi, whether and which accessories to add, etc.
are still important and a vital part of determin-ing the overall outfit, today’s kimono-wearing generation largely perceive kimono as a way to express oneself.

It is here we see how today’s kimono prac-titioners are softening these rules, stretching what it means to wear kimono both on the fashion stage and in their everyday lives.

It is here we see new answers to what has long been considered a strict and exclusive style. Who says only one roll of fabric must be used to make a kimono? The answer is “katamigawari.” Who says the designs on a kimono are set? Maya Caulfield and Serge Mouangue, among others, offer their own replies.

Men can wear so-called women’s kimono, like when Daiki Shigeoka wore a homongi for a Johnny’s West promotional photoshoot, and women can wear kimono in the “otoko-poi,” or “masculine,” style. Sheila Cliffe and Liza Dably both researched and wrote books on the history and social importance of kimono, with Cliffe’s book illuminating the stories of present-day kimono-wearers both in Japan and abroad.

The old rules are important. Rather than dismissing them outright as being old-fashioned, sexist, or too strict for true self expression, I find it important to understand the why. Sometimes you’ll find that a rule is illuminating a societal agreement about reality. Other times, you’ll find them to be the expression of an ideal. And yet other times, you’ll find a rule that exists as a response to some other industry or cultural factor, or that exists to confine the expression of the individual. With each rule, we can come to understand both Japan’s culture and our own culture and ideas better.

In the same way, these new answers are im-portant. Society is changing, and with it what we collectively agree to be our reality is too. While some ideals remain true against the press of time, new challenges in our lives allow for the strength of new ideals to take the stage. History is created every day, and as such the parameters for our lives and our creations evolve with it. It is in the changing of the old that we define the new. It is with the expression of the self that we create a path to the future.

The world of traditional Japanese clothing is so beautiful, and I am lucky to have been allowed in in the way that I have. I started my journey with a kimono thinking there was no way for me to wear one. While certain facets of this assumption will forever be something I contend with, I do not have to let that be the end of things. For example, I will never be able to wear vintage kimonos in the proper way, but I can appreciate them and help others who can wear them to enjoy them. My whiteness will always give me cause to reflect on my participation in this culture, but I can lean in and center the voices of the people to whom it belongs. And I will always have more to learn: not only of the history, or the rules, but also the stories of each kimono I come across, and the people who wore them. And that is what I look forward to most: learning, and celebrating, the beauty of the people who have shared this part of their culture, and themselves, with me.

 

Cover image from freepik.com

 

A Renaissance man of sorts, Rowan picks up knowledge like crows collect shiny things. They were first officially published through an afterschool arts program in middle school, but found writing and other creative endeavors put on the back burner as they pursued a dual credit enrollment program in high school, and then a bachelors in Interior Design. Since relocating to Japan as a “cultural ambassador” on the JET Programme in 2015, Rowan has been able to make more time for the things they like: arts and culture, psychology, and intersectional feminism. They hope to center their work on these interests, filtered through their queer and neurodivergent lens. Currently residing in Osaka, Rowan dreams of living with their chosen family in an old Japanese country house, writing and farming and having a grand old time.