Kimono, the traditional clothing of Japan, plays a subtle but important role in Golden Week. Though kimono are seldom worn by most women in Japan, in my book they are the common garments of the ‘neighborhood watch’-like Meguro Women’s Association. One main character, Saori, wears kimono exclusively.
“Not terribly,” she replied, “When you wear a kimono, it takes effort. It takes longer and is restrictive. It gives you the opportunity to think and remember things. It slows you down.”
“A wise observation,” Saizo said.
Saori laughed softly and said, “Not my own, I’m afraid. It’s a quote, from one of my favorite modern kimono designers, Mamechiyo. It’s a sentiment I like to live by. In modern western wear, it’s easy to do everything. You can wake up in the morning and throw on your clothes, run out the door, and wave an arm to hail a cab. Putting on a kimono takes time, and it feels almost meditative to don each layer, seeing that each line and fold lays smoothly. It forces me to be thoughtful and deliberate in my actions.”
Excerpt from Golden Week, Chapter 10
What Is A Kimono?
If you break down the word, “kimono” basically means “thing that is worn”, but these days it applies almost exclusively to the robe-like garment we usually think. This is because there was a time, before western-influence, that kimono was the go-to garment that every Japanese person wore every day.
When western cultural influences came, men adopted the changing fashions faster than women, but in time, women were trading in their kimono for dresses. Western fashion was much easier to don and doff, easier to clean, and it represented a more modern outlook. Eventually, generations came who had never worn kimono, and with them came the anxiety of not knowing how to wear kimono if they needed to. Kimono schools capitalized on that anxiety, teaching that there were strict rules for how to wear kimono and what kind. Many of the rules of formality that we know today were constructed by kimono schools.
Formality, Symbolism, and Propriety
I could talk for hours about kimono… And I have. For several years, I toured Florida conventions, showcasing my private kimono collection, which is comprised of upwards of 70 garments for men, women, and children. In my collection are every level of formality you could need, as well as costume pieces for performances, wedding kimono, and a Meiji era kimono that is over 100 years old. During this time I hosted panels, taught kimono dressing, and ran kimono fashion shows I could write an entire article on formality alone, but for now, I’ll break it down to the absolute basics.
Men seldom wear kimono these days, which is a shame, because they’re actually quite easy for men to wear. A men’s kimono goes to ankle-length, and the sleeves are stitched up in such a way that they form a ‘pocket’ where keys, a cellphone, or a wallet could be carried. The obi (sash around the waist) is narrow and does not impede movement.
Women’s kimono, on the other hand, are often as long as she is tall; putting on a kimono requires gathering up the excess fabric with a tie. This creates the fold of fabric visible under the obi. The backs of the sleeves are not stitched shut, allowing the sleeves of the under-kimono to be visible, but also preventing them from being used as pockets. The obi, meanwhile, is wider and made of a stiff, thick material so as not to bunch up and wrinkle when a woman moves. The feeling of wearing an obi is, in some ways, akin to wearing a corset.
While children and young women are welcome to wear bright colors and patterns, men and mature women are expected to wear more muted tones. Likewise, girls and young unmarried women will wear “furisode” or “swinging sleeve” kimono to formal events, while mature and married women will have a sleeve that only extends to the hip. While there are many levels and signs of formality level in kimono, the most obvious are crests.
A family crest is a small, usually circular symbol that will be displayed in specific places, on both men’s and women’s kimono. These crests are no more than an inch wide on modern kimono, though they were historically much larger. A casual kimono will bare no crests. A semi-formal kimono will have a single crest on the center of the back, between the shoulder blades, and it may be dyed or embroidered. A formal kimono will have three dyed crests; one in the center of the back, and one on the back of each sleeve. A ceremonial kimono, such as one worn by a family member to a wedding, or on a funeral kimono, will have five crests; the same three across the back, and one more on the front of each shoulder.
A Modern Resurgence
Kimono are beginning to make a come back in Japan, as younger generations adopt the traditional garment, whilst shirking many stuffy rules. While a kimono worn to a formal or traditional event is still expected to follow rules of propriety, kimono paired with modern accessories are finding their way into flashy Japanese street fashion.
Today, you can find kimono with classic and traditional patterns… Or you can buy a kimono depicting dogs playing poker. While many artists still practice traditional painting, dyeing, and embroidery techniques, the kimono industry is also making way for new fabric printing technologies. Contrary to many western ideas of cultural appropriation, the Japanese love to see foreigners taking an interest in their traditional clothing, so don’t be shy about trying kimono for yourself!