Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Timeless Appeal of the Kimono

As the end of the Japanese school year draws to a close, naturally the discussion of my senior students has been about what they might wear to their graduation. It seems that most of the girls will opt for contemporary formal fashions, while a certain percentage will wear the traditional Kimono. You might consider this quite surprising, as this centuries-old Japanese garment might, by western standards, be regarded as somewhat 'old fashioned' and could be disregarded by the younger generation…not so!

In fact the main reason many of the other students would not be wearing a Kimono to such an occasion was that they had chosen to wait until they had turned the significant age of twenty. Quizzing them a little more, I discovered that this much anticipated birthday would mark their ‘coming of age’ and arrival into adulthood. Such an important family occasion would be marked by the presentation of a new Kimono to be worn for the first time on ‘Coming of Age Day’ (January 14), a National holiday and a day of ceremony and festivities in honor of young people who turn 20 between April 2 the previous year and April 1 of the current year. They went on to tell me that while most had previously experienced wearing a Kimono at some stage, stepping out on this important occasion would require an especially elaborate (and expensive) hand-made Kimono befitting their newly acquired status in Japanese society (they were now able to vote and drink alcohol) and therefore the wearing of this garment would certainly be worth the wait.

The ‘Coming of Age’ Kimono’s for young women (known as a Furisode) are particularly beautiful, being brightly coloured and made of the finest quality silk. The sleeves are very long (almost reaching the floor) and the ankle length dress is elaborately decorated with floral patterns that represent the blossoming of youth. Each year there are new patterns or accessories introduced, adding a certain fashion element to the multitude of Kimono styles available. This year however, there was an element of controversy in Tokyo regarding a new emerging trend of wearing the garment open necked and even off the shoulder. This is known as the ‘Oiran’ style and is based upon the form of Kimono worn by high-class courtesans of the Edo Period (even the more radical Kimono fashions apparently have a history). The style, although particularly popular with this years crop of young women, was frowned upon by many of the older generation who regarded the look as far too daring a departure from tradition and simply inappropriate.

Controversy aside, the Kimono appears to remain as popular as ever and apparently many young women will accumulate several forms over the years, which will be worn for a range of occasions. For less formal wear, a more conservative lightweight style (yukata) might be adopted, often mirroring the colours and patterns of the seasons in which they are worn. While for the more significant of life’s events, elaborate styles are adopted. For example, upon a proposal of marriage many parents will buy their daughters a Kimono called the ‘Houmongi’. This dress effectively replaces the more youthful ‘Furisode’ and while still being very elegant, is generally more subdued in its colours and with shorter sleeves. This is a Kimono of the mature woman and one that will continue to be worn on special occasions over the years ahead.

Like many aspects of Japanese society, the Kimono remains steeped in traditions and ceremony and as Jules and I were reliably informed from the experiences of our Mt. Fuji tour guide, it is not uncommon for many young women to attend Kimono classes (sometimes lasting up to two years) to learn how to dress themselves and wear the Kimono appropriately. My students tell me that this vital knowledge is normally passed on from mother (or grandmother) to daughter, but it has been known for women who are less knowledgeable about such matters, to hire an expert to assist them in putting on their Kimono and helping to tie the ‘Obi’ (the distinctive waist band that can be up to 30cm in width on formal styles). With the various layers and ties, the whole exercise can take more than an hour! The girls in my class reliably inform me that the garment itself is quite tight and heavy, hence the need for tiny delicate steps.

It is somewhat reassuring that in the fast paced world of modern Japan, many of the features of traditional dressing are still appreciated by the younger generation. There still remains a genuine interest and pride in the wearing of the Kimono, with its various nuances and as a distinctly cultural fashion statement. While it is clearly no longer a garment for daily use (the practicalities of twenty-first century living prevents that), it still continues to be a popular form of clothing for many occasions. Judging by the attitudes of the young and the respect they appear to have for its traditions, not to mention the importance they place on fashion generally, it is safe to say that the future of the Kimono appears to be secure. It certainly remains a timeless garment that still has an important place in Japanese society. Indeed for us, the sight of a stylish Kimono being worn around town still immediately captures our attention and after all, isn’t that exactly what fashion is all about!

Note: The artistic photo above was supplied by my friend and teaching colleague Derek. To view more of his wonderful photographs of Japan look here

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