My Kimono Guru

© CLAMP Mokona

© CLAMP Mokona

Dark Horse Comics are going to publish an English-language edition of CLAMP member Mokona’s book on kimono, catchily entitled Okimono Kimono.

Personally, I think it’s part of a wider conspiracy, bringing together plastic surgeons and  dieticians to create a whole new market. No longer will it be sufficient to have a model-girl skinny frame. Now, Caucasian manga fans will have to achieve manga-proportioned figures, perfectly tinted watercolour skin and artistic cuteness, not to mention the ability to keep everything perfectly still for hours at a time to preserve the beauty of the image. We will probably need to be ironed all over before leaving the house.

On the positive side, a whole new area of employment could open up, not just for the personal ironers but for people willing to push the trolleys we will stand or sit on, complete with accessories and backdrops, to be displayed in all our creaseless manga-kimonoed  perfection.

Joking aside (though I wonder what will happen when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plushies notices that cage!)  we Westerners are, for the most part, not built for kimono. Kimono are cut on the straight from a narrow bolt of cloth, and both cloth and garments are designed on the basis that straight is pretty much how everything will stay. Ageing and spreading are accommodated by male kimono. There are very few men, whatever their shape, who don’t look imposing in formal kimono and hakama, while lightweight summer yukata lend a raffish, just-stepped-out-of-a-chambara-movie air to any man. But women with lumps and bumps in what may not have previously been considered the wrong places destroy the line. A big rear – and most Caucasian females over twelve years of age have big rears compared to the average Japanese woman – spoils the way the obi sits in the small of the back, or, in some cases, relocates it to an angle too extreme for elegance. A generous bosom distorts the neckline. True, one can fill any unwanted hollows with towels and padding, but that’s not necessarily a good look. Think Mr. Stay-Puft from Ghostbusters in geisha dress – not the impact we’re after.

© Norio Yamanaka, Kodansha International

© Norio Yamanaka, Kodansha International

Of course, Western women can look sensational in kimono, if they have the right body shape or are willing to compensate for the wrong one, but we need solid, practical, expert advice. I found my kimono guru over twenty years ago, in a long-vanished Japanese bookstore in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. One Saturday morning, as my dearly beloved was browsing the piles of Terebi-kun magazine and the latest Godzilla books on the new arrivals rack, he picked up a copy of Norio Yamanaka’s The Book of Kimono and bought it for me.

I love historic dress, and had long been frustrated by the absence of any serious English-language study of kimono. By ‘serious’ I mean not just a book of pretty pictures, but a study of how the garment is put together, how it goes on, what goes underneath it, what accessories and shoes and fixings are needed to make it look the way it does in the pictures. Yamanaka’s book gave me all that. It offered step-by-step instructions for putting on various types of kimono, with clear pictures. It even gave guidance on integrating kimono into modern life, with hints and tips for dressing alone, storing kimono in a modern home, and keeping them clean. (Traditionally, kimono were cleaned by unpicking the entire garment, reassembling it into the shape of the original bolt of cloth on a long board, then washing and drying stretched on the board. It’s a major undertaking, even if your house has a 35 foot long room or garage. Thankfully Yamanaka offers simpler solutions.)

Yamanaka became my kimono guru because he unlocked my understanding and enabled me to look at kimono with new, more observant eyes. He also gave me the courage to buy a couple of secondhand kimono and new yukata when I visited Japan, to wear them with confidence, and even to make outfits for myself and my dearly beloved.

He wrote The Book of Kimono in 1987, out of a passionate conviction that Japanese traditional dress expressed something important about the culture and spirit of the Japanese people, something at risk of being lost in the modern world. Born into an Irish family in Britain, I grew up in a culture that has abandoned its national dress except for tourist purposes, and another where native costumes, having been considered rather provincial since the Romans invaded, were finally wiped out  in 1066. I warmed to Yamanaka’s understanding of the role that clothes play in art and culture. His delight in and respect for the seemingly trivial but spiritually fundamental choice we make every day of how we will present ourselves to the world, how we will move through it and function within it, struck me in the same way as the work of the great British costume historian Janet Arnold. The Book of Kimono came out a year before her masterwork, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. To me, it felt as if the world at large was finally waking up to a new way of looking at dress, considering it not simply as surface decoration but as part of the historical, technical and spiritual continuum. Clothes don’t make the person, but they reveal how the person, and the society, was made, and what they have been made into.

© L.C. Dalby, U. Washington Press

© L.C. Dalby, U. Washington Press

In the past two decades there have been huge advances in the study of costume all over the world. The list of books on kimono has grown ever longer, and many of them are not simply picture books, but intelligent works, packed with solidly researched information that illuminates Japan’s past and the lives of its people. Liza Dalby’s Kimono: Fashioning Culture (another gift from my dearly beloved) translates sections of text from the Heian era, exploring the obsessive concern with seasonal suitability of form and colour that links so closely with the poetry of the day. More writers are helping us to move away from the picture postcard to a better understanding of Japanese history through its clothing. Kimono blogs abound, some of excellent quality, all involved in a passionate discourse about clothing that would delight any costume historian.

The principles that Janet Arnold brought into the study of Western historic dress – the observation and recording of actual examples, the study of contemporary texts from account books and import licences to letters and diaries, the recognition that dress documents history rather than merely illustrating it – have transformed the study of Western costume. Thanks to writers like Yamanaka, Japanese dress is now being studied in the same way. His book was the beginning of my journey from looking at kimono as if they were picture postcards towards a fuller understanding.


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