Dressing in kimono at home: Creative responses to physical distancing from kimono lovers
Author: Carolin Becke, a fourth-year PhD candidate at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. As part of her research on contemporary kimono culture in Japan, she has been interested in the positive psychological side-effects dressing in kimono can bring about. Carolin blogs about kimono, fashion and textiles here. You can contact her at email@example.com.
Fieldsite: Carolin’s article builds on the research which she has conducted for her PhD dissertation, which included spending six months in Kyoto in 2018, travelling all over Japan to conduct interviews and observations. The research for this particular article was mainly conducted online, particularly on social networking platform Instagram.
Both within and outside of the country, the kimono has long been regarded as Japan’s national and traditional costume with its own etiquette and customs. Diverse ways of approaching and appropriating the garment have been applied by different parts of the population however, with kimono being regarded as a fashionable, rather than ‘traditional’ garment at many different points throughout history. It was rather in a post-war context that an idea of ‘the kimono’ and ‘one way of wearing’ has been strengthened, with kimono dressing schools and conservatively-minded authors being the main drivers behind this movement. The now associated abundance of strict rules and regulations ended up alienating the majority of the Japanese population from kimono.
In the last decades, however, the kimono has seen a bit of a revival, with individuals picking it up more due to fashionable than traditional reasons, aiming to express their identity and taste through the playful combination of items and accessories to create personalised kimono ensembles. This new generation of kimono lovers are people of all genders and ages who are getting together with their friends and/or in special dressing groups to enjoy wearing kimono in a communal setting. Due to physical distancing restrictions being put on the Japanese population, these ventures are naturally now also being restricted. Some inspiring and creative ways of coping with the ‘new normal’ have come out of the community, however, which I would like to outline below.
On April 1st, Melbourne-based kimono stylist Sala Okabe (http://salaokabe.com/) shared the below images with her followers on Twitter and Instagram. Within the posts, Okabe aimed to encourage kimono lovers to dress up at home and share pictures of their outfits under the hashtag #stayhomekimono online. Following the ‘tough times bring opportunity’ mantra, one of the main aims of the appeal was to unite kimono lovers all around the world through this shared practice of dressing in and wearing kimono. The post gained over 500 likes on Instagram and inspired a wide range of people to follow the stylist’s request, with a wide variety of photographic images of coordinated and personalised kimono outfits appearing on the platform. Okabe herself took the opportunity to share a picture of herself being dressed in a green and blue-checked vintage kimono making coffee at home.
One of the individuals who took part in the shared practice is Tamao Shigemune, a kimono designer I met in London a couple of weeks ago and interviewed for my research on contemporary kimono culture in Japan. Tamao has been into kimono ever since attending Tama Art University, where she studied textile design around 20 years ago. Her interest led her to create her own kimono and obi designs, setting up the brand ‘Shigemune Tamao’ as part of her creative and explorative ventures surrounding the kimono. On April 3rd, Tamao posted several images on Instagram, stating the reason for her to talk part in the #stayhomekimono appeal as follows:
“It is fun to dress up after all. Even if I can’t go outside, choosing and combining different items and accessories makes me feel both excited and relaxed… I’m now mostly shut in in my atelier and am often wearing very casual wear [at the moment] … However, raising my mood with kimono properly makes me cope better [with the current circumstances]!”
-Quote taken from Instagram
Wanting to know more on the topic, I asked Tamao to further clarify her perspective on kimono when we met up for an online interview via Skype. This was her response:
Wearing kimono provides me with positive energy and vitality; it is a garment that gives me power, it uplifts [me and my mood]. It is the same with my favourite casual clothes, but for me personally, kimono holds a bit of a stronger power, a slightly stronger uplifting force in that regard …
Tamao mentions the inherent quality which kimono possess for her, being able to instantly provide her with vitality and positive energy. The practise of dressing up is consequently related to this idea of actively getting oneself into a positive mindset, of doing a task that fulfils one on an emotional level and consequently creates positivity and liveliness.
Dressing in kimono, in general, is not as straightforward as wearing casual clothing but rather a skill which needs to be acquired through regular practice. The undertaking of dressing in kimono consequently requires a slightly greater focus and attention of mind and body than getting dressed in casual clothing. This generally seems helpful in the current climate, in the way that such a hands-on task shifts one’s attention away from upsetting thoughts and emotions potentially created by worrisome news reports, towards the practical activity at hand. Tamao particularly mentioned the aspect of selecting and combining different accessories in this regard, which re-focuses the attention of her mind away from the potentially more distressing aspects of the current situation, towards an activity which make her feel inspired and enthusiastic and consequently creates similar feelings and emotions.
Tamao additionally mentioned a certain notion of connection and non-verbal communication kimono is related to for her:
When I wear [kimono] at home, and I do a video call with my friends online, for example, showing off [our outfits] to one another, then, although we cannot leave the house, [this becomes an activity which] I really look forward to […] When I wear kimono, it makes me want to talk to someone, it makes me want to show off [my coordinated outfit] to someone, so this becomes the starting point of this form of communication.
We can see here that both the practice of getting dressed, as well as the anticipation of showing off the personalised kimono ensemble to an acquaintance can bring delight and joy to the dressed individual. This idea of emotionally connecting through a form of communication which is first and foremost object- or fashion-based, not language-based is of particular interest here I think. People with a strong interest in kimono and fashion can ‘read’ each other’s coordinates on a deeper level than people without an interest in these aspects of life. Talking about each other’s kimono coordinate can consequently create feelings of togetherness, connectedness and mutual approval, which lead to a positive mindset.
Tamao told me that she has many kimono and fashion lovers among her friends with whom she usually enjoys going to events, such as a visit to a museum or a particularly nice café, dressed up in kimono. Being able to enjoy these activities together while dressed in kimono creates an even more special atmosphere and enhances the anticipation, as well as the event itself in a joyous and exciting way. Many of the kimono lovers I interviewed for my research similarly enjoy creating coordinated outfits which somehow reflects the occasion they are wearing kimono to – wearing candy-themed accessories when visiting a screening of the ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ movie for instance.
This importance of a theme to be incorporated into the outfit was also picked up in a challenge proposed by the owners of kimono vintage shop kimono tento. Thinking of a fun activity for people to do at home, owner Youka Izumi, who runs the shop with her husband, came up with the idea of creating a dressing challenge where people have to respond to a set theme through their kimono ensemble. The first theme was season-appropriate set as ‘Strawberry Picking in Kimono’, with participated being encouraged to use the hashtag #tento妄想着物コーデチャレンジ (‘tento’s fantasy kimono coordination challenge’) to share their responses. The winner would receive a re-posting on all of kimono tento’s social media outlets.
Many followers took part in the challenge, showing off their strawberry-themed kimono outfits on social media. Instagram user utchan264 for example, mentioned that she had never been strawberry picking, but is currently pushing herself to ‘find fun things to do on a daily basis’, creating a themed obi tie for the challenge. Along the same lines, KaEri wrote in her post that she enjoyed pushing herself thinking of an outfit for an activity which she would normally not participate in. Sakko.35, on the other hand, shared her slightly different take on the theme of the challenge, combining a leopard-print kimono with a strawberry-coloured red bag, shoes and accessories to create a uniquely personalised outfit.
Certificated kimono teacher Ryoko Otani, who normally offers kimono dressing lessons in the comfort of her own home disclosed that she created a group on popular messaging mobile application LINE to stay in touch with her students. Otani has created similar ‘homework’ challenges for the learners to stay active and studying, motivating them to practice certain skills such as obi tying and putting together full kimono outfits at home.
Practice, in general, is vital in kimono dressing, with there being many skills one can achieve and improve on throughout a lifetime. Instagram user anjiujing, who is in her seventies, makes the most of her time staying at home practising obi ties for example. There is an immense variety of different ways to tie the ends of the obi, and it requires skill and practice to do and remember them; the obi is a rather vital part of the overall ensemble, as it actually holds together the garment, while simultaneously being tied in the back in an aesthetic and appealing manner. Anjiujing mentioned practicing the kaino kuchi-musubi (貝の口結び), or ‘shellfish tie’, which she learnt to accomplish within a couple of days and subsequently felt comfortable to wear ‘in action’. She consequently took the opportunity to do her grocery shopping in kimono, with the shellfish tie holding the garment together while also finishing it off aesthetically. After her successful venture, she took a comforting break still dressed in kimono, treating herself to her favourite cake, a mont blanc, paired with a hot coffee at home.
I have illustrated how the practice of dressing and wearing kimono can create positive and affirming notions, supporting individuals to cope better with the current circumstances of a life affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Aiming to make the best out of the situation, some kimono lovers are engaging in practising certain dressing-related skills, such as obi tying, at home, which can create a sense of achievement and joy when having mastered the practised undertaking. Others are coming up with imaginative outfits based on unusual themes to challenge oneself in creative thinking and coordination. Another strategy is to meet with friends online and base communication on showing off kimono ensembles to one another; this strengthens feelings of shared experiences and connectedness. I would argue that all these activities are skilful coping mechanisms involving hands-on and practical activities which help to shift the mind’s attention away from troublesome thoughts and feelings towards a more pleasant and peaceful mindset which is able to cope with the challenging circumstances in a more skilful way.