Nov 19, 2007

The language of kimono

The Portland Japanese Garden just concluded an exhibition of kimono from the collection of Susan Kastner. As part of the program, there were two special events: a kimono dressing workshop and a lecture on kimono depicted in woodblock prints. (There is an exhibition of the kimono woodblock prints opening at the Portland Art Museum, too).

The kimono in the exhibition were exquisite and showed the wide range of decoration from finely painted scenery to elaborate embroidery to painstaking tie dye. The language of kimono is many layered. Through the theme of kimono through the four seasons you could see not just the obvious symbols of the seasons – snow for winter, colored leaves for fall, flowers for spring and water for summer, but also the literary references to the stories in Noh plays, or puns and witticisms, for example. There were other not so obvious references in the kimono on exhibit such as the length of the sleeves to show the age of the wearer, the summer weight of the cloth and even the differences for a geisha kimono.

For tea ceremony, kimono is more subdued than those on exhibit. Appropriate colors are not as bright and the sleeves are shorter than the kimono shown. The most formal kimono for tea is iro muji, or one color kimono with no decoration. Though there is no applied or painted decoration, the richness of the kimono is apparent in the weight of the silk and weave. Sometimes there will be patterns woven into the fabric like damsak: waves, flowers, pine trees or motifs. The obi for tea can be elaborate and colorful.

The kimono is a garment that is wrapped and tied with lengths of cloth (called himo), there are no fasteners. Thus, every time you put on a kimono it is custom fitted. Though it looks like a kimono is one-size-fits-all, there are crucial measurements to fit a kimono and then can be adjusted precisely to the wearer.

The first time I dressed myself in kimono, it took me about three and a half hours. It was mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing. But with much practice (I wore kimono everyday when I lived in Japan) and a few tricks taught to me by teachers and senior students, have made it easier. Most days I can dress in about 15 minutes. If I am going to a formal event, I take my time and can do it in about 25 minutes.

Dressing in kimono for men is a little simpler than for women. The obi is tied in a simple style and usually there are a limited range of colors: dark blue, brown, grey and black. On formal occasions, men wear hakama, a wide divided skirt-like garment worn over the lower half of the kimono. There is a specific way to tie the hakama to make it look formal and keep it secure.

Some martial arts still wear the hakama for training and formal occasions. If you think that men in skirts look funny, you probably haven’t seen a man in full formal kimono and hakama. They look so gorgeous and manly, just like the samurai.

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