Kimono Lessons

March 3, 2011 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

A few weeks ago, I casually agreed to join a group of mothers who wanted to wear kimonos to our children’s elementary school graduation ceremony. It sounded like a fine occasion to let one of our family robes out of the storage chest to see the light of day.

Since then I feel like I’ve been running the gauntlet of Japanese traditions surrounding what has got to be the world’s most complicated national dress.

Wearing a kimono is not a matter of just grabbing a gown out of the closet and tying a sash around the waist.

The garments date back to the eighth century and were common everyday wear before World War II. During that long history, elaborate conventions developed that determine who may put on which style on what occasion. “You can’t just wear a design because you like it,” says Noriko Harada, who is licensed to teach about kimonos. “There are rules.”

The formal dress for a married woman attending a happy event like a wedding, for example, would be a black, silk kimono bearing five white family crests with dyed or embroidered designs below the waist. A single woman wears a robe with long, flowing sleeves. Seasonal motifs often decorate kimonos, such as cherry blossoms for the spring or maple leaves in the autumn. From the type of material, such as silk or linen, to the manner of wear, such as the degree of opening around the neckline, all of the details have meaning.

According to advice I found on the Internet in reply to an ignorant mother like myself, the most appropriate kimono for the parent attending elementary school graduation is a mono-colored one, elegant yet subdued enough to keep the spotlight on the child. To obtain my dress, I paid a visit to my mother who guards our heirloom wear. We pulled out a kakishibu-iro, or persimmon-color, kimono wrapped in thick Japanese paper casing from the paulownia wood chest that expands and contracts according to temperature and humidity.

It turns out this was the kimono my mother had worn to my brother’s elementary school graduation more than 40 years ago. I decided to dress up the robe with my grandmother’s antique gold obi, or sash, adorned with embroidered scenes from the 11th-century novel, the Tale of Genji.

Now comes the really hard part. Getting dressed. A kimono is worn over several pieces of undergarments and with numerous belts, strings and pads that keep the obi in the exact place it belongs on the kimono, which in turn must fall perfectly straight and show designated creases. Most women today only wear kimonos on special occasions and don’t know how to put on the garments themselves; a situation that has given rise to the industry of kimono schools. It would add to my Japanese woman credentials to be a certified kimono dresser, but it’s too daunting a challenge considering it takes three months of weekly one-hour classes just to reach the first level of being able to don the most informal garb. It takes about three years of training to be able to wear and dress others in all types of the dress.

Still, not wanting to appear completely out of my element when wearing the kimono, I signed up for a two-hour lesson on the basics at a neighborhood school.

“You want to look like a tea canister, not a coke bottle,” said my teacher as she padded the nooks and crannies of my body with towels to create the desired cylindrical effect. She explained how I should stand gracefully (keep the feet together or one slightly behind the other), how to lift the garments when going to the toilet (peel up one layer at a time) and showed me which strings I could untie and loosen should I be on the verge of suffocation. The lesson ended with the proper way to fold and store the kimono, which must be observed precisely to avoid creasing the garment the wrong way.

On the big day, us school mothers will pay a beauty parlor about $100 each to dress us and coif our hair in the appropriate swept up manner. Kimono wearing is an expensive endeavor. Tailoring a high-quality new gown costs tens of thousands of dollars. The best way to clean a robe is the pricey process of completely taking apart the stitching and washing the material in its original form.

You might be wondering why I am even bothering with the kimono considering all of the hurdles. It is the beauty of the materials and designs decorating the dress, the endless possible combinations of robe and sash and the intricate symbolism involved that intrigue me. But those aesthetic and creative pleasures are increasingly not worth the trouble for modern women, so kimono wearing is likely to continue to decline.

“People no longer have the peace of mind for it,” laments Hiroko Mori, a kimono dealer and bridal salon owner.

I am no exception. For my son’s junior high school entrance ceremony next month, that black sheath in the closet is looking really good.