The Kimono Police

“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know”

Albert Einstein

Last week I had coffee with a very lovely friend of mine. We used to work together and share many interests including mushrooms and moss. She is Japanese, and I am always amazed that after every conversation we have, I walk away with another mind-blowing revelation about Japanese culture that I would never have come across of my own volition. Many aspects of culture are not evident upon visiting. You need to live in and indeed grow up in a culture to understand all of the intricacies and personal and societal impacts the culture has on its people.

The first few times I visited Japan I was intrigued by the amount of women wearing traditional kimono. Many of them were older women, but not all. They looked so beautiful and well-groomed. Kimono lend a certain grace and style that is captivating and really makes you feel you are somewhere else. They are prohibitively expensive and are handed down through families as family heirlooms. They are also, I learned, very “date stamped”, certain colours and materials worn during the ’70s or ’80s would never be worn now. They are definitely NOT カコイイ kakoii (cool), they are, in fact, as out of date as tartan flares and platform boots.

My friend was telling me that she had received kimono from her grandmother. It also was “out of style” not because of the pattern or colour being dated (and the style doesn’t really ever change) but because the pattern and colour were suitable for a much older woman. Kimono are certainly “age appropriate”. She loved kimono and as a younger woman, in her early 20s, living in Kyoto, had enjoyed buying kimono at flea markets and thrift stores. In those days they were very inexpensive, around the equivalent of $5.00 AUD. She was able to find patterns and colours that were far more appropriate for her age. But…and this was my revelation…whenever she would try things on, the older people in the vicinity, and often even the store owner themselves, would scold her for the incorrectness of the length, the shortness of the sleeves, the lack of adhering to the “kimono rules”. The strict etiquette of how to wear a kimono.

The KIMONO POLICE. This was the name she gave these people who were sticklers for the rules. Many older people were very serious about the correct etiquette being followed and they would discourage young people from straying from the accepted norms. My friend said that so many younger people were disinclined to be admonished by the kimono police, their desire to wear this beautiful icon of their culture was repressed and quashed. I was incredulous. Of course, having spent some time in Japan and possessing a keen interest in understanding the culture, I could accept that this was the truth, but I was a little shocked and saddened by this anecdote.

My friend continued with her explanation and I was delighted to hear that there is now a bit of a movement in Japan among younger women, to “reinvent” the wearing of kimono. Not really a complete rebellion against the “old ways”, but more an exploration of how to make kimono relevant, how to keep the culture alive without the prescriptive guidelines. There are “how to” books written about this movement and I even found one in Melbourne the other day. (Sadly it is still on the shelf of the bookstore, as I have consumed by book budget allowance this month…haha) This knowledge will inspire me to take more notice when I can next travel to Japan. I am also happy to report, my friend pulled her grandmother’s kimono out of storage, washed it and has started wearing it. She has decided she has reached an appropriate age to carry it off. すごい sugoi (awesome).

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