Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Kimono Academies, Daily Kimono, and Style

There was an interesting thread started on the ImmortalGeisha forums regarding kimono schools and the effect they have, if anything, on kimono wearing in Japan. (Note: a "kimono school" is one that teaches kitsuke, or the art of kimono wearing; for the sake of this thread, it encompasses licenced instructors who teach for a specific school.)

The idea put forth was that kimono schools, especially the one most kimono enthusiasts know of (Sodo Kimono, Yamanaka Norio's academy - he's the author of The Book of Kimono), are too strict and may actually discourage people from learning to wear kimono. They push the rules and indicate that everything has to be "just so" or you shouldn't go out in public. The impression of schools is that they are rigid and don't provide much flexibility or style development, especially when compared to how kimono was worn as a part of daily life pre-WWII.

The thread has lots of interesting comments and discussion. I knew I wanted to reply, as I'm one of the few members of IG who has attended classes (licenced Sodo instructor, but not at a "school"), but it was difficult. I knew I wanted to say something in the thread, but I didn't want to leave it too long and eventually not post.

You'll find summarized ideas from the other commenters in the thread, as well as my own reply after the "read more".

Summarized Ideas from other Comments
In general, it seems that schools give an impression that there's only one "perfect" way to dress and that they do not have allowances for style or fashion, let alone different physical shape. There's the idea, held by both Japanese and non-Japanese, that kimono is hard to put on. (IMHO, it's lack of familiarity with the garment that makes it seem hard.)

Some people likened a kimono school to "What Not To Wear", indicating that there are rules for Western wear as well if one is hoping to dress for their body and particular style. It was also brought up that fashion changes, so while they may have worn kimono more loosely, that might not be the style now, or the style for the specific outing (like how someone might wear jeans and a tee for groceries, but a nice skirt and blouse for a fancier event). Westernization also influenced kimono style.

The idea that rules are so important may be because most women wear kimono only a few times of their life, and on those events they need to look a certain way; in other words, not many are wearing kimono as a daily wear, a living garment. There may also be an issue with not wanting to stand out ("the nail that sticks out gets hammered down" proverb).

The other woman who has had lessons in Japan and shared about them said that she had a great experience and that the goal of her classes had been to meet others with similar interests and to learn how to wear kimono in a friendly atmosphere. The rules were there and told, but it was up to each individual to learn about them and remember them if they felt it important.

Several have expressed that a school may seem strict, but that they, and perhaps the Japanese, would be more comfortable learning with a set of rules and guidelines, and then once they've understood, add some personality. After all, there are lessons for all sorts of things, and rules for all aspects of the Japanese life (sports, traditional arts, communication [formal/humble], etc), and the "rules" may not be what's keeping them from learning kimono.

A few who have lived in Japan have expressed that it may not be the rules but rather the expense in both time and money. New kimono items can be very costly (and there can be issues about buying secondhand). It could be that there are young women interested in learning kitsuke, but don't have the time for lessons or the money to afford it.

My "Essay" Post Reply
As one of the few members who have had lessons, I felt that I had to contribute to this discussion. However, it took some time to figure out what to say and how I wanted to say it, and I don’t know if I’ve even said it the way I wanted, but I felt I had to post before I took too long and didn’t post at all.

I think the decline in kimono wearing was related to WWII. Kimono were seen as an extravagance, and there was pressure to Westernize at a quick rate. I can see how easily the kimono was pushed out at that time. It was just easier to wear Western clothes (which were already being worn by some in Japan, especially the men). Women continued to enter the workforce, and working in a kimono is not practical for many jobs. Yes, it could possibly be done, but it’s not that convenient. In addition, I bet most families didn’t have the money to purchase many kimono after the war. Wanting to seem advanced, more western… I can understand how a kimono may be seen as a ‘patriotic’ thing, if it was worn mostly before the war, and thus avoided (like wearing the flag in Germany was, at least when I was there in the 90s).

Except for certain professions, I would assume most had no need of kimono and thus those who had been wearing it, and able to wear it, didn’t pass on their knowledge to their children. It was an increasingly modernized world. I think wearing kimono had already been relegated to the special events by most of the population when the kimono schools came about, and they’re filling a need. The young generation has no family members to teach them how to wear kimono, so they go somewhere to do it.

I think what might be holding people back now isn’t necessarily the strictness of the rules, but other aspects, such as reluctance to buy used kimono and the cost of new kimono (expensive!!!), the cost of taking lessons for several months, the accessories, etc. It’s a lot to learn, and can seem daunting, and even then, unless they’re interested, where will they wear the outfits? If they’re in small towns, especially up north, there really aren’t that many people wearing kimono, so knowing that they’d stand out might turn them off. In general, the Japanese like to fit in. Plus, it seems so complicated for those that aren’t familiar with it or had practice with it. Compared to Western clothes, yes, it can seem really complicated; it’s certainly not as easy as slipping on a blouse and dress pants, or a dress. Plus, there’s often the factor of getting used to how it feels. If you only wear it occasionally, it’ll be uncomfortable. But the more you wear it, generally, the more comfortable you become, and thus, the more likely you are to wear it more often. (Aside: I wonder how often this is, if there’s a magical number of times…)

I think the “rules” thing is a Western hang-up. In Japan (in my experience), there are rules for *so many things*, whether spoken, written, or unwritten, especially for the arts. I was told that in Kyuudo (which I did not pursue), I’d have to practice the basic forms for a year before I could shoot an arrow. There are lots of rules, I’m sure, in tea ceremony. I know there are some in ikebana. So having rules for kimono wouldn’t really surprise anyone, I think, especially now that it’s more of an art known by so few, and that kimono is only worn by most of the population at a few at select ceremonies (which are invariably somewhat formal, and thus, bound by their own rules).

There unfortunately isn’t much info about other kimono schools aside from Sodo and Yamanaka Norio, thanks to his book, so of course, I think our impression of schools/lessons is biased based on limited information. We have to recall that his book came out in the late 70s/early 80s (I think it’s a translation of many of the texts /papers for lessons), and as it’s now the 2010s, it’s outdated by what, 20 to 30 years? A lot has changed since then.

As for myself, I took lessons from a licenced Sodo Kimono instructor. As most members are aware, that’s Yamanaka Norio’s school. I wouldn’t trade my lessons for anything, and I’m kind of… defensive, I guess, about them. I spent the first year or so learning about dressing myself, various bows, and practicing furisode kitsuke (for a taikai [competition]), and then in the second year I learned more about dressing others and what works best on different body types. Sensei could be strict, in a way, but I’m glad she was. She really drilled those basics home, and now it’s second nature when I dress.

In general, aside from the actual practicing of kitsuke, lessons were a lovely social time with women of different ages; a time for learning in a supportive atmosphere, for sharing stories and asking questions. I did spend a long time learning the basics – but through lessons I learned there’s far more to “the basics” than what a book can show. It’s learning about dressing for your body and different body types, such as what kind of padding works, who needs it, where it should go, how to make it, as well as how to size the obi appropriately for different people to have the right balance, and more. Learning to dress for various body types is something that comes with time and practice, and it’s definitely something taught by my sensei (and I imagine by others in other schools as well). They want you to look good!

I personally feel that the purpose of the school/lessons is to really drill you the basics, teach you the rules, and then teach you different knots or whatever. Once you learn the basics, like, REALLY learn them, then you can learn about incorporating stylistic changes. If you already know the basic rules and have a style, then you’d be using the lessons to learn about different knots, or how to dress others, and for networking and social time. A good teacher will attempt to teach you things you don’t know, push your conceptions/impressions/whatever that word is, and help you develop yourself as a person in kimono.

Yes, Sodo seems strict – and Yamanaka-san might be, in specific circumstances. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t say. But my own sensei, who, again, is Sodo certified, has said the book is “Yamanaka’s kimono world”, and each wearer, once they’re at a certain skill level and knows the basics, is to create their own “kimono world”. To find joy and a personal style with kimono – and deep down, I think that’s the goal most teachers have. They’re strict when they have to be – when you’re learning, or preparing something really formal, say – but not all the time.

Kitsuke sensei will have their own style too, despite being a sensei. They’re people, after all. Style isn’t something you can teach in a book. It’s not a practical lesson. Developing someone’s “kimono world” isn’t something that can be book taught, or even necessarily taught in general – one doesn’t learn a style, it’s developed and comes from within, I think. For example, if I copied Naomi’s Taisho chic style exactly, it wouldn’t be mine and it’d remind everyone of Naomi. I wouldn’t be able to pull it off quite the same way, as it’s not really my “kimono world/heart”.

There are general rules, but it’s good to know when and how you can break them. If you put your look together carefully, it’ll be obvious it’s stylistic choice and not a mistake. That’s what school/lessons can teach you (indirectly, of course).

Naomi asked for a pros/cons kind of list… I don’t think I can make one. A lot depends on your teacher. Some people have had great experiences, and others just didn’t mesh with their teacher on a more personal level, and thus didn’t get as much out of lessons.

I'm sure I could have rambled on a lot more about it, but felt I should stop there.

If you have anything to share on the topic or want to add something to the discussion, please do! Same with if you have questions or anything.

So, to further the discussion, I have similar questions for you (you can answer whether or not you read the under-cuts):
♣ What is your impression of wearing kimono?
♣ Of kimono schools?
♣ What about how kimono has changed through the years?

Or anything else related to kimono that you want, naturally!

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