The first time I wore a kimono was when I was 7. It was "shichi-go-san," the festival where parents with kids aged 3, 5 and 7 dress them up and go to the local shrine to pray for good health. My mom and dad got all of their Japanese friends involved, and I was the center of attention for a good hour as they dressed me in a gorgeous orange and green kimono. They tied my obi and pulled my hair up into a bun with a pink clip. Everyone was so excited, and I loved every moment of it, just as most 7-year-olds would. I still remember the feeling of sliding my arm into the kimono and feeling the soft lining envelop my arm. I felt like a princess from long ago.
My 3-year-old sister, on the other hand, could not get into the spirit of things. She wouldn’t wear the stiff obi and hated the kimono because it inhibited her from running around like her usual tomboy self. To this day, she still doesn’t understand my love for kimonos and all things girly. She just laughs and goes to play with her Lego.
Fast-forward four years. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, and a brilliant idea pops into my mum’s head. Knowing how much I like to dress up, and remembering how much I enjoyed "shichi-go-san," she suggests that I learn how to wear a kimono from Oishi-san, an older lady who used to take English lessons from my mother. One of Oishi-san’s passions in life is kimono. She learned to wear them as a young woman and has taught others how to wear them ever since. Oishi-san readily agreed to the idea, and my best friend Abby and I started our first lesson a few weeks later.
Every Saturday for a year, we stepped into a timeless world of stunning silks, pretty patterns and an elegance not found in our everyday teenage lives. At first, it would take two hours to put the obi on, and we would always need Oishi-san’s small but talented hands to get us out of a mess. We were definitely not graceful or elegant. Gradually, we began to need Osihi-san’s help less and less, and by last January, we could do the whole operation in under 45 minutes. We may have lacked the finesse of our teacher, but we’re certain that the kimono had been worn by people much less elegant than us.
In February, Abby and I wore our kimono outside for the first time. In the beginning, we were like newborn colts, knocking our knees together in geta sandals. (We had not thought to practice walking in geta.) We were worried about what people might think of gaijin wearing kimono, not to mention teenagers wearing ones that they had bought in a flea market. Gradually, though, we realized that the stares from old ladies were not of annoyance but of amazement and excitement. Some of them offered their congratulations and told us they were astonished we could put on a kimono by ourselves. Mentally, I gave a sigh of relief. I had braced myself for being stared at like I was batty or a public nuisance. Instead, all of the ladies were happy. (Later on, however, a few would give us quizzical looks when I put on a pair of Western shoes.)
In fact, older Japanese women are the only people who understand why we like these clothes so much. They have worn kimono—and not just to the obligatory weddings and funerals—so they understand the thrill of feeling cocooned in silk. Yet no one my age gets it at all. To Japanese girls, kimono are what their grandmothers wore, some boring, old fashioned thing that you put on for special occasions. To many foreigners, it’s just some lame cultural relic, an artifact that their teachers or mothers make them learn about. When Abby and I describe how beautiful we feel wearing kimono, they shrug us off, not understanding and not caring. One of our friends even jokingly suggested that we wear kimono to the school dance. Little did she realize that she planted the seed of a great idea in my head.
I’m sad to report that we’ll never experience a full-scale kimono revival. I haven’t been able to make even one of my friends want to wear one, and you’ll never see groups of "gyaru" walking around Shibuya in traditional dress. Yet even though the kimono is a fading tradition, its death is not as close as you might think. Recently, increasing numbers of Japanese women have begun to view kimono as fun, and you can buy countless books about how to make them, how to wear them, and how to accessorize with them. I’m happy to think that, for the moment, my dress-up outfit is safe.
Katherine Whatley is an eighth grader at an international school in Tokyo.© <em>This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).</em>