Welcome to Naomi no Kimono Asobi!
Many years ago I started what was originally a small website about geisha and maiko. I had always held a deep appreciation for the traditional arts of Japan, especially the geisha culture, and was saddened to find hardly any information about them. I started seriously researching, collecting vintage photographs/programs and writing articles. This “”small”” website continued to grow, and with the addition of a message board a year after the original launch, Immortal Geisha became the first foremost source of geisha information online.
10 years(edited to update: 16 years(!!!) later not only is the website still going strong, the message boards have branched out to include the largest, most active and welcoming message board in the English language about all things related to kimono and kitsuke. This blog has developed as an offshoot to the Immortal Geisha website – I had thought about creating a kimono website, but because it is such a personal aspect of my life, I felt documenting it in blog format was most appropriate.
My 1st Kitsuke Attempt:
Initially my main interest in kimono was based on geisha and maiko, and in order to understand what they wore I studied not only books about kimono, but also books about Japanese textiles, patterns and even books about the various different eras within Japan’s history to learn about the progression of kimono fashion.
Of course, after reading about something for so long, I naturally wanted to have some real life experience. So off I went!
Armed with only ‘The Book of Kimono’ and the encouragement of online friends (this was back in March 2003, the days before YouTube and nifty kitsuke videos existed) I attempted my hand at kitsuke for the first time.
Let me just say this: boy, what a complete and utter failure. I even have the photos to prove it.
The thing is, when you spend so long looking at photographs, you soon forget about how difficult it must be to get that amazing, effortless and well groomed look. Everyone looks so elegant and dare I say, comfortable. You get lulled into a false sense of security in thinking to yourself “Oh yeah, this is a piece of cake!” However, when you go for your first try, unless you are lucky and are channeling some inner kitsuke-fu expert, you’ll be rudely shocked into reality quick smart.
So yes, the above disclaimer paragraph means my first try was a miserable and horrible attempt. I felt frumpy, ungraceful and uncoordinated. I mean, I figured how to tie my shoelaces at a very early age – yet, I couldn’t even manage to tie my obiage and obijime knot correctly. I also came to realize that pale kimono and oranges were simply NOT my colour. So not only did I fail on kitsuke, basic knot tying and coordination, I also fell flat on style. It was a Catastrophic Fail of Epic Proportions. Well, perhaps not that big, but it was certainly enough to make me want to throw down my koshi-himo in a huff, retire to a corner and sob.
But did I? NO! Goodness, no. I’m not one to give up that easily and I took my catastrophic failure in stride. I realized that perhaps I had been a touch impatient in wanting to dress the first time round, so I sat down and studied all the available kitsuke material I had at hand and carefully planned. Once I was mentally recovered from round 1, I embarked on Kitsuke Attempt Round 2.
Patience over impatience paid off! While I was still falling flat on the style front (at this point of time, this was the only kimono and obi I had aside from kuro-tomesode) I actually achieved what could possibly be called acceptable kitsuke! What did I do differently? Patience. No, seriously. I always rolled my eyes when my mother told me “Naomi, patience is a virtue“, but time and time again I’m reminded that my mother was a lot wiser than I realized in my teen years. For round two, not only did I take time out to study the kitsuke instructions, I also took the actual dressing part slowly and carefully. If it didn’t look right the first time, I made sure to re-do it, and re-do it, aaaand re-do it some more until it finally looked right before moving onto the next step. It took me about two hours to dress, but those two hours were possibly the most valuable two hours I’ve ever spent in regards to kitsuke as it showed me exactly why each step was just as important as the other. These days, I’ve gone from taking 2 hours to being dressed within 15-20 minutes unless, of course, my cats decide to “help”, but that’s a whole different story…
So, let’s revisit the catastrophic fail on the style level:
Like I mentioned, pale kimono and orange look terrible on me. Okay, I fib… I can get away with wearing orange – but only if I’m wearing it as an accent colour on top of cool hued ensembles or as a juban. I absolutely cannot wear orange direct against my skin as the main colour as it makes me look sallow. As for pale kimono, perhaps it might be a deep and ingrained personal bias (to which we’ll approach shortly) but the honest truth is that right now, I currently don’t have any pale kimono in my closet, so I haven’t had the chance to experiment. Also I think the key factor in this is I need to be careful of whether the pale colour is on the warm or cool side. You see, I’ve been described as a ‘Winter’ so in addition to my cool and frosty exterior, specific colours look fantastic on me, and others look downright ghastly. I’ve also been described as ‘Goth’, which is entirely accurate and also means this is where things get weird and fun!
“What’s goth got to do with it?” Believe it or not, quite a lot! Ever since I can remember, my personal style inspirations have been on the macabre side. Robert Smith hair? Check! Siouxsie eyes? Check! Closet full of clothing blacker than the darkest pits of hell? Check! I even had an Ankh necklace, cockroach kickers, coffin ring and shunned colour like the plague. Unless it was pink. I secretly liked pink.
Now that I’m older, things really haven’t changed that much. My clothing might be a bit more toned down, however I chalk that to working in the legal profession and corporate world for so long. I don’t do my eyes like Siouxsie anymore, but that’s because I have a toddler who refuses to allow me enough time. And I certainly don’t take 3 hours to tease my hair (and 2 weeks to get the knots out). What I do still have though, is the closet full of clothing blacker than the darkest pits of hell. So black, in fact, I don’t even see Charlie, my fluffy black cat, when he decides to play fashion police with me every morning.
Okay. Plain English. I wear black. Lots of it. So much of it in fact that people think something is seriously wrong with me if I wear any sort of colour (and sadly, that includes grey).
What does this have to do with kimono? Well, if you browse through my photos, you’ll notice something rather peculiar. That’s right! The almost complete absence of, wait for it, BLACK!
Let’s discuss this seriously for a bit. My entire adult life I have worn black, whether it be for leisure or for work. It’s not so I can keep my goth card, but rather – I just happen to like black. I feel comfortable in black. It is classic and chic. It never goes out of style. And truth be told, I’ve honestly just never felt comfortable wearing colour unless it was a small accent detail (normally by way of jewellery, handbags or shoes). However, when it comes to kimono, it is a Whole Different Story.
When I first started collecting kimono – I decided I was going to collect kuro-tomesode because, well, they were black. My first kimono was a kuro-tomesode with a beautiful pine scene along the hem. The design was far more mature for me than it should have been, but I appreciated the simplicity of it. With further research though – I soon came to realize that kuro-tomesode were extremely formal, and there would be very few, if any occasions, if any for me to wear. If I really wanted to practice kitsuke and wear kimono frequently – I was going to need some new kimono.
My problem though, was having never worn anything other than black – I had no idea what would look good on me. In addition, I had another problem, finances. I moved over to the USA from Australia at the end of 2000, and spent quite some time unable to work until I received approval from immigration. So, with these two key factors in mind, I bumbled along on the style front for a while buying mainly for the price, rather than for what actually looked good on me. The result was an initial kimono closet full of pieces that worked for practicing kitsuke – but contained nothing I felt comfortable wearing outside.
By the middle of 2003, I noticed a rather peculiar thing…I was starting to pay attention to, and, *gasp*, appreciate colours. What ever could be the cause of this? After some thinking, I attributed this bizarre turn of events to both the study of geisha and maiko kimono and my first job within the USA – working in a design firm. To be a successful designer, you need to learn to appreciate and be undaunted by colour. While you may always have your own personal preference – you must be able to break out of that mold for clients. Your client’s favourite colours might just be bright pink, lime green and navy, and by golly gosh, you need to make it work for them.
Oh, yes, this of course meant I was legally allowed to work in the USA, which obviously marked the increase of my finance! So what did I do? I promptly ordered a box of kimono from Yokodana, that’s what I did. This box actually served two purposes. The first was obtaining fabric for my hobby/side business, Puchimaiko. The second was I was hoping by some shear luck that few pieces might be wearable…more importantly, ‘Naomi’s picky taste’ wearable. I was in luck! There were two pieces I decided to keep: A beautiful iromuji hitoe of shimmery blue and a bright orange/yellow/cream juban with big roses over it. Let me get one thing straight – I loved the hitoe and loathed…absolutely LOATHED the juban. Really, it was orange and had big roses over it. It fell into the category of pure ICK! The only reason I kept it was because I had just one other juban, a plain white one. However, the orange juban had the last laugh; it ended up being one of the most successfully experimented, worn and well loved pieces in my kimono closet – a perfect example of of how my tastes in kimono was evolving and becoming more refined.
Shortly after the box purchase, I discovered the love (and possible evil) that is Yahoo Japan Auctions and bid away with wild abandon. Added to my collection was:
- a deep dusty pink iromuji
- a bright pink juban with red and turquoise traditional patterns
- a heavy chuuya Taisho fukuro obi
- a Taisho ro obi with dark grey chidori jumping waves
- a bright pink obiage
- a dusty pink obiage
- a pink Taisho era “”art deco”” style obiage (purely by happy chance!)
- a pink haori with long sleeves
Can you see the pattern happening here? Pink, lots of it! Do you see the other pattern? That’s right – Taisho. Without consciously thinking about it, Taisho era style started becoming the predominate feature in my closet. Another key purchase around this time was an indigo wool kimono from ebay with turquoise and pink hanabishi patterns. While wool tends to be dated after Taisho era, the design reminded me of the bright bold patterns of the time. At this point, the combination of working with kimono fabrics for PuchiMaiko and working in a design firm taught me to play with colour. While my everyday yofuku was still (and will always be) black, my kimono closet was starting to burst with all kinds of colours. And guess what? I wasn’t afraid to wear them!
Shortly after these goodies arrived, I was interviewed and featured in the South Florida magazine, CityLink, in regards to ImmortalGeisha and PuchiMaiko. The dusty pink kimono , bright pink juban, reversible taisho obi and the taisho obiage all made its first public appearance on the cover and as a centrefold! Rawr! It was quite a nerve racking experience as I had to dress myself for the photo shoot, but all the painfully slow practices paid off and everything went smoothly.
Ever since, I’ve taken kimono and kitsuke in stride. I’ve developed a very particular style that can be clearly recognized as Taisho inspired. My wardrobe has grown, and I’m not afraid to wear colours. I’ve received what I consider to be extremely flattering compliments from older Japanese women in regards to my ensembles and my kitsuke, and I was even stopped on the street in Japantown by an elderly Japanese man who just had to ask if I dressed myself, and was extremely impressed that I had and praised me on my ensemble. This of course serves to make me feel extremely confident when I wear kimono, but on the same token – I clearly remember my very first kistuke attempt, and realize that there is no such thing as perfect. In the course of constantly learning, I’ll still make mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make style blunders – but what matters the most is that I do so with grace, and use it as a learning experience rather than one of discouragement.
So, I suppose the moral of my story is:
Firstly: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then try some more. And another time over. Again, and again. Never , ever give up.
The problem most people face with kitsuke is more likely than not, your first try is going to be like mine – a classic case of catastrophic failure. If it was, think about why it was a failure. Were you too eager to get dressed, hoping to look like the models you see in books? If so – you probably rushed the dressing or skipped important parts of the kitsuke instructions.
The easiest fix to this is to slow down and be patient. Take things one step at a time. Pactice putting on just the juban and learning how to secure your collar correctly so it sits nicely at both the front and the nape of the neck. Once you have that down to pat, move onto the kimono. Before you even think about tying your obi – work on learning how to get your collars to sit right and not shift. How to achieve a nice, straight ohashori, or, if the kimono is too short, how to tie and arrange the kimono to be hidden under the obi so your hems are correct and front is flat and wrinkle free. How to straighten the kimono along your upper back and tuck the excess fabric neatly under your arms. It all sounds so complicated, but the honest truth is if you spend just an extra few minutes on each area, it is all really quite easy. Once you’ve succeeded with all of this, then you can move onto tackling the obi. If at all possible, try tying the obi first on someone else. The act of tying the obi on someone else helps you to see and understand the steps involved, so when you go to do it on yourself, by yourself – you’ll have a better understanding. Also, if you find tying it on your back to hard, don’t be afraid to learn how to tie it on your front, then turn it around. Many people do! If you do all of this slowly with care and pride – you WILL succeed.
Secondly: It is important to know what colours and hues look good on you. If you’re not sure, look around at other people with the same colouring as you to see what they’re wearing and ask your friends or family for their opinion. You might be surprised (or possibly horrified) at the suggestions, but don’t shun them right away – perhaps they’re not colours you ever thought of…but maybe they look absolutely stunning on you.
Lastly: Forget about what your normal daily clothing is. While a general inspiration isn’t a sin, yofuku and wafuku are two completely different styles of clothing in silhouettes as well as mentality and should be approached as such. If you approach kimono purely by what you wear on daily basis in yofuku – you may find your creativity being greatly restricted and your enthusiasm waning. Use kimono to think out of the box, to surprise and challenge yourself. While kimono may be restricted by silhouette, it is infinite in possibilities with colours, textures and patterns.
Finally, The Summary.
So, after all of this, how do I feel about kimono? It has been an interesting experience wrought with rather peculiar self discoveries. Over the last four years I’ve come to appreciate and cherish the garment on it’s own merits and I view it as a combination of tradition, fashion and art.
Kimono has taught me to truly appreciate all the different subtleties in colour, and to understand how colour plays an important part in life. It has taught me to appreciate nature and to literally slow down and smell the flowers. I now notice scents and the subtle changes of season before the signs are noticeable to others and I’ve come to understand and witness personally that insects, birds and animals really do have particular behaviours and associations with seasons through-out the year.
The art of dressing has taught me that the smallest things matter, and that we should take pride in everything we do, whether it is practicing kitsuke, sewing a kimono or just simply washing the dishes. The beauty of the textiles has taught me appreciation of what the human hand, over machine, can achieve.
Most importantly, I’ve finally found the medium I feel completely at ease with to express myself. Kimono has become both my muse and my canvas…the shape never really changes, but the ways I can express myself with in that canvas is infinite. Timeless. Classic. Me.
This page was meant to be brief, but as I got typing about my kimono experiences, my fingers got carried away and I laughed, I cried, I rambled. Hopefully, though, this adequately displays my passion for kimono and inspires others.”