The historical fiction and crime/mystery novel, “The Bride’s Kimono” was written by Sujata Massey in 2001. I wanted to blog some of my thoughts that were provoked by the contents of this book. The author, Sujata Massey lived in Japan for years in her youth, and has deep appreciation and insights for the intricate culture and gentle people of Japan.
The protagonist, Rei Shimura is a Japanese American antique dealer specializes in Japanese items, especially in textiles. She resides in Tokyo, Japan and leads a simple life in a small apartment. She loves the country, culture, and people in Japan. In this book, Rei Shimura has been hired to escort a priceless collection of kimono from Tokyo to a museum in Washington D.C. During this trip, her young Japanese shopaholic friend gets murdered, and a Bridal Kimono gets stolen while in Rei’s possession. The story line becomes whodunit for the murder and the theft with Rei tangled up in a love triangle between her Japanese wealthy boyfriend and her Scottish lawyer ex-boyfriend.
I truly enjoyed the rich story line involving the history of kimono Rei transported to Washington D.C. One of the kimono belonged to a high class courtesan/mistress of a Tokugawa (Shogun) period royalty. She was highly educated to entertain the aristocrats and had a high sense of fashion to design and create exquisite kimono. She was a favorite of a Tokugawa Daimyou (feudal land owner). Another one of the kimono belonged to Tokugawa’s wife who forced her husband to drop the mistress. The mistress was arranged to marry a tea merchant in a Bridal Kimono that was also in the collection transported by Rei.
Women’s kimono are the most unpractical piece of clothing ever in modern life. They are very beautiful, but they are extremely uncomfortable for doing anything modern life requires. You can stand in kimono, and you can kneel and sit on your legs straight in kimono. If you sit on a chair in kimono, you have to sit shallow and straight, since the bow of the obi prevents you from resting your back on the chair. You have to walk in tiny, straight steps since the opening of the kimono on the bottom is made tight to prevent from falling apart. Navigating stairs takes tremendous effort.
It is quite uncomfortable to dress in a kimono.A kimono looks good on the body that does not have curves. Actually, you have to wear tightly wrapped in long piece of cloths to flatten your breasts, and to fill in the waste line curves. Kimono is best suited for the body shape of a cylinder. To keep the robe with no buttons or zippers to stay on the body, a lot of sashes and ropes are in place to make everything stay in place. There are layers of undergarments before the outer layers of kimono can be worn. You want to make sure that you don’t need to eat while wearing a kimono because it is so hard to eat while your body is in suffocation state. If you can, you should avoid going to the rest room also. It is a major undertaking to peel off and put back the many layers of kimono.
There are so many rules about the type of kimono one can wear on occasion. The formal dress for a single woman attending an event would be a silk robe with long, flowing sleeves called Furisode (振袖). They are usually very colorful with flower patterns. After a woman is married, they have to wear a robe with shorter sleeves with muted tone and motif. For special occasions, a married woman would wear a black, silk kimono bearing five white family crests with dyed or embroidered designs. Seasonal motifs often decorate kimonos, such as cherry blossoms for the spring or maple leaves in the autumn. Even if you love cherry blossoms, you are not supposed to wear the cherry blossom patterns in any other seasons than spring. In summer time, ladies can wear casual Yukata (浴衣) which is made of light cotton materials and is worn with no layers of undergarments to keep cool.
Not many ladies in modern era know how to properly dress in kimono. It is such a complicated process and you need to know so many rules and techniques to dress. There are hundreds of different ways to tie an obi (帯), and of course singe ladies and married ladies have to wear different styles depending on the occasions and seasons. To learn how to dress in kimono, you pretty much have to go to kimono dressing school unless your mother or grandmother has mastered the skill to teach you. You can take a certification test and become a professional kimono dresser. My mother was a beautician in her youth, and she knew how to dress in kimono and even knew how to sew a kimono. She was a very talented lady. She didn’t take time to teach me the lesson because we never had a chance to wear kimono in modern day Japan. I was a Tomboy and was not interested in making myself pretty in kimono in my youth. It’s my loss, but I had no patience for learning the intricate skill of kimono dressing.
When my father passed away recently, my mother was thinking about wearing a formal funeral kimono for his funeral, but the funeral director talked her out of it. He thought that my mom wanted to be as comfortable as she could during the ceremony, and comfort was not something wearing kimono could bring. The funeral director said that he hardly ever see a kimono at the funeral any longer. It just is not a practical choice of clothing in busy modern life.
If you visit Tokyo, especially Asakusa (浅草), Senjoji Temple, you see a lot of young ladies in Kimono. It’s fun to watch them posing for photos and walking around the temple ground. The pictures I posted with this blog article were taken in Asakusa in May 2016. Did you realize that the majority of these ladies dressed in kimono in Asakusa were foreigners (non-Japanese)? When I listened to their conversation, most of them spoke either in Chinese or Korean. Asakusa has quite a few rental kimono shops that you can rent a kimono for a day. You pay a fixed price, pick out a kimono, they will dress you in kimono and up-do your hair. It is a very popular service especially for foreign visitors who would not have a chance to try on proper kimono back in their home countries. The kimono that are rented are not high quality, but for the convenience of dressing up for a fun day outing, who cares?
Buying kimono can cost tens of thousands of dollars per outfit, and you have only a limited usage for the particular kimono occasions. Besides, the Japanese people do not buy and sell second-hand clothing. It’s just not in their custom to buy things, especially clothing, second-hand. Since there is no market to sell your expensive kimono, it can only stay in the family and get handed down. However, the younger generations do not care to keep kimono any longer because it takes so much space to store in tiny Japanese style housing and they can’t even dress themselves.
Japanese kimono are the most beautiful and artistic piece of traditional clothing, but at the same time, they are the most unpractical clothing in the world.