Earlier this summer John Moore, a member of the Communications Office at Washington University, interviewed me about The Kimono Tattoo. The editor wanted a photograph of me with “my kimono collection.” I recognize that I have A LOT of kimonos, but I had never thought of what I have as a “collection.” Each kimono was purchased or acquired almost unintentionally. Over the years, I have accumulated quite a number. How many? I’m not even sure.
I remember my first kimono, the one my mother bought for me in 1976, when I was twenty. I remember the first one I bought for myself in 2004. It was a beautiful purple tsumugi silk with a slight sheen and a very subtle stripe. I paired it with a black silk obi and thought it looked very Taisho chic, like a kimono my early idol Uno Chiyo might have worn. Tsumugi thread is spun from the silk floss gleaned from irregular or ill-formed cocoons or else from collected broken threads that are wound together, sometimes with the spit of the weaver. The tsumugi cloth features nubs and occasional bumps as a result. The purple tsumugi kimono I bought was beautiful, the fabric was crisp and I was told it would soften with use. I liked the crispness because it never looked wrinkled.
I was excited to wear my purple tsumugi kimono to my Nihon buyō dance class, anticipating my sensei would be impressed by my careful selection. She did compliment me, but then she explained that a tsumugi kimono would never be appropriate on the dance stage. I thought perhaps this was because the fabric was too stiff. Sensei explained that regardless of how expensive the kimono might be (and some tsumugi are quite expensive because they are so labor intensive to produce), they are always “informal.” The lack of formality comes from the fact that the threads are collected from “junk” cocoons, and the slubs in the fabric provide a pattern, even when the kimono is a solid color. “A tsumugi kimono is categorized as a komon (small pattern) kimono and can never be worn on stage.”
Although I had not intended to wear the kimono in a dance recital, I was strangely disappointed to know that it was “informal.”
That just meant, however, that I would have to buy more kimonos. And so I did. I bought a beautiful silk iromuji (or solid color) kimono (secondhand, of course) and several obi to pair with it, depending on occasion. The iromuji was a light gold color and could be formal or informal, depending on the obi. I also bought a lovely light green hōmongi—the most formal kimono that I own. It has a pattern along the hem and over one shoulder. A hōmongi translates as “visiting kimono” and it is appropriate for tea ceremonies, weddings, omiai meetings (for marriage prospects, and more. At various flea markets and antique fairs I picked up a number black-crested or ‘kuro-tomesode kimono. These have patterns at the hem but are solid black across the shoulder and sleeves, marked only by a white, circular family crest. Since they are old, they are a little small for me. Women in the past were much shorter than they are today, and the older the kimono, the more likely it will be short. The one I especially like has a cascade of dancing fans at the hem.
Once my Japanese friends learned that I like kimonos, they began to give me some that had been in their family. These kimonos are very precious to me. They have traveled across the ocean and reside in a special paulownia-wood chest, carefully folded and frequently admired. My favorite is the kimono Uno Chiyo’s secretary, Fujie Atsuko-san gave me after I paid a visit to Uno Sensei’s apartment wearing a lavender summer kimono.
Like all garments, kimonos retain memories. They tell stories.