Learning How to Put On Clothes: the Art of Kimono

There’s been a lot of radio silence on my end recently, and I apologize for that. As my old cross country coach used to say, sometimes life gets in the way.

I wanted to break the silence for a rather important reason: some good, old-fashioned exposition. I mentioned in an earlier post that I will be competing in a kimono competition this November… well, the day is almost here! The competition is IN TWO DAYS, and I’m freaking out a bit, to be honest.

But what exactly is a kimono competition? I thought it was important to explain that little detail, especially before the next blog post, which will inevitably be about the competition itself. After all, putting on clothes isn’t typically a competition, is it?

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Actually, let’s start with the most obvious question: how did I start learning kimono?

The short answer is that I was lucky. My base school is very different than a typical Japanese high school. My school offers various elective classes — which is almost unheard of in many Japanese high schools, including the other three that I teach at — and one of those electives happens to be a kimono class. Without any prompting on my part, my supervisor signed me up for the class as a way to experience traditional Japanese culture. She actually informed me of this on my second day of working at the school, and I was thrilled — after all, I came to Japan to teach and to learn.

At first, I was a little worried that it would be weird for me to take the kimono class alongside my students. Especially since sometimes I feel like the ALT rests in a strange, middle-ground in the school hierarchy: more than a student, not quite a teacher. Would taking a class tip the scales even further to student?

But again, what could have been awkward is saved by my unique base school. One of the English teachers I work closely with takes the kimono class with me, along with three adult women from the community. And my other coworkers also participate in classes if their schedules are free enough. One of my PE teachers takes the ceramics class on Fridays, and one of the Japanese teachers takes Chinese on Wednesdays!

Back to kimono though. Here’s a rough timeline of the last 13 months.

Thursday, October 1st, 2015: my first-ever kimono class.

In that first class, we didn’t even touch the actual kimono. Instead, we learned how to tie an obi in the complicated bow pattern shown below. It took me the entire two-hour class to tie it just once, and it was a far cry from perfection.

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Fast-forward to March of this year: Kimono-Sensei — who had been alluding to a competition for a few weeks — finally directly asked me if I wanted to compete, and I agreed (without being fully aware of what I had just signed myself up for).

April 28th: I start taking private kimono lessons on Thursday mornings, alone with Kimono-Sensei, in addition to the two-hour afternoon kimono class with everyone.

May 26th: one of the 3rd grade students — henceforth known as S-chan — asks to compete as well (to everyone’s delight) and she begins taking the private kimono lessons with me.

June 2nd: my first timed trial at putting a kimono on. It took me 24 minutes. I was okay with the result, until Kimono-Sensei informed us that for the competition, we had to put on a kimono in under 10 minutes. At this point, it seemed utterly impossible.

June 23rd: my final trial of the day ends up being 10:18.

July 28th: Kimono-Sensei brings us new kimono to practice in — furisode (the formal kimono worn by unmarried girls). My furisode kimono is cherry-blossom pink and has sleeves that fall past my knees. It also comes with an additional under-layer, which is rather unwelcome in the July heat.

August 25th: I finally break the 10 minute barrier I had been hovering at for two months, and my timed trial clocks in at 9:06! Kimono-Sensei then breaks my heart by announcing that if you wear furisode, the time limit for the competition is actually 7:00, not 10:00.

September 8th: between the two hours of private lessons, and the two hours of regular kimono class, my student (S-chan) and I put on our kimono eight times. We clock out between 8:47 and 7:56 for all eight trials.

October 6th: Both S-chan and myself break the 7:00 mark for the first time! And with only a month and a half left until the competition!

Yesterday, November 24th: our last official practice together before the competition. S-chan and I now comfortably time out between 6:35 and 7:05 for every trial, but we are still nervous. And in her bluntly honest, smiling way, Kimono-Sensei cheered us up by mentioning that last year’s winner clocked in at 4:18!    -_-;  

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My kimono supplies. From the top left: obi-jime, obi-age, obi, kimono, top under-layer (light pink), and bottom under-layer (white).

The time scares me, but not as much as it used to. You see, from what I understand, the competition isn’t just about your time — there are numerous little details that will make or break your score. Is your obi symmetrical? Is your kimono the correct length? Is the collar design even on both sides? Is your obi-age tied well? I mess up my collar and my obi most often, so I’m most worried about making a silly little mistake and having all composure unravel onstage.

Because, yes, the kimono competition is performed onstage.

Here’s the general procedure: all the contestants walk out onstage already mostly dressed. You’re wearing your two under-layers and the actual kimono is wrapped loosely over top of them and tied once.

  1. You take your position (kneeling in seiza) and organize your untied obi materials neatly beside you. Then, everyone bows to the judges, and the clock starts.
  2. First, you tie your obi into the bow shape. This part takes me roughly 2:45 to complete.
  3. Once that is finished, you lay your finished obi aside, turn to your right (so the judges only see your left side) and untie your kimono.
  4. You stand up and completely re-adjust your kimono until it is perfect, then you tie it three times and smooth out any wrinkles.
  5. Turning back to face the judges head-on, you kneel down again and swing your obi around to your back. You tie it in place with four different ties, standing up again and readjusting everything so it all sits nicely.
  6. The final step is to do a quick run-through (check your collar! pinch the bow of your obi!), pull out the clips, hide them in your sleeve, and smile at the judges. That will be your final time.

I’m mentally running through the procedure again as I write. It’s good to memorize, even though I’m probably missing an important step somewhere along the line. Kimono-Sensei doesn’t speak any English, so all of the above I have gleaned from our practices, charades with S-chan, and picking out the few words I understand from Kimono-Sensei’s reminders.

That’s all for now, I guess! I leave tomorrow for Utsunomiya, where the competition is to take place. After all these months of practicing, I can’t believe the day is almost here!

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