I recently read an article about a museum exhibit in Boston that initially allowed visitors to try on a Japanese kimono. Protesters decried this as racist, exoticizing, Orientalist — and in response, the museum changed the policy, leaving the kimono where people could touch it, but not allowing anyone to wear it.
What struck me in the article was this:
But the reaction to the exhibition from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono.
It’s a useful reminder that the American perspective is not universal, and that the identities we construct here (the protestors were not Japanese, but Asian-American) carry their own political baggage that doesn’t necessarily mesh with other parts of the world. It also raises questions of how we should weigh competing concerns: at what point does a movement to oppose colonialism in the United States become, in and of itself, a colonial insistence on making other countries adhere to our standards of proper behavior? If people in Japan are okay with Americans trying on a kimono, should Asian-Americans be standing in the way of that?
It also comes back to the issue of “tradition” and its role in society. I was a folklore major in college and grad school, and since folklore is often defined in ways that put “tradition” at the heart of the field, that means I read a lot of definitions for what tradition is. My favorite, by far, was completely non-technical in origin (it’s a quotation from the composer Gustav Mahler), but I felt it got to the heart of the issue in a way that technical definitions don’t:
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.
“Kimono,” as we think of them now, are the fossilized relics of nineteenth century fashion, the domain of specialists who have learned all the rules and can steer clueless modern people through them like dolls. It’s as if a “dress” in Western society meant a corseted garment worn with a lobster tail bustle, made out of fabric that matches the color and pattern aesthetics of 1870, and god help you if you mistakenly wear a day dress to an evening dinner, or a riding dress when you intend to go for a walk in the park.
If that was what a “dress” was in 2015, it would be going the way of the dodo.
So people in Japan are trying to figure out how to preserve fire, instead of worshipping ashes. Part of that means relaxing the rules, so that you no longer have to do things exactly the way they were done in 1870 Japan. Different fabrics, different patterns, different ways of tying obi. Treating kimono like clothing, rather than a symbol of national identity that has to be kept under glass like a dead butterfly. Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing chain, is selling yukata in their American stores, because they want Americans to buy them. (I got one the other day. It isn’t just a bathrobe calling itself a yukata; it comes with an obi and instructions for how to tie it. Though it doesn’t tell you that it’ll look better if you put a towel around your waist to flatten out that curve before you get dressed.) And it isn’t just kimono: when I went to the wedding of an Indian friend from high school, I felt wildly out of place in my appropriate-for-a-Western-wedding dress. All her law school friends, most of whom were not Indian, were there in sari, because she’d offered to pick some up for them when she went to India to buy her own wedding gear. Sari are still going pretty strong because they’re adapting, developing different styles within the broad space of the concept, rather than remaining what they were in the days before the Raj.
There aren’t any easy answers for this. I own a sari now, one I bought in India with the help of a female relative of that high school friend. She not only helped me pick it out, she ran me all over town to make sure I got a blouse and underskirt to match it, and all the right jewelry, too. She’s totally cool with me wearing a sari. But Random Stranger #948 on the street? Might view it differently. Just like those Asian-American protestors thought the museum exhibit was racist cultural appropriation, while people back in Japan made sad faces over Americans not experiencing the beauty of the kimono. People don’t always agree, and you can’t explain to every person you pass on the street that you have the following reasons for believing it’s okay.
There’s one thing I can do, though. This Kickstarter aims to bring a kimono show to New York Fashion Week. The people organizing it seek the recognition of kimono as “a universal formal wear that is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.” To me, the key word there is boundaries. Kimono have been fenced in — like an exotic animal at a zoo, for outsider to goggle at and locals to say “yeah, remember when those were all over the place?” I don’t think the exhibit is about erasing the origin of kimono, forgetting their Japanese connections. It’s about knocking down the fence, letting the concept back into our social ecosystem. Letting it adapt to its new environment.
I’m backing the Kickstarter. And I’m thinking a lot of thinky thoughts.