“And then I became aware of all the magnificent silk wrapped around my body, and had the feeling I might drown in beauty.”
It’s 8:30am on Saturday; I wake to the sound of my iPhone alarm (I’ve chosen the one that sounds most Japanese, ofc). It’s dewey and misty outside, the kind of mist I’d seen in photographs before my arrival; the watercolor white weaving it’s way through sharp green mountains kind of misty. I spent the night at calligraphy class and I’ve been down with a bad cold – half of me wants to curl up with a cup of matcha; the other half still abuzz with inspiration from the night before and eager to take another small step along the journey of Japanese artistic discovery. Art wins, naturally. Well, after 5 consecutive snooze buttons but no one really needs to know that.
I hop into a steaming shower and running late, as usual (on time means ten minutes early in Japan), I blow dry my hair and sweep on some liquid liner before rushing out the door to meet my Japanese friend, gmaps and camera in hand.
This is a first for both of us and tbh I had no idea kimono wearing classes were a thing until a few days before. In my mind, kimonos, as aesthetic and glorious as they are seemed, were nothing more than wrap dresses embroidered with meaning and worn with absolute grace and subtle allure. Boy, was I mistaken. It seems obvious now that one would need a minimum of 12 classes to simply learn how to dress oneself in kimono – level one, the basics. It would take a further set of classes to reach intermediate level in dressing oneself and a third set to learn how to dress another. I’m almost certain this is the modern take on dressing; I can imagine Geisha schools and the likes spend much longer learning how to layer and adorn themselves perfectly with every piece adding to the artwork.
That said, I was naively in awe of the extent one needed to go to in order to learn how to dress oneself; needless to say 2 hours and fully dressed later I had been humbled.
My friend and I were greeted by a beautiful Japanese woman dressed in kimono. She opened the door in manner that made it seem as though she wore kimono everyday and this class was no special occasion. The class was held on the second floor of an architecturally traditional japanese house, complete with tatami mats, sliding doors, low ceilings and a steep staircase which our teacher navigated effortlessly despite being wrapped in patterned cream cloth.
We sat symmetrically in the seiza style (正座, “proper sitting”) – the Japanese way and shared our names. Watashi wa Deru des. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
She had laid out a variety of kimonos, undergarments, strings and fabrics for obis from which we spent about 10 minutes matching colors and talking about patterns. I chose the lilac piece embroidered with pastel pink sakura, a maroon obi to offset the pastels, a white undergarment with a dark collar for contrast and a lilacy-pink braid to tie it all together.
We started by removing our bras (apparently the aesthetic prefers a ‘boxier shape’ as opposed to a curvy silhouette which suited me fine as my waistline is basically a rectangle) and wrapping ourselves in the base layer of a white silk robe featuring a patterned collar. This piece would form the base of the look with the collar being crossed at a precise point along the collar bones and the back of the collar being angled at just the right point exposing the nape of the neck and a hint of the back. Our teacher gestured to us that this area, like the wrists, is the point of subtle sensuality. On closer observation, it’s obvious how the neckline is designed to lead the eye along the shoulder, across the neck and just enough down the back to spark a certain frustrated intrigue.
Thereafter; we layered the kimono which hugged the undergarment to fully reveal the silhouette, this was clipped in place while we proceeded to layer band after ribbon after place-holder ribbon after band after placeholder ribbon, after band until we finally reached for the obi which seemed to magically wrap itself around me with the help of our sensai’s delicate and agile fingertips. Origami-like in nature, I have no idea how she did it but I held when she said hold, and I tugged when she said to tug. Before I knew it we were undoing each placeholder ribbon and removing the placeholder clips to reveal a perfectly positioned garment and goosebumps to match.
The final touch – a satin, beaded floral clip placed not too far forward and not too far back. Just enough to reveal itself at the right turn of the head.
The next few hours were spent walking the streets of Old Town, Takayama. An area composed of traditional Edo-period architecture housing shops, restaurants, sake breweries and homes. I’ve worn many a potentially attention grabbing evening gown, cocktail dress, faux fur coat or fitted pair of pants. It doesn’t seem right to mention the kimono in the same context as the afore mentioned but for the sake of my one reference points I must. This was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Everything I’ve experimented with wearing before seemed to attract obvious attention; blatant wows, cat-calls and remarks. Now, whilst I had my “you cannot call yourself a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look” Sayuri moment; it felt wholly different to said prior experiences, in that my wrists immediately began to move like they used to in ballet class, my steps were smaller and my head held higher. Making eye contact felt more like a subtle dance than it did a request for approval; which has been my life’s western experience of dressing up. I could feel my energy change as I became more self-aware of the people stopping to look at us and the occasional man respectfully commenting on our beauty. Subtle, sensual, enigmatic and graceful; the essence of kimono.
“Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.”
I’ll be taking kimono lessons to receive a certificate in Kimono dressing and documenting it along the way. If you’d like to ask me any questions or add insight please feel free to comment here, or on instagram.
Quoted: Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha.