Katsuke

The first time I tried to dress myself in kimono, it took over an hour.  I felt like a young child learning to tie their shoes, slow and awkward, face getting redder as I went.  The process of dressing has only gotten slightly faster with time and practice—like my sword practice, kitsuke is never truly mastered, and there is always room for improvement.

 

I came to kitsuke (着付け), the art of wearing kimono, through a lifelong love of anime and my more recent study of Toyama-ryū battōdō, a form of Japanese swordsmanship.  In 2019 I lost my job and found that I had some time to fill, so I decided to study the Japanese language as well and began classes.

 

I found myself completely immersed in Japanese language, swordsmanship, and culture, so it was natural that at a certain point I would become interested in Japanese fashion, specifically kimono.

 

I had seen plenty of kimono depicted in anime, art, and movies, but it never occurred to me that I could try wearing them myself.  The Japanese school I attend sometimes had kimono on display, or available for students to try wearing at events, and I started to search on Google for places to buy a kimono of my own.  

 

I purchased my first kimono, a navy blue silk Komon (small pattern), for $50 on Etsy.  Like many kimono available on Etsy, it was pre-owned, which meant it was extremely cheap and accessible to someone like me.  A brand new silk kimono of the same type might cost between $200 and $500; more formal kimono would be even more expensive.  At just $50, my first kimono was a steal!  

 

Unfortunately, I did not own any of the accessories needed to wear it.

 

In order to wear a silk kimono in the most basic (but correct) way, you need a variety of items: a nagajuban (layer under kimono) with a changeable collar called han-eri.  To keep the collar stiff, you need an eri-shin, a plastic strip which slips inside the han-eri.  Tying everything together requires several koshi-himo, the “hip belt”.  To really look nice, you’ll also need the obi stiffener called obi-ita, a stiff board which helps the obi stay in place.  Don’t forget your obi!  If you’re not going to use the other obi accessories for the fancier musubi or knots, then you’ll want a basic flat hanhaba obi.  

 

I had none of those things.  Even writing out the list feels so daunting and inaccessible.  Luckily there are many knowledgeable kimono teachers online who post free content, so I started watching videos about kimono on YouTube: how to wear, fold, store, and care for them.  I learned about the basic kitsuke items and started slowly collecting what I needed.  Through my research and thrifting I stumbled across a yukata (informal, unlined cotton kimono) seller in Japan, and I purchased a yukata kit which included the yukata, a matching obi, and sandals called geta.  I also found a pre-owned nagajuban–with these items added to my collection, I was finally ready to attempt getting dressed.   

 

The biggest misconception about kimono is that it is impossible to dress oneself.  Knowing the long, long list of items and accessories needed, it does seem like the most daunting task.  But if battōdō had taught me anything, it was that with patience and practice I could learn and perfect my technique over time.  If I could learn to fold and wear a hakama for practice, surely I could learn to wear a kimono.  I can tell you definitively that it is not impossible to dress yourself in (most) kimono.  Similar to my sword practice, I have gained confidence in my ability to work on my own while always keeping in mind that there is work to be done.    

 

That first time, sweating and trying so hard to dress myself in my vintage blue kimono, pre-owned juban, and items from the yukata kit, I came to the first moment of clarity: kitsuke was just like battōdō, a lifelong striving for perfection.  Each time I get dressed, I approach the kimono with the same discipline and beginner’s mind as I do my battōdō practice.  There is a rhythm, a flow, the kata of getting dressed in kimono, and I find peace and strength in that flow.

 

I take pleasure in a perfectly folded kimono, the eri laying flat and neat on my collar bone, a well-tied obi musubi, or folding my koshi-himo into adorable little stars.  I am not nearly as fastidious about my ‘normal’ clothes—in fact, my clothes outside of kimono are generally athletic wear, flannel or Hawaiian shirts (depending on the season), and a handful of work-appropriate outfits.  I spend most of my time looking rather rumpled and covered in cat hair, but kimono is different.  Wearing kimono puts me in the same mindset as battōdō, the eternal striving for perfection, and I value the quiet and orderly headspace.  

 

My collection has slowly grown over time with mostly vintage pieces I have sourced from sellers in the US and Japan.  I was even able to purchase a used kimono, obi, and juban from my favorite YouTube kitsuke teacher when she did a closet cleanout, and they are some of my most prized pieces, purchased second-hand several times in a row until they came to me.  My former Japanese teacher visited New York recently and brought me one of her old obi as a gift, and I gladly added it to my collection.  I have found beautiful pieces for those around me as well and have had the pleasure of dressing my loved ones in kimono for weeknight sushi dinners and dojo parties.

 

While there are other aspects of kitsuke that bring me joy (thrifting, appreciation for crafting, and respect for Japanese culture being a few), the main root of my love for kimono is the rhythm of dressing and the quiet happiness I find in dressing well.  When I take time to dress myself in kimono, I feel more put together and beautiful than any dress or suit has ever made me feel. 

 

Shoutouts to kimono sellers and teachers I love:

Ohio Kimono–for amazing vintage pieces at reasonable prices

Kimono Yukata Market Sakura–New and vintage pieces, really affordable and accessible for people new to kitsuke

Shinei Antique Kimono Store–Huge variety of products and price points for vintage kimonos and other kitsuke items

Billy Matsunaga–Kimono teacher living in Japan who makes videos for YouTube