(Cos)playing Culture: Reimagining the Kimono in Modern-Day Kyoto
“The kimono is said to be dying,” reported American anthropologist Liza Dalby in the opening of her book Kimono: fashioning culture, “to be utterly too cumbersome for modern life, to be as elegantly anachronistic as the conservative old ladies or geisha who wear it.” Despite its grim prognosis, the kimono continues to be worn on ceremonial occasions in its capacity as the national costume of Japan. However, how to wear a kimono has long since passed from the realm of common knowledge. While some choose to enroll in kimono dressing lessons (kimono kitsuke), the majority rely on kimono rental and dressing services for occasions such as coming of age day (seijinshiki) and graduation ceremonies. Recently the kimono rental chains of Kyoto have introduced a new type of rental possibility. In a package deal referred to as a “sightseeing rental,” customers can now be dressed in a kimono for the day whenever they’d like for a reasonable price. This it is not uncommon to see at local shrines and temples groups of young women sporting boldly patterned kimono and prom-queen like coiffures, men with dyed-hair and piercings wearing kimono with gothic accessories, kimono-clad couples, and even young women wrapped in the elaborate costume of an apprentice geisha. How has the kimono evolved from a dress that “modern young ladies are allegedly unable to tolerate” to something that both women and men seek out not only for prescribed ceremonial occasions, but also for the purpose of having fun? Furthermore, why are these “sightseeing rentals” limited primarily limited to Kyoto? Answers to these questions shed light on the creative process through which national identities are conjured.