Cultures through Kimono and Sari
By Dean Raffaelli
On a February morning when a faint hint of spring
was in the air, a diverse group of Chicagoans gathered
at the Indo-American Center on North California Avenue
to discuss how attire and appearance impact the Japanese
American and Asian Indian American communities. Present
were representatives from the Field Museum, the Indo-American
Center, and the Chicago Japanese American Historical
This was the second planning session for Cultural
Connections Program, a program administered by the
Field Museum’s Center for Cultural Understanding
and Change (CCUC). The CCUC brings the museum’s
anthropological mission into the neighborhoods of
Chicago by partnering with more than twenty ethnic
museums and cultural centers. The theme for this
year’s programs is “The Language of Looks.”
I was asked to join because in the twenty years I
have been associated with the Chado Urasenke Tankokai
Chicago Association. I have become adept at the arcane
practice of wearing kimono. Our association consists
of teachers and students dedicated to the study of
Chanoyu, the Tea Ceremony. To that end, I have acquired
a custom made, dark blue silk kimono with all the
accompanying accessories. More importantly, I have
learned how to wear it properly. My first thought
on being asked was why not ask a Japanese-American
male to model kimono? Little did I know that this
seemingly simple question contained within it the
basic conundrum of the entire program.
Although we were there to plan the event, I found
myself in the midst of one of the best history classes
I had ever attended. My fellow attendees commented
not only on history, but also on demographics, anthropology,
theology, philosophy, and no less important, fashion
I learned that Japanese history in the United States
began with the Meiji period, some 150 years ago when
Commodore Perry's “Black Ships” forced
Japan to open its doors to the West. The first Japanese
immigrants to America were farmers and agricultural
workers. Their history in America was complicated
by import quotas, exclusion laws, picture-brides
and darkest of all, forced internment and resettlement.
This contrasts with the more recent history of an
urban Asian Indian culture that migrated to America
in the 1960s during the Cold War in response to a
need for professionals, mainly scientists, engineers
and doctors. They had the advantage of speaking English
and being able to settle wherever the jobs took them.
There was no need for them to be segregated into
towns, as the Japanese were on the West coast.
Their disparate backgrounds have seen the Japanese
strive for inclusion while the Asian Indian's inclination
has been to blend and reshape American culture. To
think of this in real-time, count how many women
you have seen in sari versus kimono. It would be
thousands to one.
title of the program is “Mirror, Mirror
on the Wall…How Am I Perceived By All?” As
the afternoon proceeded, I watched various presenters
discuss how history, politics, economics and
culture play a role in how they dress as individuals.
It became apparent that social status, gender,
group affiliation, profession, values and taste
all contribute to the every day decision of what
To complicate matters even more, all the above
is dependent on the resources available to us.
Our communities' accumulated knowledge and creativity
combined to affect how we perceive ourselves
and how we are perceived by the society at large.
And you thought dressing for work in the morning
|Dean Raffaelli and Joyce
Kubose demonstrate how to wear kimono traditionally
while explaining the differences between men’s
and women’s kimono.
(click on picture
for larger view)
My experience prior to the conference had been with
my colleagues in the world of Tea where not wearing
a kimono is noticed more than wearing one. Individuals
that revel in their ethnic dress have surrounded
me and left me ill prepared for the numerous issues
and the intensity of emotion related to dress. As
culturally aware as I think I am, I am still a white
male living in a world designed by and for white
males, and before the Cultural Connections event
I would have never understood this depth of feeling.
Part of our presentation was to demonstrate the complexity
of dressing in kimono. In our casual age of buttons,
zippers and Velcro, the art of dressing has been
lost to most of us. Of course we learn to tie a scarf
or a tie, but these pale in comparison to tying an
Joyce Kubose, a long time student and teacher in
the Urasenke tradition of Tea, performed the seemingly
impossible task of applying her obi in less than
ten minutes. This task would take most of us not
only much longer, but also would require an assistant.
She perfected this skill while training at the Urasenke
Headquarters in Kyoto for three years where kimono
was the mandatory daily dress. Because of this unique
experience, she differs from the vast majority of
My initiation into wearing kimono began at the direction
of Joyce Kubose, my tea sensei. She was the first
teacher to encourage me to wear kimono. She understands
that kimono is integral to the study of tea and not
just a costume. I have become accustomed to and comfortable
in my kimono and never forget that it is not a direct
part of my cultural heritage, but a privilege extended
to me by the Japanese-American community.
What is ethnic dress after all but cloth? It is just
there, unless drawn attention to, as in couture.
It is what grandma and grandpa wear, and what culturally
aware youth use to play off of: sari with jeans and
high heels, coats and accessories made out of antique
kimono fabric. For most, ethnic dress is only brought
out of the closet for important milestones: birth,
coming of age, marriage and death. It is not a comfortable
part of life for many people.
perfect example of this was the story told by
a young college-aged Asian Indian woman concerning
nose piercing. Her mother was shocked to find
out she had gotten her nose pierced while away
at college, but her grandmother was so happy
that she bought her multiple nose rings. It was
as if her ethnicity skipped a generation before
reasserting itself. Her mother had done what
she could to fit in and her daughter had found
a way to blend tradition with the fashion of
the day to make a strong personal statement.
|Arthi Subramanian puts
on a sari with Basanti Banerji’s assistance.
(click on picture
for larger view)
When I look out at the audiences that come to see
us demonstrate the Tea Ceremony, I often wonder why
there are not more Japanese-Americans, especially
children, young adults and males, in attendance.
Although this may be presumptuous of me to say, my
wish for the Japanese-American community is not to
deny, but to rediscover their ancient heritage. Ultimately
I think this is the only path to inclusion.
So in the end what are we left with? Someone at the
end of the program commented that the topic should
not have been the Language of Looks but the Calculus
of Looks because dress is the outcome of multiple
variables. It is an adaptation, over hundreds of
years by millions of people, in response to the world
in which they find themselves. Sometimes they find
themselves in favorable circumstances and sometimes
in dire ones, but they are always looking to the
future and to what will be the best for them and,
more importantly, for their children, though they
seldom realize this until they themselves are parents
and grand parents.