In the summer backyard, the child poses by a garden chair wearing a long red cotton yukata printed with tiny white fans. The gleaming metal of her hair, now tightly plaited and coiled, is as reflective of light as her mother’s is absorbing of it. One small hand flickers out from the cool sleeve like a fin; a small fish playing in the waves of Midwestern grass, an unconscious recollection of the gilded koi that swam in the Hokkaido pond. In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson writes that, ‘our daily life is spent among objects whose very presence invites us to play a part: in this the familiarity of their aspect consists.’ The garment-objects of the child’s life mean that she plays different parts; while they are both familiar to her, the audience that views her in these roles see two parts and not one person. This separation means that she herself will come to be distanced from both roles and person. To play is a serious engagement, for the imaginary mimics the real and the real wishes for another reality.
The interplay of kimono and Western clothing is as much a combat at times. The daughter cannot recall being dressed in the former in Japan, and to wear one at ‘home’ signifies a formality with only a vague sense of identity. She likes the rough cottons and heavy silks of the robes, the mousse-like airiness of the thin silk sashes that she is bound with. Bound: not a simple wrapping and tying like shoelaces, but an elaborate winding of the long material around her still-shapeless body as she holds up her arms for eternal minutes in front of a mirror. Both she and her mother are silent, aware that this ritual is love; binding as both intimacy and creation. To wear a kimono, or even a less formal yukata, means there is time spent in and with the garment. There is a particular way to sit and a way to stand, every gesture considered but innate. No one has told her how to behave when she wears one, but her body understands. The combative feeling in her—small and angry and confused—is because she does not understand why her body understands. She knows this sense is relegated to the boundaries of the home, and that to view it outside of that space becomes not a bringing together of girl and culture, but a distancing. She does not know how to contextualise this garment with her world outside of Japan, outside of the house.
Barthes, in The Language of Fashion, says that, ‘dress is a priori a kind of text without end in which it is necessary to learn how to delimit the signifying units, and this is very difficult.’ The child only understands the limits of the garment in a vague social way, and even more vaguely grasps at the question at the edges of her growing consciousness of how she is woven into this ‘text without end’. One day, when she is about seven or eight, her mother comes to school dressed in a kimono. She speaks to her classmates about it, and while they are polite and attentive, the girl knows that this is another thing in the list of things that mark her as an interloper. She feels the hot creeping flush of an embarrassment that even then she is ashamed of, the discord between pride and belonging whose disaffection beats loudly in her head like a parade of taiko drummers she once saw. If she understands the limits of the garment it is because there are times she wishes to cut the threads that bind her to them.
In her teenage years, she clashes with her mother frequently about clothes. It is that strange dissatisfied time, one where to be like everyone, yet different, is paramount. This warring desire and lack of clarity of who she might be, is seen to be, wants to be, manifests in how she dresses: carelessly wrapping those old silk sashes over jeans and jumpers, wearing her father’s oversized gold and black jacquard haori or long indigo blue and white yukata over white t-shirts and leggings. She wears them open as a deliberate rebellion. Untying is unbinding, unbinding is unravelling, unravelling allows her to seek herself beyond the threads while acknowledging that she will never cut them, an uneasy reconciliation since her childhood days. The daughter wants only to find some combination which is wholly her, to herself and to the world.
On the days she wears only Western clothes, she disappears into the dull checked linoleum of the school hallways—just one of others, but also false, for she feels that whatever she wears is an attempt to be like the rest that is never quite successful. She exists in a world where one is judged on brands, the young awakening of a desire to categorise according to have and have not. The daughter belongs to the latter, and now finds that the pride which so fiercely battled with belonging in her earlier days emerges with youthful fury. She takes clothes from her mother and father and combines them with a sartorial arrogance which nonetheless masks the sting of knowing that money and its display is yet another place she cannot be. But when the rough silks and cottons graze her skin, when she looks down and sees the prints of cranes and crests and patterns dancing in an elegance beyond her or anyone else’s years, it is a protection different to the garment-nests of her childhood. For she now understands that this armour is hers to wear in her own way, and in doing so the fledgling has started to make its own way in the world. In Practicalities, Marguerite Duras writes on dressing: ‘a uniform is an attempt to reconcile form and content, to match what you think you look like with what you’d like to look like, what you think you are with what you want to suggest.’ This is the closest she has to something that remains the same; garments which shift like a chameleon, reflecting both of the cultures she moves through.