Tetsuya Ichimura Kimono, Shinjuku, Tokyo 1964. Courtesy MoMA.

1. The Birds

The mother once told a story about her wedding day: after the civil ceremony, having had a drink or two but not being a drinker, she thought she was a bird. Flying down the Main Street of a strange city against the blue horizon of a lake with its fish so unlike the ones of her homeland, flapping the wide arms of her flower and crane-adorned cream silk kimono, she thought she was free. The streets and buildings of Sapporo where she came from were an intuition, a memory map whose features felt as warm and alive as the skin of those who inhabited them, a territory of birds who understand place from presence alone. Even though she now finds herself in a city chaotic with numbers, where both houses and people are numbered in multiple forms, her first knowledge is through a kind of flight and touch. Forever after, she will know these streets by the wingspan of her silk sleeves, the tapping of her lacquered zori on the even cement.

In a downtown photographer’s studio, she wears the kimono again, her black hair pulled back in a splendid bun held in place with a long ebony and coral pin. Kneeling on the floor against a pale backdrop, she places her hands on her newborn daughter, both slightly open-mouthed with captured laughter. Wrapped in a red-patterned kimono of her own, she waves her hidden arms like a fledgling nesting in thick padded cotton. Gaston Bachelard, writing about nests in The Poetics of Space says the images we attribute to love come from ‘a dream of protection’ akin to armour or shelter. ‘Dreams of a garment-house are not unfamiliar to those who indulge in the imaginary exercise of the function of inhabiting.’ It is true that as soon as she can recall memories, the daughter does not think of the photo but the event; despite only remembering things like the edges of the dark beyond the studio lights, the clean, slightly camphorous scent of the kimonos, and most of all a rustling of fabric, the solidity of material that forms a garment-nest which has been built for her. The dream of inhabiting is a reality, for it has been created to be so: by her grandmother who has made her little kimono, and her mother, who by dressing her, has placed the daughter in the space she feels safe within.

When the mother came to this country, she brought with her a tanzen, a great padded winter kimono. With its velvet collar and patchwork of fine antique silks in gold-hued olive green, navy, and burnt orange, it is never worn but lies on a bed as a thick coverlet. It is a ruin of sorts, one that straddles the worlds of specific use and disuse, for as Susan Stewart says in The Ruins Lesson, ‘… ruin refers to a fabric … that is meant to be upright but has fallen … what should be vertical and enduring has become horizontal and broken.’ Here in this Western bedroom, the tanzen is horizontal but not broken, instead adjusting its meaning to a different world, the way the mother must and the daughter will. This is another of the daughter’s earliest memories: the contrast of these ruins of paper-thin silk and dense black velvet against her baby skin, its wide weighted sleeves playfully folded over her body. Though no body ever fills it, the child regards its touch as if it were its mother, and so this mass of materials endures.

On a trip to Japan, the mother of the mother folds her new grandchild in gentle, grey kimono-clad arms on a curved bridge, showing her the koi rippling beneath. Leaning over the pond, the child wears a light blue Western dress, her baby hair the colour of the carp’s orange-red scales dulled to copper under the greenish water. The grandmother has never worn Western clothes or ever left her country, but she has understood her youngest daughter’s need to go elsewhere, welcoming the child of her marriage, a little creature regarded with curiosity. The ombré of her hair and robe is another world to the cuckoo, who regards these new people and surroundings with the understanding that they are hers regardless. She takes in this new world with solemn contentment and because of the kimonos she has known in that one and this, with no sense that this is different from the one she has flown from. She moves from houses with numbers to houses without, with their old wood and paper-framed panelled sliding doors, tatami mats, and bedding put out on the floor for the night and stored away during the day. While she does not yet have formed memories that she recognises, there is feeling: deep and wide kimono sleeves that enfold her, brush against her skin whenever she is picked up or tucked in. The daughter recalls this more than the touch of skin, the feather-light strokes of these bird-women with their cloth wings, their murmured unknown words that she translates and responds to in babbled emotions.

Jacques Derrida in On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, writes that a caress is neither demand nor possession, instead a tender gesture which only knows how to give, an ephemeral promise whose reward is to live on in the eternity of memory. In these images, to hold and touch is a gift: first as the child of a child of a child, the latter two now slowly removed by time from the state of childhood; second, as love without capital, a pure and short-lived state of freedom. For those moments of touching, both are bestowed with the absence of age and a rich and wordless communication of emotions.


2. Binding and Unravelling

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 Sapporo 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 to understand clothing requires the knowledge that it is limitless in its expressions, a ‘text without end’, and so its puzzle lies in both the drawing and deciphering of its boundaries, its seams forming another kind of map. 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. 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.


3. The Dolls

She finds an old black and white photo of her mother as a teenager standing outside of her wooden house in the Sapporo snow, wearing a white kimono scattered with flowers, tabi and zori, her chin-length hair in a slightly waved bob. What she notices most of all is her smile: it is wide and full, and with the exception of the photo of mother and infant daughter in the photographer’s studio, free of the cares which have marked the one she has always known.

The daughter on her wedding day. In front of a mirror, she wears a cream silk dress layered beneath with tulle, wondering who it is looking back at her: this is not the place or the person she wants to be. She touches the organza of her bodice and feels constricted; it is not the same as the binding of love. When young, she played with her neighbour’s dolls, their plastic limbs resistant to being dressed, and once finished lay there, waiting for their joints to be directed in unnatural movement. Discussing the poet Rilke’s essay on dolls in The Dream of the Moving Statue, Kenneth Gross notes that, ‘Rilke imagines us angry and horrified when we discover … that stupidity of dolls that lets them be just what we liked,’ their passivity and inability to interact only lost through longevity, transcending their dollness. Stiffly jointed with the fear of indecision, the daughter becomes the very doll she struggled with so long ago. Suddenly she recalls her mother’s words, swimming through the ripples of silk in her memory. Hands by her sides lift halfway and drop. I thought I was a bird.

Galen Strawson, in Things That Bother Me, writes that, ‘grief felt for the person who has died seems like a natural expression of love, a natural expression whose absence would show failure of love.’ But what of grief without the extremity of death? In her mother’s snowy smile and her own wedding day reflection, the daughter feels a profound grief. She knows the latter is a failure of love; self-love, later expanding to marriage-love. With her mother, she knows it is more of an erosion: there has been nothing but love when she has known her mother, yet since that Sapporo photo, her mother has known the disintegration of a particular innocence of love which is part of the reality of its maintenance.

With the tenderness of morbidity—unpleasant subjects such as death or illness being hand-in-hand with intimacy—she sometimes wonders about the clothing of final rest. She goes through Funeral in the card catalogue of her memory and pulls up her relatives’ unremarkable costumes. Only her father wore something of note, favourite tweeds that the family associated him with. Though her mother is still alive and with good fortune will continue to be, the daughter cannot help but mentally dress her for this moment. Again, Duras says, ‘death, the fact of death coming towards you, is also a memory. Like the present. It’s completely here, like the memory of what has already happened and the thought of what is still to come.’ This dressing of a memory which has not yet occurred feels as important as imagining a doll in frozen splendour, like the kimono-clad kokeshi that lined surfaces of the house when she was young, or hinamatsuri dolls sitting in brocaded state on their tiers; passed down, and so gaining the solemnity of years, the dolls transcend the meaning of play. It is the formality of respect and the celebratory preparation of a future remembrance, the ritual of memory. She thinks again of that cream-coloured, crane and flower-adorned kimono, folded carefully in tissue and mothballs somewhere within a satin-sheen wooden chest of drawers in her childhood home. The daughter knows her mother has had to undergo her own transformations from her childhood world to the one after her marriage. She has watched her mother shed her silken wings over time, which the child then wore and shed and then longed for again. As the years passed, she recognised the pattern of the bird-women of her life, and she now looks to her memories in the way others await the migration of the swallows.

More and more, she remembers. And when she conjures the images of wearing these garments, a strange sartorial—or perhaps it is bodily—regret appears alongside them. She reflects on a specific moment of being dressed: the feeling of the sash being bound almost across her flat child’s chest. This is most likely a remnant of the infant’s unformed, unarticulated comfort at being bound tightly and safely, a memory of the womb already starting to fall away. She thinks of the breasts which formed later on and her delight at their shape, which was also a delight at becoming a woman, and so belonging to something. As they grew larger, something her mother never had except briefly in pregnancy, she felt the distance again. The loneliness of separation from the physical attributes of an identity. She has the vagaries of an undefinable face, but her figure is Western, and she knows these curved lines would now mar the perfect geometry of what was her body in a kimono. She longs for a precise physiological equation, as if it would answer the question of herself.

She thinks again of erosion; the slow, almost unnoticeable wearing love and life can often find itself going through, a change from motion to rigidity, birds to dolls. It is not that to be the latter necessarily represents a lack of love, though it sometimes does. It is a solidity and certainty that is less evocative of nests and first flights than realising the destiny of one’s eternal permanence, the transformation back to the image and dreams of the garment-house. Silk and cotton turn to wood: the grandmother, the mother, and finally the daughter in a still, smiling row, enfolded in the pinioned wings of time. The kimonos which were filled once with flesh and laughter and wisdom are now empty, in their dreaming folds they wait for new birds.


Tomoe Hill is not a writer, but in her words rather ‘someone who writes.’ She once studied philosophy at King’s College, London and is now at work on a book, tentatively called Songs for Olympia.