• Shona McCarthy

Japanese Festival in Box Hill / How I Fell In Love With Kimono

(Taken from the Japanese Festival in Box Hill Facebook Page, 2019.)

The Festival Itself and What it Contains

As it currently stands, Melbourne has 3 main recurring Japanese Cultural Festivals. One in the city, during the summer, one in Collingwood during spring and another in Autumn in Box Hill. Each of these festivals come with their positives and negatives. But of the 3, Box Hill's festival is probably my favorite. Firstly, it differs from the Mjsf in that it is mostly indoors and occurs during a cooler season. It means greatly less suffering for cosplayer and kimono wearers. But this can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, you must pay an entry fee, which usually means lining up in a very long, slow line. You do get a hand stamp, but this doesn't mean you don't have to line up again. You do. But on the other hand, you get free entry if you wear kimono or cosplay. You still have to line up. I learned this the hard way when I tried to simply duck under the fence wearing a kimono and one of the staff became disgruntled. Once you get into the festival, there are still many people, but it is usually a little more quiet and docile than MJSF. It's bigger than the Collingwood festival. But not so big that you can't stop at the bar and get a bottle of sake if that interests you. Or small for you to get that festival crowd feeling. Since the festival typically utilises both Box Hill Town Hall and the neighboring college building, you can leave the more raucous stage area, which usually features a high calibre of performers, and go to quieter galleries if bonsai, or to see tea ceremonies held by women dressed in resplendent kimono outfits. Some years they hold sashiko cutting demonstrations. But there is always such a variety of stalls that you will inevitably find something fascinating at a price you're willing to pay. There are so many wonderful things that show up at this festival. Almost every famed aspect of Japanese culture can be experienced. Including the delicious food that shows up in tents and trucks outside. And the many kimono stalls that fill the lower floor. If all you wanted to know was what happens there, you could go and visit their website. What i want to convey to you, reader, is the atmosphere. There is a pleasant and distinct sensation there, where you feel as though you have somehow returned to a recent past: where maybe somehow it is the 90's again. Or you may turn a corner and feel your soul has entered Kyoto and yet somehow, you are absolutely in Melbourne, Australia.

(Each year the festival distributes many fliers explaining the festival content. You can also receive a map and time table when you arrive. These are essential items if you want to make the most of your visit. Lifted from the Japanese Melbourne Language School Facebook page, 2019.)

How I Came To Love Kimono (One Explanation)

It has been asked of me many times why I became so invested in Japanese culture, since my background is not Japanese at all. One would think that I would be drawn to Scottish, Irish or Chinese culture since that is my true heritage. I’ve hesitated to include this, since I would like travel to be the main character in this blog, and not myself. But, the question will pursue every non-Japanese person who desires to wear kimono, even with the best intentions and permissions. It may have to do with the fact that I am Eurasian. There is an odd way that a Eurasian person can feel universally rejected by their environment. Genetically, they won’t be like either of their parents. They won’t be like their friends. They are alone on an island with maybe the siblings they have or the few other Eurasian children they meet. Even once they do meet other Eurasian kids, they probably won’t have the same mix. I find that every attempt I make towards being closer to my own background will tend to feel pathetic, always feel like an attempt at an unreachable standard. But, to draw near to a culture that has little if anything to do with me is another matter.

For me, kimono is a way of celebrating a culture without the pressure of having to be anything other than what I am. I am absolutely not Japanese. Therefore, no one can ever expect me to be more Japanese than I really am. It is a way for me to celebrate being Asian without having to do it on my mother's terms, or my Grandmother's terms.

I learned early that kimono are in decline. Though I didn’t have the means to obtain one until I was fairly old, there was something in me that was and always has been urged on by this thought; that kimono were normal in one time and one place. Then, despite being so beautiful, so remarkable and though they do not deserve it, they aren’t worn so much as they used to be. I have this uncomfortable sensation that every time I go out wearing anything other than kimono, I am allowing them to die sooner, though I know this thought is unreasonable. Something in me has always wanted to preserve them.

I don’t recall the exact moment I went from not knowing to knowing what a kimono was, since most of the anime I watched growing up featured token yukata episodes, where the characters will attend a festival or a hot spring together dressed in traditional dress. For the uninitiated, yukata is like the casual equivalent of kimono; typically made of pure cotton and covered in bold patterns, adorned with a simple obi belt. The Pokemon episode, “The Ghost Of Maiden’s Peak” is an excellent example of this, where Misty, the female lead of the show, wears a beautiful pink yukata, arousing a sense of romance in Ash, the show’s lead male character, as he looks at her beautiful outfit.

Box Hill Japanese Festival May Have Changed My Life

When I was 12, I recall stumbling upon a Japanese Festival in Clayton Hall, Victoria. This was what I believe later became Box Hill Japanese Festival. It only filled one room with a stage and a few stalls representing various businesses. There was a front lawn covered in beautiful young Japanese women swathed in their yukata. Little children wandered about looking very dapper in crisp, colourful jinbei, a type of cotton outfit with shorts and a kimono style shirt.

When I saw the girls parade around for the yukata contest, it made me want to buy and wear a kimono as soon as possible. They looked so elegant, so casual, and their outfits were so soft and beautifully patterned. The young men who wore yukata in dark blues and greys looked so handsome and elegantly masculine. But when I went inside, I couldn’t afford anything they had available. Back then, children’s outfits came in plastic pre-packaged sets, so I had no way of knowing whether the outfit would fit me till bought it. This would be the first of many times throughout my youth that I would try to buy a kimono and fail. Things would not stay this way.

(Yukata and happi jackets worn by yosakoi dancers at Box Hill Japanese Festival. Taken from their Facebook Page, 2019.)

The moment I really fell in love with kimono, I was standing in a bedroom I no longer own.

The door was open and there was a cardboard box on the floor in the living room by the television. Someone had told me that the box was for me. I was excited, because I knew that it was my very first box of kimono. I had been looking at the website I bought it from for about eight years by then, but I never made an order till I was 20. When I had asked my parents as a teen if I could buy used kimono, they had discouraged me, saying that they would come covered in blood; that they had been worn by dead earthquake victims. But as an adult, this box was mine. I cut the tapes and out of the box came feelings of joy and pleasure.

The weaves weren’t a smooth satin silk with a design printed on, like I thought they would be. They were a celebration of textured and embossed silks, with layers of painted on designs, embroidery and small patina. In the world of antiques, patina is a nice way of describing stains or signs of age. I never really liked patina. I was excited by owning evidence of a moment from life; the reality that this kimono had been part of a history.

Each of the kimono had distinct weaves in them. One was of a sheeny, soft silk woven in damask patterns; a rinzu silk. I could see it was a houmongi from the way it was painted, and embroidered about the hems and shoulders in bright flowers and clouds in blue, yellow, purple, red and pink. Then, there were fine gold details painted over these designs. The lining was white in the middle, but the edges were a magenta ombre that faded towards the middle. The fabric and style meant that it was of a fairly high formality; appropriate for formal visits and classes in fine, classical crafts. I hadn’t encountered clothing of this quality before, so I was completely in awe that it could even exist, never mind that it was in my hands.

One kimono was pale purple with small, curved lines in a paler colour woven all over, possibly to symbolise blades of grass. This was a casual komon kimono, since the pattern covered the entirety of the garment evenly. The lining was fully white, aside from the edges, which were the same shade of purple as the kimono itself, but of a thinner, smoother silk.

Another houmongi was in chirimen crepe. This meant that while the formality was high, it wasn’t so high as the rinzu silk one. The designs of flowers and rivers were more subtle at the hem and shoulders. A soft peach lining showed at the edges. Some of the kimono came with darkened linings, mottled with stains as though there was history and mystery hiding between the layers.

There was a distinct smell in the kimono that I hadn’t smelt before. Some smelt like old soy sauce, others smelt like moth balls and almond oil. I love those smells. To me they say “vintage kimono”.

The Historic Charms of Kimono

I think I find the concept of vintage kimono so exciting because in modern life, you don’t often get to encounter a piece of clothing that is older than you are; a piece of clothing that has seen things you haven’t. But when you deal in the world of vintage kimono, you can easily come across garments up to 70 years old, and in some cases, they may have only cost me a total of $10 to import.

When I’m touching used kimono, I feel as though I am touching the lives of other human beings who came before me. I feel connected to their existence. I get to ask myself who they were and what their lives were about. This item that was potentially a very personal part of their life is now part of mine. Used Western clothes don’t have the same affect on me. Western clothes are usually mass-produced by machine; cold and impersonal, lacking the same level of craftsmanship.

Kimono are usually handmade, lined, created using multiple artisanal processes. They can be handed down as an heirloom without further explanation. A pair of jeans would be harder to justify. As I wear it, it becomes infused with the memories I create as I wear it. A kimono I wore as I ran into someone’s arms in an airport later become two wing-like sleeves I can cry into when that person has flown away. A kimono I wore when I was trying to impress a young man who rejected me becomes a trophy of resilience once I no longer care what he thinks of me.

An obi sash to go round the waist came in the box, a nagoya obi in pale aquamarine with red and orange autumn leaves on the waist and back, and gold embroidery around the edges. There was a bad stain on the obi, but I wanted to be able to use it, so I traced around a small model of a turtle over the mark and filled the shape in with copper and chrome fabric paint. There were many other bits and pieces that came in that box, but of all the items, that obi is the one item I’ve never sold... yet.

I Am A Kimono Seller

I went on to become a kimono seller. At first, I wanted to rent my collection out, fulfilling the dual desire I had to make an income doing something I loved, and a way of making full kimono outfits affordable to ordinary people. I always kept the prices low: $20 for a whole week, plus a $100 deposit, more for the wedding kimono. This was happening while I was living near Cabramatta, in Sydney’s South West. The region is notorious for being steeped in Asian, Eastern European and African culture, but it is also a low-income area, so while there was interest in kimono, there wasn’t much money to be made on something so niche there.

When people would rent from me, they usually wanted the kimono for their children, for school functions. Sometimes they didn’t return the outfit, meaning I got to keep the deposit. Other times, they would bring it back and ask, “How much would we have to pay to buy it?” I've gone on to hold kimono stalls at both Box HIll Japanese Festival and Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival. But I'm not the only one. Other sellers can be found every year, selling kimono at various price points, from the cheap to the unattainable. They're always worth every dollar.

Kimono Changed The World

I’m not sure what it is about kimono that causes them to so affect me. What I know is that when I see one, suddenly I feel as though I am transported away from the painful realities of day to day life and into a world full of beauty; bright colours, golden brocades, comforting weaves that take my mind to a bridge over the Kamo River in Kyoto. Or dark kimono that recall the mountains in Arashiyama, Saga, or small farmlands in the Edo period. Some kimono come with historic locations painted on; like Kinkaku-ji Temple, or an old village. These images are representations of an idealised reality, rather than photorealism. They invite you to dream of better things. The beauty of the hang, the crisp lines, the layers of silk and history interwoven into a living contradiction: the traditional roots of modernity.

Without the subtle aesthetic of traditional Japan, modernism as we know it in the West may never have existed at all. Monet and Van Gogh may never have found their style if they had not been exposed to Japanese woodblock prints of women wearing beautiful kimono. Yet this is a garment that is considered by many to be an anachronism; something nice, yet somehow unattainable. Or, once attained, what does one do with kimono? How do you make it fit with the world you live in? The answer is that you don’t. You embrace the fact that it resists the contemporary environment; it silently rebels, refusing to be like all the others, refusing to die the death of conformity. Yet, it isn’t a threatening garment. It is a soft, flowing swathe that embraces you as you put it on in fine silks. Or, it can be a stiff, coarse garment when made of hemp, wool or linen, poking out at angles and protecting you from the elements. The obi sash, when you have tied it not too tight or too loose, feels like a reassuring hug around the waist.


Between late 2015 and late 2016, I decided I wanted to try wearing at least one piece of traditional Asian clothing everyday. It seemed strange to me that we are a multicultural country, but we consider only Western clothing to be normative. Most of the time it was kimono I chose, since I love kimono the most. When I wear kimono, I imagine that someone might see me wearing it and say to themselves, “I want to wear kimono, too!”, just as I looked at kimono wearers before me and admired them. And they might take the classes and go through the steps of collecting kimono like I did. Then one day, someone will see them and have the same thought that they want to wear such a beautiful thing. And so long as this chain of causality continues, so will kimono.

The Changing Seasons

What I found was that since kimono come with built in rules about what can be worn at different times of year, I was compelled to notice the changing seasons. I had a new appreciation of nature’s rhythms which the climate control and concrete walls of contemporary life can sometimes obscure. You don’t wear autumn leaves outside of autumn or late summer. You don’t wear unlined linen kimono away from the warmer months. You can wear sakura just before they bloom, but you can’t wear them while they are blooming because then you’d be competing with nature, and when humans compete with nature, they always lose.

Fashioning The Kimono

Kimono are a world away from most garments as I knew them. When I studied fashion design ten years ago, I learned how to develop most if not all garments from the same torso, sleeve, pant and skirt shapes that almost every fashion designer in the world has depended on for at least one hundred years. I was taught how to sew linings and fabric shells separately and then link them with stitches and hidden thread chains.

But kimono don’t play by those rules; they have their own. They are hardly tailored to the human form and instead are formed out of a series of rectangles. The linings and outer fabrics are sewn together in every seam. They are much like sari, in that they are formed out of rectangles of fabric. You fold and adjust as you put kimono on to make them fit. This is one of the many things that make kimono a garment ahead of its time. How many garments continue to fit even if you gain or lose a significant amount of weight? Or even if you get taller or shorter? How many garments make such a bold statement as the kimono, without being overpowering or vain? What other garment manages to be so expressive and yet so subtle and dignified? What other garment than kimono has hanging, rectangular sleeves with cuffs that show just a subtle flash of contrasting silk that flows and folds into beautiful waves as you lower your arms? What other garment includes the artistry of tying the obi belt into big, bold, fantastic knots at the back?

There will be few garments that can rival the kimono in terms of grace, artistic merit and flexibility, and it is down to how little kimono fits the human form in the first place; the way you wrap it to suit yourself. There will never be another garment quite like the kimono.

I’ve never found kimono difficult to love. A festival like the one in Box Hill makes an excellent place to discover them. If you want to keep track of when their next festival will be, I suggest following them on their Facebook page:

(Balloon yoyos at the festival. Taken from their Facebook page, 2019.)

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