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  • Shona McCarthy

Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival (祭) And The Winning of Kimono Contests


(This special stage is usually at the centre of the festival. within it, you can see the sassy ladies of Murasaki No Kai, who lead the formation dancing. Taken by me, 2020.)

Of all the special events on the Japanese calendar, Natsumatsuri or Japanese Summer Festivals may be amongst the most significant. As a consequence, there are many cities outside Japan where Natsu Matsuri will be held.


If you'd like to see what one looks like, they often appear in anime like Your Name (2016); Sailor Moon Season 4, Episode 19 and Pokemon Season 1, Episode 20. In fact, you'll be able to spot these episodes very easily in most anime. The characters will attend a festival where most of the characters will be wearing cotton yukata. It will usually be held at night, with hanging lanterns, a goldfish-catching game and various foods on sticks. Melbourne's ordinances and distinct culture mean that its Natsumatsuri can't legally be held in exactly the same manner. Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival or MJSF will typically be held during the day from around 11am to about 6pm,, making it a great occasion for sun-lovers. Since most Melbournians don't know so much about yukata, MJSF tends to be frequented by a massive number of cosplayers and people wearing kimono-ish outfits.


(A game involving cans and sticks was running in the atrium. I thought the guy playing was wearing a cool yukata, and the use of cans seemed resourceful to me. Taken by me, 2020.)


(At Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival, there is often many performances by a wide range of quality groups and artists. Since I was a contestant in the kimono contest, I got to see this taiko drum performance up close! Taken by me, 2020.)

What Makes It Amazing? Every year, Japan-related businesses from all over Melbourne will gather to hold stalls at this festival. It means you can wander the place and see the stock and styles of many different groups and businesses. You can also go down by the river and eat many delicious foods. But the best thing, and the thing that sets Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival apart from other Japanese festivals in Melbourne is the Yagura Platform. Sassy older women from Murasaki No Kai will put on resplendent outfits of cotton kimono and odori obi to lead the crowds through Bon Odori, or traditional dancing. I've found that some Christians find themselves unsure of whether or not they should participate in the dancing. Since it was traditionally done as a way of communicating with spirits of the dead, some wonder if it is a form of divination. But what I've usually found is that the songs and dances themselves are very lively and tend to be about innocent topics, like racoons making mochi, or digging for gold. These are tremendous fun and good exercise for the day. They are especially fun to do wearing yukata, since the sleeves will swing in a very complimentary way.

Kimonoesque Fashions?

I'm going to make a confession and say that this is partially why I find going to this festival a little frustrating. There is always a predictable amount of people who attend every year who attempt to wear kimono, but do so in a manner that, to my kimono-wearer eyes, is disturbing. This was one of the things that first motivated me to attempt to create permutations of kimono that standard people could wear more easily. I am still attempting to come up with a wardrobe of Japanese-Contemporary permutations that would preserve the kimono spirit whilst rendering the culture more understandable to non-kimono wearers. My own Etsy store and it's options are partly a by-product of those aims. Check it out in the banner to the upper left. I place a distinct emphasis on continuing the spirit of "mottai-nai" or, waste nothing.

You, the reader, may be wondering what I mean when I say that the outfits worn to these festivals look wrong. If you aren't wondering, you can skip this section.


Firstly, it should be understood that in the kimono-wearing community, there is always an underlying set of assumptions about kitsuke, or how kimono should and should not be worn. Many of the rules and standards kimono-wearing people of our times have been taught were invented by Kimono Schools within the past 70 years who wanted to create and maintain high standards. These rules are largely what have created the impression that kimono wearing must be strict, inflexible, and both physically and creatively restrictive and demanding. They pertain to things like having every single line and fold in the outfit perfectly straight, what colour, accessory and fabric combinations are acceptable and how obi should or should not be tied. If you want to win a kimono contest, knowing these rules will matter, and there are now many resources throughout the internet where you can learn them. Indeed, all respectful wearing of kimono will depend upon knowing something about these rules, since some of them even relate to what your outfit communicates.

Many contemporary kimono wearers actively defy these rules. The fact is that when kimono was the norm in Japan, kimono wearing wasn't such a hard-and-fast discipline. There were many common practices that made kimono wearing far more practical and dynamic. Kimono once could be worn as an everyday garment precisely because people were once free to adapt it to the needs of their lifestyles in ways that are not really permitted anymore. However, you will find that even those who know the rules are often willing to experiment with them. For example, I will often wear a very casual, drab kimono with an ostentatious, high-formality obi. Or I match motifs and colours instead of contrasting them. Or I wear non-Japanese shoes and accessories with kimono. I'm not meant to do these things and they mean I rarely win kimono contests. But I consider them to be an important way of contemporizing kimono use, expressing my personal identity, and helping kimono appeal to a wider audience. So I do them anyway. I'm usually only participating in a kimono contest precisely because I want to change the way people see kimono, so I don't entirely mind losing. However, there is a big difference between knowingly defying the rules and simply wearing a kimono badly. One of the tell-tale signs of poor kimono wearing is when the overlapping fronts are crumpled, splayed and uneven instead of straight, smooth and balanced. Another is when your obi is tied at the front instead of the back. Unless you are clearly doing a variation on oiran style dressing. Wearing a silk kimono against your skin with no undergarment at all is also a big no-no. Which is partly why it matters to only wear cotton yukata on a hot day. With cotton yukata, it is so very casual that you can get away with more experimentation. A neat, strictly traditional look is far more likely to win a kimono/yukata contest. But in yukata, you can get away with more and still be taken seriously.


(There was a stall of caligraphers at the festival that were painting fans. But I asked them to paint my face with some of my eyeliner. They kindly refused when I tried to pay them for it! Taken by the artist, 2020.)

What Should You Wear If You Want To Win A Kimono Contest? The personal taste of judges will vary greatly. The first and only time I won a kimono contest, I was lucky, in that one of the judges was revolutionary Kimono artist and seller, Sala Okabe. I suspect she actually invented a category of prize I could win, just because she was happy to see someone actively experimenting with kitsuke. I think I heard her complain about how most of the contestants were overly conventional in their choices.


So, the following year I continued to challenge the rules and conventions. But she wasn't a judge that year. The judges were all much more conservative. So I didn't even place. The moral of the story is that if you really want to win, it pays to know something about the judges. Usually, the judges at kimono and yukata contests will be very conservative in their choices. This means that you can bolster your odds of winning by making your choices as conventional and traditional as possible. Get some real geta or zori at a formality level that matches everything you are wearing. Choose appropriate underwear. Dye your hair a natural colour. Don't wear any jewelry. Floral yukata and kimono tend to win more often than geometrics. Well-ironed kimono and yukata tend to beat crumpled ones. Soft pastel colors tend to beat dark. Pale colours tend to beat bright. Couples of men and women entering together tend to do better than individuals, providing they are both well dressed and their outfits compliment each other. Neat, burnished kitsuke tends to do better than scraggy, drooping outfits. If you are an adult, your odds of winning already drop. So, it's better for you to have a child and enter them instead. Though I like to shake up kimono wearing conventions, I do understand why judges frequently take such a traditionalist approach. At festivals like MJSF, or the Collingwood Japanese Festival, or the Box Hill Japanese Festival, the basic aim is usually to help Australians better understand traditional Japanese culture. As it is, I'm astonished at how often people can't tell that my kimono wearing is unconventional. I'm astonished at how many will think a yukata is formal. Or not realize that my platform sandals aren't geta. Or that I shouldn't be wearing pigtails and cross earrings. So, there is a recognizable disparity between what is true about kimono wearing, and what the average Australian understands about kimono wearing. Therefore, there is a need for judges to put the most accurate yet appealing face on kimono wearing. So, having one woman in the most traditional outfit, plus a fleet of adorable children win is actually a very smart strategy on the part of the judging panel.


(Me with some of the kimono/yukata contest entrants. Selfie, 2020.)


What Should You Know About Entering Best Dressed at MJSF? I came very early in the day and went up to the "Best Dressed" sign up table as soon as I arrived. But what I found was that this wasn't necessary. They weren't accepting sign-ups till 2:30pm in the afternoon. This means that if you are wearing an outfit that will wrinkle easily and won't stand up well to heat, you can delay your arrival to the festival. Or bring it with you carefully stored and only put it on just before the contest. Lines can be long and frustrating, since the heat of the day can sometimes bring out the worst in people, and many cosplayers will be wearing thick wigs and even thicker outfits. So, no one will be quite in their right mind and this can mean things might feel more frustrating than you expected. Don't give up! Just buy a Slurpee at the 7-11 in Fed Square just before you line up so you can keep your cool in more ways than one. You could go to the sign-up table early to be first in line. But this will still mean waiting a long time for sign-ups to actually begin. However, I don't recommend waiting to one side for the line to clear, either. Arriving later than 3:35pm to the left side of the stage results in an automatic disqualification.


Pay close attention to the staff and their instructions. They will need to allocate numbers to you, and tell you where to stand. However, while you wait there, you will have a chance to go into the dressing room tent, where there is a full-length mirror, so you can check yourself one final time before going on stage.


I got to the side of the stage very early, so I had a wonderful, close up view of the taiko drum performance that was on just before the contest! Looking out at the crowd and knowing that I was about to walk on Fed Square's official main stage made me a little nervous. But I knew that looking and acting nervous would make me less likely to win. So, I tried to imagine that the crowd were my friends, and that they would be happy to see me and have fun with me. This made me feel much better. When I walked onto the stage, I had thought it would be like the Box Hill Japanese Festival Best-Dressed contest, were each contestant would walk onto the stage, present a little and then stand to one side in a line, with the MC telling everyone where to stand and go so that the judges could look at each contestant, judge them, and then all the contestants would file off together. So I went on stage, gently pulling my sleeves straight as though I were a cute machi musume. I curled my sleeves like bird wings. I spun dramatically, and when my umbrella flicked out, I put it over my shoulder as though it had been deliberate. All the while, the crowd cheered me on. Then I went to one side of the stage, with the MCs awkwardly trying to say without saying that I should leave the stage.


In retrospect, I probably should have asked more questions at the sign-up desk. So, that would be another word of advice I'd offer to contest entrants. The time to ask questions about where to go and what to do is before you get onto the stage, not after. But, win or lose, the time you spend on stage should be seen as a chance for you to face your fears and develop character. If you win, that is an added bonus. And even if you lose, there is usually a participation prize and personal lessons learned. I won a Melbourne Observation Star pen just for entering. I also learned that humiliating yourself in front of consular diplomats and hundreds of people isn't the end of the world. So, it's always worth doing.

(Cosplayers were dressed to the nines and very kind. Taken by me, 2020.)

But I think the thing I liked best was talking to the other contestants backstage. Lots of the other entrants were happy to take photos with me. Cosplayers and contestants were wonderfully kind and supportive towards one another, on top of the fact that some of them looked amazing. So, even though I botched my entry, I didn't actually feel that bad. It meant I was able to go home and connect with a lot of them on social media, so it can be a form of networking if you're already in the rag trade.


(A rack of children's kimono and haori kimono jackets at the festival. Taken by me, 2020.) Concluding Points The Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival is a great place to get up close and personal with Japanese culture. But you will have the best experience if you actually participate in as many of the activities as you can. Many of my friends were volunteers and I've held stalls at this festival before. The more you get into it, the more you get out of it. All the better if you can bring some friends with you for the day!




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