One of the aspects of Japanese culture that tea practitioners have to make a decision about is the wearing of kimonos. Tea was developed during a time when everyone wore kimonos on a daily basis, and even today, the movements are intended to be done by someone wearing a kimono – everything from the way the sleeves fall to where you place the various items that you carry into the room (like the wiping cloth or fukusa and the papers we use to eat sweets, or kaishi).
Today, particularly for Westerners, the question of whether or not to wear a kimono is a personal one, and in my experience a lot depends on where you study and how your teacher feels about kimonos. If you go to Kyoto to study at the main Urasenke school, you’d be expected to wear a kimono to class every day. At branch schools, like the one at New York, kimonos are optional for lower-level classes and required for higher-level ones. If you’re studying with a private teacher, then your experience may vary.
I was taught that the proper etiquette is to always wear a kimono if you’re teaching a class, and that it’s optional if you’re taking a class (unless it’s one of the high-level classes I mentioned above). However, I know of people who choose to never wear a kimono, even when teaching. Others wear kimonos so often that they feel uncomfortable doing tea at all in Western clothes.
It’s very much a psychological thing. Some people – both Japanese and Westerners – prefer to wear kimonos, either because they like them or because they feel it adds to the tea experience. Some people prefer not to wear them because they’re so formal, or because they’re difficult to put on, or because they can be restrictive. I know a Japanese woman who doesn’t like to wear kimonos because she feels that people associate tea with geishas, and she doesn’t like feeling as if she’s put on display.
To me, kimonos are like formal wear for tea – if it’s a formal occasion, be it a gathering or a special class, or if I’m teaching – I wear a kimono. If it’s a more casual setting, I’ll wear Western clothes. But I can see that there are many different perspectives on kimono, and I respect whatever decision that others make.
In the coming weeks I’ll talk more about life with kimonos, especially as it relates to tea. If you’re interested, please feel free to post questions!