Rachael Ragalye

Rachael Ragalye

Class of 2012

Barbara Yen Sun Prize

The kimono is often thought of as a wearable piece of tradition and a touchstone of authentic “Japanese-ness.”, particularly in Kyoto. This city first caught my imagination as the home of Japan’s most famous professional kimono wearers: geisha. However, when I arrived in Kyoto in September, 2010 for a year of study with the Associated Kyoto Program, I quickly learned that it is not just geisha who wear kimono here. There is a variety of women wearing kimono, especially in areas that trade on tradition such as Gion. Indeed, tourists probably find the little old women bustling about in kimono endearing and the younger women wrapped in finely patterned silk enchanting.

Then there is a distinctly different group of kimono-wearers, stirring what may appear to be the still waters of tradition. Where maiko and geisha walk so, too, go young Japanese women with dyed hair curled and piled high in elaborate coiffures on their heads dressed in spectacularly bright and patterned polyester kimono. However, by far the most striking example I saw was a twenty-something kimono-clad young man on the crowded streets of Gion. Sporting glasses with thick black frames, his hair was spiked and dyed chapatsu brown and the shell of his ear rimmed with piercings. Most fascinating of all to me was that the fastening of his haori, a type of jacket worn over kimono, was a silver chain of skulls and crossbones. From that encounter, I knew an interesting discourse on the relationship between tradition and modernity was hidden in the folds of his garment.

I have explored contemporary kimono culture of Kyoto during my time abroad as a way to examine some larger issues such the creation of tradition, national and cultural identity, and gender norms. I have also investigated who is able access the meanings and identities attributed to kimono. With the support of the Barbara Yen Sun Prize this year, I have engaged in this research both as an observer by interviewing and photographing individuals wearing kimono and as a participant through the purchase of my own kimono, my enrollment in classes on how to properly wear kimono, and so on. I intend to use my findings for my senior thesis, and I hope to continue this research into graduate school.