by Lucy Dayman
Born in Germany, but now a Kumamoto local, kimono stylist, and teacher, Billy Matsunaga is one of kimono’s most fascinating spokespeople.
Since moving to Japan in 2010, Billy has her schedule full running classes, creating video tutorials, writing articles, and appearing on TV, all with the aim of demystifying the garment and educating those interested in the kimono. For Billy, it seems, this passion is a life’s mission.
It was on an early student exchange to Japan that she was at last able to embrace the kimono and learned the ins and outs of kimono wearing. "It was thanks to my first host mother who was a great teacher," says Billy, "she taught me how to wear and where to buy kimono."
Since those first steps, Billy has become a fully-fledged and licenced kimono teacher, sharing her knowledge with Japanese and international students alike. During the course of our chat she shares some of the insights that will be invaluable for beginners to kimono!
1. How Much to Spend on a First Kimono?
One of the most valuable lessons Billy learned during her more formative years visiting Japan was that you don't need to spend a lot of money to start getting into this traditional dress. "I always thought ‘oh my gosh the kimono is so expensive I would never be able to afford one.’
Billy's host mother taught her, however, that your first kimono should be cheaper, or second hand, "she drove with me to second-hand stores and showed me that you could buy beautiful kimono without spending a lot of money."
2. Kimono Collecting vs Kimono Wearing
These days Billy estimates that she owns about fifty kimono, but call her a collector and she'll have no hesitation in correcting you. "I'm not a collector," she says. "I just really love wearing them. I think the key difference between collecting and not collecting is that people who consider themselves collectors often buy stuff they couldn't wear because they like it."
"I don't buy any kimono I can't wear it because I think someone else should have the opportunity to buy it. I want someone who can wear it to have even more fun with it."
According to Billy, a kimono that is only admired isn't reaching its full potential. As well as looking beautiful, this elegant piece of fabric can also help the wearer present themselves, as it has for Billy.
3. Wearing Kimono Can Improve Your Posture
"Ever since wearing the kimono, my posture got way better!" When you wear the kimono, Billy says, "it straightens up your back, and when you have a better posture, it gives you more confidence. Whenever I dress someone first time in a kimono," she continues, "they always tell me 'oh I feel so pretty.'" She claims that it also helps with spatial awareness, "when you wear kimono, you have these long sleeves you have to deal with, so the way you move is more conscientious and graceful."
4. Where to Buy a Kimono
So, where should people begin when thinking about wearing a kimono? It's a question Billy gets asked regularly, and she has plenty of words of guidance. One place you can go is your local kimono store. "I know there are kimono stores across the globe, in Montréal and a few in New York, so maybe there's a big chance that you have a kimono store store nearby!" Get chatting with the store owners she encourages, "these stores are often run by Japanese staff, so it's always good when you go there and check."
And of course, wherever you are the Japan Objects Store is one of your local kimono stores! You can buy a great selection of kimono and yukata from us, direct from Japan, with free shipping offers available. Come and chat to us about what you’re looking for!
5. When to Buy a Kimono?
One of the interesting facts a kimono store owner may divulge to you when visiting is that the annual kimono fashion cycle has three seasons. The kimono seasons aren't necessarily a strict rule, but rather a guide to when is most comfortable to wear a particular style. "In October," says Billy "is when we start to wear our kimono with lining because the weather is colder." When the weather gets warmer, usually in March is when Billy recommends that you wear a kimono "made from silk or just polyester, and without any lining."
If you dress it up enough, these days during the summer months, you can also make a simple breezy yukata look formal enough for outside wear. During our chat, Billy confesses that although the yukata wasn't traditionally designed to be worn in such a public way, there have been times when she's worn them on public TV appearances, and nobody batted an eyelid.
6. Buying the Right Size
If you're in the market for a summery yukata or a well-fitting kimono, Billy does have a handful of tips she swears by. The first tip is that "usually a kimono is made to your measurements, so if you buy a secondhand kimono the best thing to do is to try and find one that was owned by a person with a shape similar to you."
The second tip is "if the kimono that you're looking at is just in the standard S M L sizes go for one that is both closest to your measurements and a little bigger, because the good thing about kimono is because it's just a big piece of cloth you can wrap it around you."
"There's no perfect kimono body," says Billy, "so it doesn't matter what silhouette you have. You do have a certain kind of form or pattern you have to force yourself into, but it requires a little work from the wearer."
You can also find out more about sizing a kimono or yukata in our size guide.
7. What Kind of Figure Suits a Kimono?
One common misassumption many people have about the kimono is that you have to have a slim, Japanese frame to pull off the garment, and that's not the case. People seem to think thin bodies are best, but "if you're thin, you have to put padding under the layers of the kimono, so it fills out and looks nice," says Billy. A western or European body fits a kimono well, as those shapes often have more curves which are suitable for the kimono silhouette.
8. The Future of the Kimono
When quizzed about the philosophies of the kimono, its position in Japanese culture and the adoption of the kimono by non-Japanese audiences, Billy has plenty to say, but all of her insights and opinions are underlined with a sense of optimism and acceptance.
Talking about the legacy of the kimono, and why she believes "we don't have to keep it alive because I think it will just stay alive. When I compare it to, say, traditional German costume, which was reappropriated and modified over the years, the kimono has never changed." She argues that although the kimono may not be as ubiquitous these days, it's as relevant and powerful as ever.
The kimono's relevance can be linked back to its label: is it fashion? Art? Something else entirely? "The kimono is a piece of art," says Billy "when you wear it, you wrap yourself in a piece of art. But by doing so, you turn it into of fashion. I think people also consider fashion as art" so it has that crossover appeal. When pushed to define it, Billy shies away from the question: "I wouldn't label it at all," she says.
Billy's prediction on the future of the kimono is that the kimono as we know it today won't change much. Why? "Well when you look at the kimono shape over the past 400 years, it hasn't changed much." She explains matter-of-factly.
Sure, "how people interpret it and what kind of pendant you put onto it or what kind of a fabric you're recently using" may change, but that's about the extent of it. Wrapping up on a rather left-of-center, but very apt analogy, Billy says the shape of the kimono "is like a violin." It doesn't need to change, "because it's just the best shape ever."