MATERIAL WITNESSES

The first kimono I saw hung as art was above a staircase. The arms were outstretched like the wooden Jesus I’d seen in museums, or my mother when she wanted me to run to her. It was tangerine silk. A flock of finely embroidered cranes, white-winged and red-capped, flung into flight across it. The light caught their feathers. I wanted to touch it, to press my face against it. But it was beyond my reach. Perhaps as an adult, I might have been able to grab the hem. It hovered above the hands of the child who did not yet know her multiplication tables. Later, I asked my mother why it was there. She replied that the house owners, an English couple, had spent many years in Japan. My mother had not understood my question. What I had meant was more sweeping: why would you hang clothes on a wall rather than wear them? Why was it so beautiful, who had made such a thing, who had worn it, was there a chance that I would someday stroke the backs of those birds? Perhaps the mistress of the house might have answered such questions, but I was a little intimidated – she was a creature of gold and glitter. I could not, at the time, relate that finery to the kimono I’d seen on my dead relatives in faded photographs. It seemed both wonderful and entirely foreign, like a dragon perching unexpectedly in a London house. Another memory: sitting on the dark parquet floor of my grandparents’ apartment in New York. My grandfather is unwell and it is hard for us to go out. So, we linger indoors. On the table is a bowl of fruit cut for me. All-day the television is set to the NHK, the Japan- ese version of the BBC. My mother is translating the period drama as we watch. There is a rivalry between two court ladies, one rich and cruel, one poorer but good. They encounter each other by chance on a narrow wooden walkway. The rich woman says to the poor: ‘Nice kimono.’ My mother explains this is an insult. The poorer woman has not been able to update her kimono with the season. I am confused. My mother tells me that in Japan at that time, the patterns of your kimono matched the season: maple leaf for autumn, plum blossom for winter, and so on. This unfortunate woman is out of season and out of place.

Later, I will realise that the garment my grandfather was wearing was also a kimono – though it had no seasonal motif. On the rare occasions we go out, he will, with pain and effort, ease into beige trousers and a polo shirt. But in the apartment, he wears his yukata – a thin, unlined kimono, cotton not silk. He wears it over loose pyjamas. It is not chosen for fashion or to impress, but because it is comfortable and light. Heart surgery has left him tired. This kimono will never be exhibited. Yet, it feels closest to the meaning of the term. Break down the parts of kimono and you get wearing plus thing. It’s a simple word, suited to his humble garment. Now he is gone, his bones are no longer able to hold up any fabric. In his funeral portrait, he is wearing a suit, but a decade after his death, I long to loop the yukata’s indigo cloth around my hands.

The reason these kimono memories have flown into my head is that this spring, there is an exhibition coming to the V&A that promises to show us the garment from 1660 to the present day. I’m intrigued by the catalogue. It describes the ways kimono allowed wearers to display their stories: who they were, what they aspired to, the rules they flouted and the lines they toed. There’s one story about a 17th-century merchant who had his lands and houses confiscated by the shogun due to his wife’s inappropriately extravagant kimono. I learn that in the Edo period, there was a fashion for red undergarments and that the bridal headgear from the same era was called a horn-concealer, owing to the popular belief that after marriage, the bride would hide her horns of jealousy to be a good wife. Samuel Pepys, eyewitness to the Great Fire of London, was the owner of a kimono-Esque garment. David Bowie was inspired by Japanese dress when designing the clothes for his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, and went so far as to learn how to apply make-up under the guidance of a kabuki actor.

I think back to that flock of cranes. I realise it may have been a bridal uchikake–an exquisitely decorated outer kimono worn during the wedding banquet. After guessing this, it seems suddenly fragile. I imagine a girl, her heart still new, carried by these birds into her future.

I think of my grandfather at the end of his life, his hands jittering with Parkinson’s, the words shaking out of his throat. I think that there must have been a final time his long brown arms tucked themselves into indigo blue. I wonder if he knew it was the last.

I will go to the show. I will admire the kimono, the woodblock prints, the hair combs and paintings. I will look and look. I doubt I’ll be able to touch. I hope to glimpse the lives that once filled silk and cotton.

Take a stroll around central London and you’re bound to spot one of English Heritage’s iconic blue plaques, which mark the former homes of famous novelists, artists and all manner of changemakers. Each year, a handful of new names are announced, but in 2020 all of the commemorative signs will be dedicated to women for the first time since the scheme began. There’s the Hampstead property of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the Westminster headquarters of two major suffragette organisations, and the Cam- den townhouse that once belonged to Helen Gwynne-Vaughan. A little-known figure who lived an extraordinary life, Gwynne-Vaughan shunned the traditional route of a Victorian debutante to become a trailblazing scientist and professor of botany, then went on to head the women’s branch of the British Army at the outbreak of World War II.

Thrillingly, the list is completed by two female spies. The first is Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess who was recruited by British intelligence, captured in France while on a government mission and died in Dachau concentration camp in 1944 aged 30. The second, Christine Granville, was a Polish-born secret agent who won numerous military honours for her bravery and was the inspiration for several heroines in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, including the double agent Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.

At present, only a minority of blue plaques are dedicated to women, making this year’s crop all the more valuable in unearthing forgotten female histories and firing the imaginations of generations to come.

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