“The Art of the Kimono” at the Freer Gallery

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It only takes minutes talking with Nancy McDonough to realize that she is a true Japanese kimono enthusiast.

"You don't see a lot of cherry blossoms on kimono," says McDonough, the owner of Kyoto Kimono, of Endicott, New York.  "Even though we think they're beautiful, the symbology is that they are fleeting. They come, and in two weeks, they are gone. That's not something you want on your wedding gown."

And yet, it's the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which celebrates the friendship between the United States and Japan, that brings McDonough to the capital. In advance of her upcoming fashion show, "The Art of the Kimono" taking place this weekend at the Freer Gallery, I asked her to share some more of her knowledge on how the values and taboos of Japanese culture are reflected in the exquisite patterning of kimono.

Did you know?

- You may not find cherry blossoms on wedding kimono, but cranes and Mandarin ducks are common adornments. Why? Both birds mate for life.

- The length of the panel of fabric that hangs from the underside of the sleeves of a kimono depends on the age—and availability—of its wearer. In other words, the draping is longest when a woman is young and single—the idea being that she can wave her arms and the beautiful flowing garment will attract the attention of suitors. Whereas an older woman would have shorter, less flamboyant sleeves.

- Evergreen pine needles and pine boughs, two popular motifs found on kimono worn for all occasions, symbolize endurance, a hugely important characteristic in Japanese culture. The literal translation for the Japanese word for good luck ("gambate") is actually "endure."

- Just like cherry blossoms, you won't often see the big beautiful blossoms of camellia on a kimono. When a camellia dies, the whole bloom falls off of its branch. It's been equated with the beheading of a samurai, and thus decorating kimono with camellia is very rare, if not taboo.

- Because tortoises are known for their longevity, tortoise shells, when depicted on kimono, are meant to wish wearers a long life.

McDonough will continue this discussion of the cultural and aesthetic significance of traditional kimono styles during two fashion shows held this Friday and Sunday, at 1 p.m. in the Freer conference room. Hundreds of vintage kimono will be for sale at the museum shop over the course of a three-day trunk show starting Friday.

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