When recycling wasn't an art, but a necessity

August 15th, 2012
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kawakamiNadine Kam photos
Barbara Kawakami in the Conservation Lab of Bishop Museum, with children's kimono dating to the 1920s. Masked by the floral design of the kimono at left is the circular cross insignia of the warring Satsuma clan.

When we turn our old clothes over to Goodwill, Savers, the Salvation Army, a consignment store, cut them up to make bags or quilts or reshape them into some other garment, we can feel a sense of pride that we're doing something good. These days, the idea of recycling or upcycling our clothing is treated like a badge of honor, political or environmental statement practiced for the benefit of society and the health of the planet.

Of course the idea is not new for Hawaii. The idea of repurposing scraps started on the plantations. Only, back then, there was no do-gooder motivation at work. It was all a matter of necessity at a time when wages were pennies per day and there was never enough to feed a family of eight or 10, much less clothe everyone in new apparel once every season, or more, the way we shop for ourselves now.

We've come a long way, and not necessarily for the better in regard to fast (read: cheap) fashion that promotes wastefulness and the continual churning of one's closet.

You'll have the opportunity to slip into the plantation era mindset when “Textured Lives: Japanese Immigrant Clothing from the Plantations of Hawai‘i” opens at the Bishop Museum Aug. 18. The exhibition was organized by the Japanese American National Museum from the collection of local historian Barbara Kawakami, who started her search for plantation clothing in 1979.


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The search was difficult because of the nature of collecting the exquisite. As daily wear from people who owned few pieces of clothing, the garments had been discarded as rags over the years, and Barbara said she was lucky to have rescued a few treasures from rag boxes, in addition to garments that had been destined for thrift shops. She was able to donate about 260 pieces to JANM in 2004. Prior to that, the museum had no plantation clothing collection of its own.

Barbara said she had looked for a local organization first, but none had the capacity to manage such a vast textile collection. She's happy now that JANM was able to invest about $150,000 in tending to the garments, shoring some pieces up with mesh, and even managing to remove some of the red dirt muddying the hems of floor-length kimono worn by girls trudging through Kauai's dirt roads.

The exhibition will continue through Oct. 15, 2012 to the first floor of the Castle Memorial Building, telling the stories of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.

Kawakami, who went back to school only after raising her family, found herself in the right place in the right time, just when the oral histories of real people, as opposed to kings, queens and presidents, was becoming popular. As a Japanese speaker, she was able to record more than 250 interviews with issei, members of the first generation of Japanese families who arrived in the Hawaiian islands between 1885 and the early 1900s. For the most part, they had never told their stories before because they didn't feel their experiences were of consequence.

It was also a time when many were moved off of plantations and homes into senior housing, and discarding unnecessary belongings in the process. If she had not started the project that is continuing with her still writing her second book, at age 90, this rich history would likely have been lost.

Opening festivities, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. are as follows:

9 to 9:20 a.m.: Taiko Center of the Pacific performance
9:30 to 10:15  a.m.: Showing of "Textured Lives" video, wit JANM representatives John                         Esaki, Audrey Muromoto and Akira Boch speaking about plantation life and the development of the exhibition, and Allison Arakawa-Sears performing holehole bushi.
10:30 to noon: Showing of "Picture Bride," a film inspired by Barbara Kawakami's research.
1 to 2 p.m.: Panel presentation on the preservation of immigrant history with moderator Betty Lou Kam and panelists John Esaki (Japanese American National Museum), Jane Komeiji (historian and scholar), Michiko Kodama-Nishimoto (University of Hawaii Center for Oral History) and Karleen Chinen (The Hawaii Herald).
2 to 3 p.m.:  Okinawan Obon Dance demonstration.

plantation1Sashes on the kimono of girls too young to wear obi were graced by emblems featuring their mothers' embroidery.

plantation2The dark color and design of this fabric reflects an adult's kimono that was cut and repurposed for a child.

kawakami2Barbara Kawakami with two full sets of of women plantation worker designs, from scarves to leggings and on the left, homemade tabi. The tabi on the right were purchased at Arakawa's, founded in Waipahu in 1909 by Zenpan Arakawa. The store closed in 1995.

pkasuriLayers of patching and stitching helped laborers prevent their few garments from falling apart.

pkasuri2JANM's conservators reinforced the kasuri fabric with supporting mesh that allows us to see the lived-in condition of the garment, while stabilizing it.

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