Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Copyright © 2008 Barbara Kawakami


The Japanese immigrants who came to Hawai‘i in a steady stream beginning in 1885 brought with them a rich cultural heritage; their traditional clothing was an important part of that heritage. These immigrants had been exposed to little, if any, Western culture in their native Japanese villages. At first the issei men and women began working in the fields in the rustic cotton kimono they had brought with them from their villages. But those kimono were ill-suited for work in sugarcane and pineapple fields. The issei men readily accepted the standard work clothing worn by the other ethnic groups who were already working on the plantations. For formal occasions the issei men immediately adopted the Western suit. The clothing the issei women developed retained many features of their traditional Japanese clothing. But soon, the issei women began to take apart their cotton kimono and remake them into more suitable work garments. The arm guards and leggings that they learned to make out of sturdy ahina (denim) cloth were similar to the protective garments used on their farms back home. However, as they came in contact with the diverse ethnic groups in Hawai‘i, they found useful ideas in the dress of other cultures. By assimilating these new ideas and combining them with their own traditional ideas, these women fashioned a unique style of clothing. Over the years the issei women continued to make changes in clothing that gave them greater freedom and comfort. From the perspective of clothing, the issei's personal histories are re-lived and serve as a link to cultural heritage for subsequent generations.