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Kaori Hopkins O’Connor ’68

October 4, 2022, at St. John’s Hospice, London, following a brief illness.

Contributed By John Cushing ’67

A social anthropologist whose writings fused history with archeology, Kaori studied material culture, including the commodities of empire, fashion, and the anthropology of food.

Born in Hawaii, she grew up on Waikiki Beach during the idyllic era before statehood, when the Aloha Spirit still prevailed. Part Japanese, part Hawaiian, part Native American, her ancestors included a New England whaling captain turned island sugar planter and one of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrant entrepreneurs.

Rather than write an academic essay while applying to Reed, Kaori submitted a poem in which she portrayed herself as a child of the sun, sea, and sand of Hawaii. The admissions committee was sufficiently impressed to offer a spot in the group that enrolled in the fall of 1963.

As a freshman, Kaori plunged eagerly into the freewheeling social scene at Reed and became known for her exotic looks, fashion sense, and exuberant and generous personality. She did her best to avoid the scrutiny of her strict father, an officer in the Honolulu Police Department, whom she once described as an “Irish cop.”

At Reed, she wrote her thesis, “An Essay on the Nyakyusa of Tanganyika,” advised by Professor Gail Kelly [anthropology 1960–2000]. “Being at Reed was the formative experience of my life,” she wrote.

After earning two degrees in social anthropology at St. Anne’s College in Oxford, Kaori realized, “The only thing I had to look forward to was doing fieldwork up the Sepik in New Guinea where there were no fashion shops and no plumbing.” Instead, she entered and won a talent contest at London Vogue magazine and went to work for the magazine, wandering around the fashion jungle with a notebook, studying the anthropology of fashion, and writing five guides to style and shopping in London.  She wrote a number of books on fashion, including the bestselling Creative Dressing.

But she came to the decision that there was more to life than style and fashion, and took a job as the editorial director of Kegal Paul International, a London-based publishing company specializing in academic books on Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific. Kaori was responsible for an acclaimed series, Pacific Basin Books, reflecting the cultural complexities of the Pacific in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eventually she returned to the academy and received a PhD in anthropology from University College in London. Her dissertation on Lycra won doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships.

She worked as a freelance journalist and broadcaster in television and radio and was a frequent guest on radio and television programs, including Creative Knitting, The Great British Bake Off, and The Great British Sewing Bee. Kaori won the Sophie Coe Prize for food history for her study on the Hawaiian luau. She organized a conference that was the first to look at children’s clothing in the modern period, and was awarded a Pasold Prize for Textile History for her study of the Ladybird children’s dressing gown in the context of the post–World War II baby boom. That paper exemplified a key anthropological principle—that social forms are mirrored in material culture.

Perhaps her most prized accomplishment was the birth of her daughter, Kira Eva Tokiko Kalihiokekaiokanaloa Fion, born in 1991 to Kaori and Peter Hopkins.

Kaori’s books included Lycra: How a Fiber Shaped America (2011), Pineapple: A Global History (2013), The Never-Ending Feast: The Archaeology and Anthropology of Feasting (2015), and Seaweed: A Global History (2017).

“I can’t imagine life without Reed,” she wrote. “I wish I could do it all again, and the only thing more significant was the birth of my daughter. As the years have gone by, Reed has drawn closer rather than receded, and I miss everyone like mad.”

Myron Seth Yorra ’67 recalled, “Kaori and I met on our first day at Reed and talked through the night about British mysticism. We remained friends for the next 59 years. When I was in London, Kaori became my social director. Whether it was her suggestion of lunch at the Ivy to negotiate German rights for the musical Rent, or a wonderful Chinese restaurant across from my hotel to charm a reticent author, London kept no secrets from Kaori, whose facile navigation of the city’s possibilities repeatedly rescued me from desolation.  I treasured our friendship.”

Birck Cox ’67 remembered, “I liked her, either because of or in spite of her brash exterior, I’m not sure which. Talking to her, I remember, was sort of like trying to carry on a conversation with Bette Midler, in that her side of it was not always informative, but it was always entertaining.”

“Kaori’s gentle clarity and courteous obedience to cultural norms blew me away,” said Martha Holden ’67. “She was a gentlewoman, a revelation of how a contemporary could be. Such a gift to a craggy New Englander.”

Although Kaori adapted to the damp cold of England over the decades—as well as to the mordant wit and reserve of the British—she held her love for Hawaii deep in her heart. She was expanding her treatise on the Hawaiian luau into a book when she died. Kaori is survived by her daughter, Kira Eva Hopkins.


Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2023

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