The Dress Code: Is the Kimono Trend Cultural Appropriation?

racks of colorful kimonos

Dear Dismantlers, Is the kimono trend cultural appropriation?

We definitely see where this question is coming from. Kimonos — or more accurately, garments being called kimonos, on which we’ll say more later — are everywhere right now. They’re beautiful, easy to wear, and work well as a warm weather cover-up to drape over less forgiving trends — like tube tops

Well, we have good news and bad news. 

Let’s start with the bad news. The short answer is yes, wearing the garment often does fall into the area of cultural appropriation  — but not in exactly the same way as, say Victoria’s Secret using Native American “inspired” headdresses in their fashion shows. Turns out there are lots of ways to appropriate! But all cultural appropriation is really about cultural power, which put bluntly, means maintaining white supremacy. Half the Internet has already been used up talking about why it’s bad to appropriate Indigenous styles (and yet, people still do it!) so we won’t spend too much time on it. 

But the short version is that turning garments specific to the sacred traditions of living cultures into undifferentiated adornment perpetuates myths like 1. Indigenous cultures are interchangeable 2. They’re a charming relic from the past so they’re no longer political or religious 3. European colonists weren’t guilty of genocide; they “saved” native culture by appreciating how artistic it is! It’s all around a bad look.

But wait, you say, I’m American! I never colonized Japan. And kimonos aren’t sacred. There’s no power imbalance there, so we’re good, right? Actually, not only did the U.S. occupy Japan after World War II, we put Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. Emi Ito explains beautifully how “fashion” kimonos erase the garment’s particular history and contributes to erasing Japanese-American experience here

But we also want to think about the bodies we mainly see wearing and advertising this style right now. The vast majority are young, white, thin, and feminine. The problem we see with this is its relationship to a long history of associating “Asianness” with femininity and leisure. This is one of the enduring stereotypes of Orientalism. Europeans began wearing “oriental” dress as indoor, leisure or sleepwear almost as soon as they started colonizing “The East” (“pajamas” is an anglicized Hindustani word). And nineteenth-century painters like John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase couldn’t stop making portraits of pale, sleepy women dozing in “exotic” silk robes. This was part of a “craze” for all things Japanese that started in the U.S. and Europe after 1853, when Japan agreed to trade relations with America. Which sounds nice! Americans could finally buy Japanese stuff and they appreciated it. But that trade agreement happened because the U.S. pointed a fleet of warships at Japan and said, basically, “trade with us or we’ll blow up your country.” So those boneless kimono-ed ladies flopping over on velvet couches were also a celebration of Western dominance — of the next victory after the U.S. achieved “manifest destiny.”

four 19th century paintings of white ladies lounging in kimonos
#kimonostyle #kimonolove #loungewear #lazySunday #Whotookmybones

In the mid-twentieth century, kimonos became popular again as signifiers for a “certain kind” of white lady during World War II. The kind of white woman who got expensive gifts from GIs and spent a lot of time in her boudoir — she wore kimonos. This was happening at a time when Japanese-Americans couldn’t safely wear the same garment. 

Gillian Anderson wearing a red kimono in A Streetcar Named Desire. Is it cultural appropriation?
Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire, 2014. Rex Features

In all of these cases the kimono worked to reinforce white supremacy and patriarchy at the same time. Asianness and femininity are both shown as passive, self-indulgent, and lesser (and  therefore in need of bourgeois white men’s stern but loving guidance). Meanwhile, Sargent’s floppy, pink-cheeked lasses and Tennessee Williams’ wilting Southern belles wore kimonos to underscore their whiteness. Imagine a Japanese Blanche Dubois. The kimono would mean something else entirely. (PS “Blanche” literally means white.)

And now in anglo markets, a clothing style that was worn by men and women is sold as a feminine accessory. This is complicated by the fact that, as many cultures adopted to the nation state model of government, femininity became linked to “tradition.” So women often were expected to keep dress traditions alive while men adopted Western clothes. And the kimono itself was invented in the nineteenth century (based, of course, on earlier traditions) to preserve Japanese culture against encroaching Western influences. 

Anyway, I know…it’s a bummer because kimonos really are gorgeous. So here is the good news! The question of cultural appropriation is much more complicated than we can fully address here, but we do have some suggestions to complicate this history. 

First, we are very wary of “stay in your lane” culture. Saying that people should only ever wear clothes that match their cultural heritage sounds kinda like something the Aryan Nation would approve of. Of course, we’re equally unimpressed by lazy arguments for “appreciation” and “inspiration.” So what’s a non-Japanese descended person to do? First, don’t call any loose and vaguely “oriental” robe a kimono. Do your homework and know what a kimono actually is. In fact, this is something we see as positive with this trend. Most people who aren’t Katy Perry or Kim Kardashian know that a kimono is a garment of Japanese origin. And that can be the beginning of real education and using fashion to debunk, rather than perpetuate, stereotypes. The upside of this trend is that provides opportunities for actual informed appreciation and knowledge circulation. 

Our second suggestion is the same as always — listen first and then collaborate. Instead of “being inspired” by Japanese styles, work with and buy Japanese designers. If you can’t do that, maybe just buy a flowery robe? 

So, we’re not saying to get rid of your kimono. But understand the history you’re invoking when you wear it — and that this history will be different depending on what kind of body takes it up. Also understand that undoing this history will take a lot more than making a choice about whether or not to wear a particular item of clothing. However, as we’ve seen, it’s a starting point to understanding how contemporary power dynamics are connected to a longer history, which points us to ways we can start to unravel the past and weave a better future.  

If you’re looking for more resources to engage with Japanese and Japanese-American fashion, culture, and history, Kelly Corcoran, PhD in Linguistics from UC Davis, provided us with “some English language resources for the kimono community for anyone interested in wafuku or traditional Japanese clothing.” According to Corcoran, “The modern kimono industry heavily promotes to the global fashion community.” As does “the Japanese government to an extent, as part of a larger “Cool in Japan” export tourism push.”

Some resources:

SF Japantown not only has shops selling traditional wafuku but also brands like Sou Sou which sell clothing with traditionally inspired silhouettes.

Street fashion brands like lolita brands put out yukata for the summer

An example of collaboration between Japanese and African designers

Sheila Cliffe: https://twitter.com/kimonosheila?s=09

A kimono stylist: https://twitter.com/inkimono1?s=09

Response to kimono stylist thread: https://twitter.com/tomoe_0ct3/status/1144160498264338432…

American seller of wafuku: https://www.instagram.com/tangerinekimono/

Modern Kimono Magazine

Some fallout from Kim K: A letter from the Mayor of Kyoto

[Thanks, Kelly! -The Dismantlers]

Now we want to hear from you! Send your fashion related questions, problems, or half-formed thoughts to Sara at dismantlemag DOT com.

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