Google “kimono,” and the first result that comes up is the website for Forever 21. Clicking through leads to a vibrant smorgasbord of open jackets: a graphic “tribal-inspired” print kimono draped on a blonde-haired, blue-eyed model; a chiffon number with white tassels worn by a Kendall Jenner look-a-like; a semi-sheer knee-length version with an embroidered “southwestern” collar. Of the dozen or so kimonos on offer, none is distinctly Asian in style – and none is modeled by an Asian woman.
The modern cousins of the ancient Japanese garment are everywhere, from the summer music festival circuit to the spring runways (Céline, Tome and Marni all sent kimonoesque pieces down the catwalk). They’re being worn by everyone, from Kim Kardashian and Olivia Palermo to fashion-loving teens and Starbucks-toting moms.
The kimono, a garment that dates back to the 5th century A.D. and worn by westerners for at least 150 years, inhabits the slippery gray area between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Recent years have brought a greater awareness of exploitation in fashion, as racialized groups loudly call out those they see as guilty of adopting the most stereotypical cultural elements of minority groups with little regard for meaning or history.
Take the proliferation of non-Hindu celebrities wearing bindis, like Vanessa Hudgens (who wore one to Coachella) and Selena Gomez (who sports it fairly often). Wanting to reinforce the forehead decoration’s historical, spiritual significance, a slew of South Asian women began posting photos of themselves wearing it under the hashtag #ReclaimTheBindi.
Indigenous groups often take offence at fashion’s decontextualized borrowing of their traditional looks. In 2012, Victoria’s Secret officially apologized after it sent lingerie-clad models down the runway in native headdresses. This past spring, Dsquared2 drew ire for a line said to be inspired by “Canadian Indian tribes” that they chose to name “Dsquaw,” a riff on the derogatory term “squaw” for native women.
For a long time, the kimono as a fashion statement – both contemporary remakes and authentic vintage garments – largely avoided being called out for cultural appropriation. Then, earlier this summer, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts debuted Kimono Wednesdays.
Held during the month of July, the weekly event was intended to celebrate Claude Monet’s 1876 painting La Japonaise, which portrays the artist’s wife, Camille, donning a blonde wig and a luxurious red kimono (technically a uchikake, a formal style of kimono worn by brides or in performances). Museumgoers were given the opportunity to try on a replica kimono specially made for the event.
Backlash was fierce and swift. Demonstrators protested the event, armed with signs reading, “Try on the kimono and learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” and “This is Racist. This is Appropriation. This is Orientalism.” This despite the fact that the show, including the replica, had travelled throughout Japan last year without any criticism.
Influenced by traditional Han Chinese clothing, the earliest kimono was first worn by men and women of all classes as their principal item of dress. Wealthy aristocrats wore it as an undergarment, as well as a fashion statement and indicator of social status. The T-shape design familiar today was born in the Edo period, between 1603 and 1868.
Although not considered religious, the motifs and colours on many kimonos are of great significance. The popular image of cranes is a symbol of longevity, while the colour red represents allure and passion. It was only during the mid-19th century that the term “kimono” (which means simply “thing to wear”) was officially coined to differentiate the garment from western clothing. Nowadays, most Japanese people favour western-style clothes, but the kimono is still worn by older generations and geisha and at formal occasions.
“Many westerners will say the kimono is somehow non-changing and is simply traditional attire,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Musuem, who did her doctorate work at Washington University in Japanese art history. “But it has changed historically. That’s why it was such a fundamentally important garment during the Edo period, because it was fashion, it was constantly changing.”
Although the west has had a fascination with Japan since the mid 19th century, interest in Japanese fashion reached modern pop culture in the 1970s, she says. “The 60s and into the 70s was all about globalization,” says Semmelhack. “It was about love beads and sandals from India, Jesus hair on men, and kimonos from Japan. It was about being a citizen of the world.”
A brief history of the kimono in the west
David Bowie in particular was influential in bringing Japanese fashion to the west. He sought out contemporary Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto to create the costumes for his Aladdin Sane tour in 1973, resulting in a series of now-iconic pieces. With his bright red hair, Bowie shimmied on stage in a short satin kimono and matching cloak adorned with Kanji characters, as well as a one-armed, one-legged knit onesie that was influenced by the layers of kimono textiles.
In her essay for the recently published anthology David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, fashion historian Helene Thian writes that Bowie’s trendsetting choice to display his appreciation for Japanese fashion signified a newly formed bond between the east and west. In the 1970s, she says, Japan was still viewed as the Other by much of Europe and North America, “a former World War II enemy.”
“Bowie as the bisexual, androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust, borrowed costume and stage techniques born of the alien culture of Japan in order to put a flourish on the declaration of Otherness, alienation and non-conformity for the benefit of his fans,” writes Thian.
The controversy around cultural appropriation is very much a 21st-century conundrum. Yes, post-colonial founding father Edward Said wrote the seminal book Orientalism – which argues that the west’s patronizing view of the east is based on stereotypes and fantasy–in 1978. But for a long time, such ideas were only fodder in the intellectual sphere. Now, these debates have gone mainstream, surfacing regularly on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – and, as the MFA protest proved, at museum exhibitions.
Pamela Sugiman is a sociology professor at Ryerson University and an expert on the historical racialization of Japanese Canadians. “People can get upset because it’s almost trivializing something that is of cultural significance,” says Sugiman. “I think there’s an attempt to hold on to some traditions and cultural symbols and it seems almost disrespectful for a non-Japanese white person to don the kimono as a fashion statement without acknowledgement of that piece of clothing.”
Sugiman, who is Japanese Canadian herself, doesn’t view the kimono as something exclusively for people of Japanese descent. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being influenced and appreciating a Japanese aesthetic as long as you really understand and respect it,” she says. There are those in Boston who agree: by the third week of the MFA exhibit, a group of elderly Japanese women showed up to protest the protesters. Clad in traditional kimonos, they came bearing their own signs stating that they supported the museum sharing Japanese culture.
Three-year-old Canadian design house Horses Atelier, founded by best friends Heidi Sopinka and Claudia Dey, has a penchant for vintage kimonos that not-so subtly creeps into its collections. In 2014, after researching traditional Japanese patterns, Sopinka and Dey designed a fairly straightforward kimono, a silk robe printed with fans and feathers, cinched at the waist with a black leather sash.
The designers are particularly enamoured with the kimono’s democratic silhouette. “I do feel like it really is flattering to a wide swath of women of all ages and body types,” says Sopinka. “That appeals to us because we like dressing a variety of women.”
Their Spring/Summer 2015 line included two pieces with a distinctive V-neck kimono collar: a silk-cotton voile ankle-length dress in an islander floral print and a boxy, cropped vest in an iridescent cupro-linen.
“We had the editors of Vogue Japan in the studio when they were in Toronto two months ago and three out of four of them bought the cropped vest,” says Sopinka. “Claudia and I talked about how we’re interested in Japanese classicism and they said they loved what we had done.” The vest can easily transition from day to night, depending on how it’s styled, a reflection of the versatility of the kimono, which functions as wear for both the everyday and ceremonial.
Nicole Manek, owner of the Toronto clothing store Life of Manek, also shares a love of kimonos. Since her shop opened in 2013, she’s carried a selection of vintage kimonos made of high-quality silk with saturated colours and embroidery. Less important is the authenticity of the garment or its origins, though most are sourced from Japan.
Manek describes her clientele as fitting into three molds: the boho chic 20-something festival-goer who pairs a kimono with shorts and a tank top; 30-somethings who don the kimono in lieu of a blazer with jeans and slip dresses; and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are drawn to its glamour and drama. Of the three groups, she says, the older types are most likely to sport the full-length kimono.
“I think with fashion, you do need to be sensitive to a culture when you’re incorporating it into a line,” says Manek. “But with vintage, it is what it is. You’re taking a piece that has existed for years and you’re reinterpreting it in any way you choose.”
Semmelhack, of the Bata Shoe Museum, agrees that the kimono deserves the freedom to evolve – even if that means transforming into a staple at fast-fashion chains. “When you ossify it, you in some way imbue it with a kind of power, but you also suck the life right out of it,” she says. “When you don’t allow it to change anymore, it ceases to be a vibrant part of society.”
Earlier this summer, the Montreal musical festival Osheaga announced that it would be banning concertgoers from wearing native headdresses. Will the kimono be next? Unlikely.
“To dress in kimono in Canada or the U.S. during the 1940s would of course have a very different meaning than it does today,” says Sugiman, the Ryerson professor. “Japanese Canadians are so assimilated in this country that so too have traditional Japanese cultural symbols come to permeate the dominant western culture.”
The bindi, kimono and headdress controversies cannot be ranked against each other, but Sugiman notes that power is the common thread that weaves together these varying cases. “A headdress or kimono conjure up culturally constructed stereotypes of ‘Indian savages’ and ‘Oriental lotus blossoms,’” says Sugiman. “It’s the cultural context that gives meaning and potency to acts of cultural appropriation.”
Still, there are crucial differences in the current political and cultural climate. In light of modern waves of Islamphobia, the choice to wear a hijab (like Rihanna did for an Abu Dhabi photo shoot) or a burqa (à la Lady Gaga in her “Aura” video), comes with far more immediate implications than Beyoncé wearing a sexy kimono in Vogue.
The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto is currently hosting a kimono exhibit featuring more than a dozen different types from their massive textile archive. An array of kimonos lines the gallery walls, from everyday cotton yukata to the most intricate wedding uchikake. Billowing beautifully from the ceiling are a selection of obis – the wide piece of fabric that belts the kimono shut – in opulent patterns that depict soaring birds and golden flowers.
Unlike at the MFA, visitors won’t be able to try on any historical or replica kimonos at this exhibit. But they can do so if they come for a tea ceremony, summer festival or class trip. “We encourage all people to wear kimono,” says the centre’s executive director, James Heron. “We see it as cultural exchange based on respectful curiousity.”
Elizabeth Fujita, the centre’s manager of heritage, had a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese women as bridesmaids at her wedding last October. As a gift, she ordered them matching clutches from an Etsy shop in Tokyo that makes new accessories from vintage obis.
Fujita doesn’t see this as cultural appropriation, but it’s not because she herself is Japanese Canadian. “If we’re too quick to decry ‘offensive’ to non-traditional, non-formal uses of kimono, then we are committing a similar crime of oversimplification of a culture as eroticization does,” she says.
While the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation might waver, there are instances when that stroke becomes bold and definitive. Case in point: chopsticks belong in a bowl of ramen, not in your hair.