Tag Archives: kimono

Wearing a kimono; cultural appropriation or not?

These days, there’s so much talk of what’s appropriate or not that you worry precisely when you’re going to be called out for some lack of political correctness.

Remember when Katy Perry wore this to the American Music Awards? Some of the comments at that time ranged from ‘she looks so pretty’ to cries of outrage and a sense that the outfit was cultural appropriation. There were some who felt that Perry had no right to wear the kimono – a Japanese cultural emblem that dates back to the Edo period. Most of the haters failed to realise that it was just a performance – nothing different from a stage show , or let’s use Madame Butterfly as another, slightly different example wherein white singers play the parts of Japanese characters.

Katy Perry’s infamous Geisha dance

Scroll through the negative comments on Youtube and you won’t find any from Japanese people. It seems that nearly all Japanese people are pretty much fine whenever someone not Japanese decides to wear a Kimono. Yet, many still feel that whenever people step outside their culture to wear ethnic clothing they are committing a crime tantamount to racism, or at the very least, cultural appropriation.

I got my own taste of this recently when I borrowed a kimono to wear for the day. Most people understood what I was doing but I was blind-sided by the comments of some. What right did I, as a privileged white male – have wearing a Japanese garment that Japanese people have been mocked for wearing? The argument being that I can never wear a kimono with good intent? Did it make any difference that I was wearing it correctly? Or that it was assembled and sewn by a Japanese person? Apparently not. By this point, I couldn’t think of a good argument that would sufficiently counter these claims.

My head was spinning. Were these people actually saying that people of certain races should be prevented from wearing the clothes of other races? Weren’t they guilty of the same racism and intolerance that I was being accused of? Still more fantastic was the argument that those of true Japanese culture had no say in the debate because they couldn’t appreciate the discrimination that second generations of Japanese had to face in America.

the good news is that I went away with more enthusiasm for the kimono than ever, and I resolved to wear it again as much as I can. I looked for examples of people like me who love wear Japanese clothes (plenty, it turns out). And I looked at examples of famous people over the years and found so many. David Bowie proudly wearing one as ‘Ziggy Stardust’; Bjork for her album cover ‘Homogenic’. Perhaps there are many more for those who care to look. The kimono has permeated our clothing habits so much that we are not aware that a dressing room is a simplified kimono – see Obi Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film. No-one cried ‘cultural appropriation’ then, and they shouldn’t now. If we aren’t careful, we risk creating a world where no-one can ever really understand the culture of other countries or experience it – something that would make the world a much less diverse and interesting place. I say let everybody wear whatever they want.

How to wear a Kimono

How to wear a traditional kimono (men)

First of all, choose the style of kimono as there are many different types available. The most formal are usually black with a gold obi that is tied around the waist. The exciting part of the kimono is the jacket that is laid over the top of the main part of the kimono.

So here are the steps to follow. The First layer is a white cotton sleeveless garment that is a bit like a tunic. There is usually some colourful silk embroidery that is on one side. The idea is that it is visible when you wear the  jacket over the top. The sleeveless vest is fastened to the body with a lightweight band that is fixed tightly above the waist.

The next step is to wrap the kimono itself around the body. The kimono I wore was long enough to reach my ankles and needed to be wrapped around twice until it was tight. The difficult part is fitting your arms into the sleeves. They are very loose and baggy – half-sewn up so that your arms can fit through them easily.

A thick braided sash called an obi is then tied tightly over the kimono so that it acts as a belt to keep the kimono in place. I felt very warm by the time this had been done. The obi is always tied at the back – this was done for me but I’m sure that you could do this yourself with practice. The ladies obi is really impressive – almost like a handbag that is attached to the lower back.

You’re almost there. The final part is to where the jacket over the kimono. This is the most delicate and elaborate part. There is a great choice of kimono styles and motifs. Various birds, flowers and Japanese symbols are sewn on to the jacket rather than being printed, this gives them a wonderful decorative flourish. I saw several different colours with many in deep greens and golds and reds. Most would be worn on formal occasions such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. It is also common for children to wear kimonos on their fifth birthdays.

Wearing a kimono for the first time is a special occasion, if a little daunting because of the choices available. Even in Japan, its fairly unusual for people to wear them very often. This being said, I did enjoy wearing it. I had to be extra careful not to damage or stain the sleeves when eating, but it felt great to open the jacket loose and let the sleeves puff out. It certainly is an impressive garment, and the wide sleeves give the wearer plenty of impact.

There are resources on the history of kimono available on line, and the V&A is holding an exhibition of kimonos from 7 August. Titled Kimono – Kiyoto to Catwalk*, it will look at how the style of the kimono has evolved over the years.

Various kimonos are available to hire from kimonodego** in London.

*For details of the exhibition: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/kimono-kyoto-to-catwalk

**For kimono hire, contact Mamiko Sato, director of Kimono dego: 07813 710582.