Kimonos are big news this season. The traditional Japanese robe has been given a contemporary makeover and now comes in a range of vibrant colours, bohemian prints and varying lengths. Gucci, Vera Wang and Tome have all sent kimono-inspired pieces down the catwalk, each giving their own refreshed take on the silk garment.
A number of celebrities have been spotted wearing kimonos including Kim Kardashian, Florence Welch, Kylie Jenner and Gigi Hadid. Now, thousands of fashionistas are adding the Japanese staple to their own wardrobes. The trend has really taken off at Coachella and Glastonbury where festival-goers have styled their kimonos with denim shorts and a pair of wellies.
But, in an age where Justin Bieber was criticised for growing dreadlocks, Selena Gomez for sporting a bindi, and Beyoncé for her guise as an Indian woman, are kimonos another case of blatant cultural appropriation?
The kimono’s rich history
Dating back to 5th century Japan, the kimono, which translates into English as “a thing to wear”, is a loose, full-length garment with wide sleeves and tied with a sash. Yukata, a variation of Japanese robe, is much more casual, made of lighter material and usually worn during the summer.
Early kimonos were the principal item of dress for men and women of all social classes, although wealthy aristocrats wore them as an undergarment as a symbol of their status. Nowadays, western-style clothing is favoured by the majority of the Japanese population, but kimonos are still worn by older generations, geisha and at formal occasions.
Kimonos are not considered to be particularly religious or spiritual, but the decorative motifs and fabrics that embellish these garments can carry great significance. For instance, cherry blossom embroidery is a symbol of renewal and beauty, while the popular image of the crane signifies longevity and good fortune.
The case for cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation arguments have entered the mainstream in recent years, largely due to greater awareness of exploitation in fashion. Racial and minority groups have called out those who wear stereotypical elements of their culture with little regard for its spiritual, religious or historical meaning.
In 2012, lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret officially apologised after sending runway models down the catwalk in headdresses traditionally worn by Native American tribes. These headdresses are historically a symbol of respect, worn by Native American war chiefs and warriors and earned through an act of compassion or bravery. Victoria’s Secret’s attempts to exotify and sexualise the headdress were understandably met with outrage.
Wearing the kimono as a fashion statement had, for a very long time, gone relatively undetected in debates on cultural appropriation. Then, in 2013, Katy Perry was slammed for dressing as a geisha in a performance at the American Music Awards. Backlash was fierce. The performance was called out as “the racist equivalent of performing in blackface”, while Perry was accused of playing into the white fetishisation of Asian women.
The case for cultural appreciation
Accusations of cultural appropriation raise complex questions about society in the globalised 21st century. In reality, cultural borrowing is widespread and has been for many years – language, cuisine, religion and folklore have all been heavily influenced by centuries of migration. Now, in an era of technological advancement and global awareness, cultural boundaries are more fluid than ever before.
Indian multimedia artist Owais Husain has explored themes of migration and identity in his work. He said: “We are all immigrants, driftwood in a ceaselessly dysfunctional world where a flux of identity in the nuclear and larger domains are elements of human nature. No human is untouched by the consequences of shifting populations and environments.”
Some would argue that wearing elements of different cultures, in this case a kimono, is an inevitable product of multiculturalism that we should learn to embrace. Others would even argue that this is a way of saving the kimono industry which has long been in decline – a message recently iterated by employees at the Nishijin Textiles Centre in Kyoto.
Should you pack that floral kimono this summer after all?
Wearing a kimono inhabits the murky grey area between appreciation and appropriation. Using cultural imagery in an ignorant or materialistic way, particularly for financial gain, is exploitative. In this sense, Katy Perry got it all wrong with her ill-advised performance as a geisha.
However, Japan’s rapidly disappearing kimono industry could be given a new lease of life if casual yukata styles continue to attract foreign consumers. It’s important that those that wear Japanese robes remain sensitive to social justice issues. But, as Japanese fashion history professor Kaori Nakano brilliantly put it: “Cultural appropriation is the beginning of new creativity – even if it includes some misunderstanding, it creates something new.”
Maybe you can pack that floral kimono after all.