Recently, the conversation around cultural appropriation in fashion has been unavoidable. Could a foreigner wear a kimono? Is It Cultural Appropriation?
Good question, but let's talk about this first: Do Japanese People Still Wear Kimono?
For years, the Kimono industry has been in decline. Kimonos are incredibly expensive and difficult to put on, often requiring expert help. Most Japanese now favor ‘western’ clothing for everyday wear, reserving kimono for special occasions, such as weddings and coming of age ceremonies.
However, the kimono, which was a part of daily Japanese life for more than 1,700 years, wasn’t just meant to disappear like that! Thanks to a worldwide interest in Asian fashion, this led to a kimono renaissance in Japan. Kimono collectors and enthusiasts have increased around the world. In recent years, even kimono dressing schools have seen a slight increase in foreign enrollees, who are interested not only in taking normal kimono dressing courses, but also in receiving a license as a certified kimono stylist and teacher.
At the present time, the kimono industry is undergoing huge changes and kimono wearers are in great part rejecting the traditional channels for the purchase of kimono. It is true that traditional kimono shops are facing hard times, but new business models are flourishing.
Audrey Hepburn tries a yukata (summer kimono) at a Kyoto department store in 1983. Credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Foreigners Wearing Kimono, Is It Cultural Appropriation?
Japanese people generally feel happiness to see tourists taking a keen interest in Japanese cultural heritage, especially because young Japanese women often have little interest continuing the kimono industry; by sharing kimono with foreigners the tradition can live on in a new and modern way.
It is these ideals of appropriateness and respect which typically distinguishes cultural appreciation from cultural appropriation. In the Japanese case, many locals even welcome modification and hybridization of traditional kimono with other cultures’ attributes. Japanese people are enthusiastic to share the kimono with the world, as long as it is worn with respect, since this will mean that the kimono tradition can further survive and evolve!
Kimono: Wear 1,700 Years of History and Culture
It is important to understand the history of tradition and the history of cultural exchange to reveal how culture is shared and incorporated, and the potential power imbalances which may be present. We should be wary of disrespectful cultural appropriation but before we assume that this is the case, we need to consider the wider picture and understand that cultural transmission can be a beautiful thing which brings our worldly cultures together and educates people on tradition and cultural appreciation.