The Kimono, which literally translates to “thing to wear” in English, is recognized worldwide as the national dress of Japan. It is a fashion that is often perceived as timeless and unchanging, reflecting an outsider’s judgment of Japanese values. However, this false notion denies the rich history of the Kimono which fosters identity, innovation and artistry. 

The Kimono was given its modern name during the Meiji period (1868-1912) to distinguish local dress from Western clothing after a long period of enforced isolation. The precursor to the Kimono, a Kosode, was an undergarment worn beneath several layers of robes donned by aristocratic women during the Heian Period (794–1185). By the sixteenth century, the Kosode had evolved into a unisex outer garment worn by all social classes. During the Edo Period (1603-1868) innovations in Kosode design were encouraged and developed in order to create variations that would distinguish the wearer in a stratified society. Styling, fabric, symbolic motifs, pattern, and colour were all strategically used to work messages about the wearer into their clothing. Each garment could expertly reflect the wearer’s age, gender, marital status, and class. Sumptuary laws were even enacted from time to time to regulate Kosode design as garments grew to be extremely expressive and luxurious. 

Today, developments such as yûzen paste-resist dyeing and digital fabric printing allow for even more customization of the Kimono. The Obi alone, a sash used to secure the Kimono in place, has more than 100 tying variations, each with their own significance. Men’s Kimono are typically more restrained in style and utilize darker neutral colours. Although the Kimono is less frequently worn today, the dress practice has come to represent a form of art and design. Additionally, Japan encourages foreigners to explore the dress practice of Kimono so long as it is done with appreciation, dignity and respect. 


Appropriation and Influence

Image of Kim Kardashian surrounded by several models of different ethnicities all dressed in nude shape wear

Kim Kardashian Kimono Shapewear, 2019

Kim Kardashian announced that her new line of solution undergarments were to be named Kimono, not after Japan’s traditional garments but as a play on her name. Additionally, Kim Kardashian applied for several trademarks of the name Kimono for exclusive usage in her line. Many did not want the extensive history and significance of the Japanese Kimono to become associated with a for-profit celebrity shapewear line and so Kim Kardashian’s brand was relaunched under the name SKIMS.
An Instagram post by Kim Kardashian advertising her new line of shapewear, 2019. View Larger
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Katy Perry “Geisha” AMA Performance, 2013

At the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry put on a Japanese Geisha-inspired performance for her song “Unconditionally.” Katy Perry, a non-Japanese American wore a Kimono-like dress which had stylistic influences from traditional Chinese Cheongsam garments. Her background dancers of various ethnicities performed a Chinese fan dance dressed in Japanese Kimonos. Katy Perry’s performance failed to accurately represent Japanese culture, especially geisha performance. The infusion of Chinese elements also contributed to the homogenization of Asian cultures and perpetuated Asian stereotypes.
Still image from Katy Perry’s 2013 AMA performance. View the Performance 
Product photo of a white woman wearing a red kimono costume holding a paper umbrella

Kimono Halloween Costumes, ongoing

Unfortunately at many halloween costumes stores, “Kimono” or “Geisha” costumes are still available for purchase. They are not designed or manufactured by Japanese people and thus do not accurately reflect the elaborate detail and craftsmanship in a proper Kimono. The knockoff halloween costumes are often made to look “sexy” and incorporate generic elements of dress from other Asian traditions. This contributes to the fetishization of Asian cultures and perpetuates negative stereotypes. Halloween costumes reduce the cultural and historical significance of the Kimono and suggest that cultural garments can be worn by anyone for personal gain without consequences.
Image: Women’s Red Kimono Costume. 2020. Materials: polyester, various sizes. View Larger
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Jotaro Saito A/W Collection, 2020

Jotaro Saito is a Japanese contemporary Kimono designer that advocates for the “evolution of tradition” and “lifestyle for enjoying harmony.” Since his debut as the youngest Kimono artist at the age of 27, he has pursued Kimono as high fashion and hopes to rekindle its popularity.
Image: A look from Jotaro Saito’s A/W 2020 collection. View the Collection

Cliffe, Sheila. “The Contemporary Kimono.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: East Asia, edited by John E. Vollmer. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010. 

Green, Cynthia. “The Surprising History of the Kimono.” JSTOR Daily, 2017.

Kennedy, Alan. “Kimono.” In The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.

Milhaupt, Terry Satsuki. “Kimono.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: East Asia, edited by John E. Vollmer, 355–360. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010.