Is it “racist” for non-Japanese to wear kimono? That question has been fiercely debated since protesters entered Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in late June to decry an exhibition encouraging visitors to try on a red uchikake kimono in front of a 1876 painting by Claude Monet of his wife wearing a similar garment.
The original protesters — who, though not Japanese, identified as Asian-American — said the museum was perpetuating a racist stereotype that exoticized Asian culture. That stereotype has its roots in the colonial era, when Europeans viewed non-Western cultures as an oversimplified selection of traits in a way that dehumanized them — known by cultural theorists as an “Orientalist” perspective.
The museum stopped allowing visitors to try on the kimono but continued allowing them to touch it. By July 16, protests had increased and become part of a wider advocacy movement protesting modern Orientalism on social media through the hashtag #whitesupremacykills on Twitter and “Stand Against Yellow Face” Facebook group.
But the reaction to the exhibition from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono.
In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival, as two new books recently published on the subject show: “Kimono: A Modern History” by Terry Satsuki-Milhaupt, and “Kimono Now” by Manami Okazaki.
Satsuki-Milhaupt reveals the kimono to be a tool of nationhood and a projection of Japan’s self-image. She shows how, during the mid-1800s, Japan itself was complicit in encouraging tacit Orientalism by making the kimono a symbol of the unified national identity it created after opening its borders to the West in 1853.
The government proudly marketed kimono at international expos, while Japanese traders sold their wares to European shops specializing in Chinese artifacts, unbothered by Westerners’ tendencies to blur the distinctions between the two countries’ forms of dress.
At the same time, the West misappropriated the kimono, tainting it with sexual connotations just as it did with geisha, a misperception perpetuated by artists such as Jacques Joseph Tissot, who, in 1864, painted a European woman with a kimono flapping open to reveal her nude body.
Satsuki-Milhaupt was one of many experts who reappraised the kimono in recent years amid a crisis in the industry. Sales continue to plummet as Japanese people wear it less and less, while traditional fabrics and techniques are facing extinction as aging artisans pass away without successors.
Satsuki-Milhaupt suggests that portraying the kimono as “traditional” will only diminish its relevance. In fact, deliberate attempts last century to preserve the kimono industry by turning its once-anonymous artisans to celebrities had the ironic effect of transforming it from everyday apparel into a rarely worn form of ceremonial dress.
Those efforts also froze the kimono in time, codifying the way it is worn in a set of rules now deemed so complex that only special schools are able to teach them.
“The real reason why traditional kimono culture is about to (become) extinct,” wrote avant-garde fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, “is because of its tendency to aspire to ‘perfection’ as a style that does not allow any other foreign item to be added to it. My advice for anyone wearing kimono is to challenge this rigidity; let’s forget about attending kimono lessons.”
Even though clothes recognized as kimono have been worn for more than 1,000 years, the current rules are based on mid-1800s fashion, when Japan created the word “kimono” to distill its vast culture into a marketable format it could present to the West. The various garments that existed at the time — including the uchikake (a padded overlayer), kosode (short-sleeved variation), hitoe (single layer summer garment) and yukata (light robe originally worn after bathing) — were subsumed under the umbrella term “kimono,” which literally means “something to wear.”
Satsuki-Milhaupt describes how the kimono became a canvas onto which both contemporary life and Japan’s self-image — torn between patriotic fervor and a sense of inferiority toward the dominant West — were projected. By 1900, wearing a kimono was a way of expressing patriotic pride, while adopting Western dress signaled one’s aspirations to be equal to Europe.
Yet, at the same time, kimono also became more “Western,” with designs shifting from representations of indigenous plants to European motifs such as yachts and tulips, and incorporating artistic styles such as art deco. They were also increasingly made with imported wool rather than domestic silk.
The kimono industry is now trying to adapt the garment to the modern era, as Okazaki’s visually rich “Kimono Now” demonstrates. Okazaki feels that adversity in the industry has created a frenetic energy and increased innovation. She showcases kimono houses striving to preserve traditional techniques for weaving and dyeing the kimono, but also shows contemporary designers reinventing the garment by adopting new fabrics, patterns and ways of wrapping it around the body.
One kimono format offering more freedom for interpretation is the yukata, which is seen as a younger, hipper and easier-to-wear version. Okazaki quotes Rumix, a young designer based in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, whose graphic designs are inspired by everything from the movie “Apollo 13” to Yukio Mishima novels, as comparing yukata as the “b-side” to the formal world of kimono.
Sadly, those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. One of those is Hiromi Asai, a kimono designer who is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 by July 31 to hold a show at New York Fashion Week next February to show that the kimono can be a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”
Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist.
“Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”