In 1985, a 24-year-old art student from England visited Japan for a summer holiday, fell in love and never went home.

The Social Life of Kimono, by Sheila Cliffe.
256 pages
BLOOMSBURY, Nonfiction.

Sheila Cliffe’s passion is for Japanese kimono; she wears it every day and is a fierce advocate for its future. Her manifesto is outlined in a new book, “The Social Life of Kimono: Japanese Fashion Past and Present.”

The work is aimed at an academic audience but remains highly readable for anyone with a passing interest in Japanese fashion. In it, Cliffe argues that the kimono is being slowly murdered by the suffocating kimono gakuin, formal dressing schools that cater to a conservative “Ginza ladies-who-lunch” set.

For Cliffe, kimono is the opposite of stuffy and conventional — it is the living manifestation of authentic Japanese style. Together with the young kimono fans, stylists and artisans she interviews in the book, she means to rescue kimono from death by a thousand rules.

Cliffe knows of what she speaks. A graduate of a kimono school herself, she has a certified dressing license — yes, that’s a thing. “Dressing classes are very formal,” Cliffe told The Japan Times, “and, of course, the Japanese girls hardly ask any questions to the teachers.”

Indeed, the whole business shares with many traditional Japanese arts and crafts a tendency toward pretentiousness, perfectionism and deference that seems designed to waste women’s time.

The schools, says Cliffe, “have almost destroyed the eroticism of kimono.” Padding around the waist eliminates natural curves, and the obi has become absurdly bulky. “Young women in kimono dressing parlors are told to gaman suru — grin and bear it.”

In contrast, the historical kimono was replete with erotic signals, Cliffe says. In the Heian Period (794-1185), court ladies were “literally cocooned” in costumes of 12 layers and secluded “behind bamboo screens hanging from the ceiling.” Only their brightly colored sleeve edges and hems were visible to men — whose attention they had to hold, Cliffe says, as it was a polygamous society.

It’s a lot to expect of a hem, in retrospect, but the principle of chirarizumu, or showing a glimpse, “is still an important part of the contemporary kimono,” says Cliffe. “The edges point to what is hidden underneath.”

The Edo Period (1603-1868) equivalent of the risque hem was the hidden pattern. Tokugawa government edicts against displays of wealth by the merchant classes meant that rich townspeople wore plain clothes lined with gaudy images, including shunga sex scenes. In the 1930s, men wore under-kimono adorned with warships. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), patterns were restricted to the right-hand side of the skirt, which was wrapped under the left, so “only on walking would a tiny flash of the design be visible.”

Contradicting the Western impression of kimono as a static, quaint national costume in the same category as lederhosen or the kilt, Cliffe argues that the kimono has always been trend-led: Heian chroniclers complained about a craze for asymmetrical sleeves and the British trading station in Japan closed in 1623 because it couldn’t keep up with the Japanese appetite for new trends.

The death knell was sounded by the Meiji government when it went in for trousers; the Imperial family has worn a weirdly dated version of Western dress ever since.

After the war, mothers began to dress their children in Western clothes and “the natural order of a mother teaching her daughter to dress was broken.” Kimono expertise passed into the hands of the kitsuke sensei, teachers of the art of kimono dressing. Costs soared in the bubble era, and kimono became largely confined to ceremonial functions.

But Cliffe says there has been an internet-driven revival over the last 15 years, noting that sales increased in 2012 for the first time since 1985. The book profiles the new magazines and blogs featuring post-modern kimono. One stylist, Akira Times, is an iconoclast bent on reviving Japanese culture through creative destruction. He attacks the “Kyoto sickness” that venerates old culture and fetishizes “Japaneseness,” and says he “wants to burn down Kinkakuji to make a new and better one.” His photo shoots are a riot of neons and comic pop culture riffs on Japanese traditions.

Kimono designers, silk weavers, dyers and sellers tell their stories to Cliffe. Some are purists who brook no compromise with modernity and whose clientele will die with them. Others have found new markets online, overseas as well as domestic devotees of the global trend for all things vintage and craftsy. Kimono flashmobs are held in Amsterdam and London, and young kimono wearers in Tokyo congregate in a way similar to Lolita or steampunk subculture tribes.

The book largely avoids the topic of cultural appropriation. Some of the Japanese interviewees say they wear kimono in order to express their national identity. But many of the overseas collectors have never been to Japan, and doctrinal purists would consider them heretical. Even Cliffe admits to wincing “when Lady Gaga slings a kimono on like a dressing gown and trails it across the floor in high heels.” However, she argues that modern Japanese youngsters have more in common with foreign fans of kimono than the kitsuke pedants.

“The Social Life of Kimono” celebrates the power grab by young people and the internet out of the hands of the kimono establishment. Some things will be lost, Cliffe admits: quality, complexity and seasonality. But she argues that “there is a freedom provided by the lack of historical knowledge” — and with that freedom comes a bright, creative future and a riot of rule-breaking.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.