You Should Be Reading: Kimonos

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently faced controversy over an event promoting La Japonaise, a 1876 Monet painting of his wife, Camille, wearing a kimono. The museum invited visitors to try on a kimono for a photo op in front of the painting. When snapshots from “Kimono Wednesdays” surfaced on social media, the MFA was swiftly accused of cultural insensitivity, appropriation, and racism. Of those protesting the event, several expressed disappointment in the lack of information provided to visitors, who wore the kimono without learning about the garment’s history or significance. While reactions to the event and the MFA’s attempts to deflect backlash have been the focus of media coverage, I want to take this opportunity to share several recent academic articles on kimonos. I also recommend the catalog for the Met’s recent kimono exhibition. I don’t think any fashion historians would argue that we always want to promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of costume. 

1. Francks, Penelope. (2015). Was Fashion a European Invention?: The Kimono and Economic Development in Japan. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 19(3), 331-62. 

It is still widely assumed that the emergence of fashion was a uniquely European phenomenon and that, conversely, non-Western clothing systems must have remained static and “traditional.” Hence, in the case of Japan, clothing modernity continues to be equated with the adoption of Western-style dress. This article presents evidence that, through the period of Japanese economic growth and industrialization from the eighteenth century to World War II, the kimono outfits that most women continued to wear were subject to a process of change that can only be understood as fashion. As a result, by the interwar period, kimono fashion had become a mass-market force that continued to influence the production and consumption of dress, even as, in the postwar period, most women switched to Western-style clothing. Fashion is thus not necessarily a European invention and can represent a significant economic force, even if it comes in distinctively non-European forms. – Full Article Abstract

2. Assmann, Stephanie. (2008). Between Tradition and Innovation: The Reinvention of the Kimono in Japanese Consumer Culture. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 12(3), 359-76.

The kimono plays a marginalized role in contemporary society, but continues to he worn on festive occasions. In this article I explore the role of the kimono from several angles. Based on participant observation and in-depth interviews with members of two organizations, I examine two diametrically opposed approaches towards the kimono in order to provide an insight on how differently it is being reinvented in Japanese society. I will identify four areas in which the kimono is being kept alive in Japan. First, I argue that the kimono is related to consumption. Not only does the purchase of the garment itself involve consumption, but the training of how to wear a kimono is also related to consumption of education and experience. Conventional approaches towards the kimono that emphasize manners and etiquette coexist with innovative approaches that experiment with age and gender boundaries. Secondly, mastering the art of the kimono can be interpreted as a form of cultural capital whereby the kimono fulfills a role in social distinction. Thirdly, I argue that wearing a kimono has become an expression of collective individualism that is often embedded in group activities. I conclude that the kimono has become a communicative symbol to convey an individual attitude towards societal conventions and national identity. – Full Article Abstract

3. Cliffe, Sheila. (2010). Revisioning the Kimono. Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, 1(2), 217-31.

Whilst the kimonoed woman is an unchanging stereotype of Japanese beauty, this article suggests that due to the interaction of kimono with the processes of globalization (technological and in terms of communication), the kimono continues to metamorphose to meet the needs of its fashionable, urban, contemporary wearers. – Full Article Abstract

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1 Comment

  • Olga July 28, 2015 02.10 pm

    Fantastic! Thanks for sharing this literature. I lectured on Kimonos this semester and have bee fascinated by them for many years.
    But why the fuss? Kimono Wedesdays is cool! Everyone should wear Kimono once in a while!


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