It is generally not considered cultural appropriation to wear a kimono as a non-Japanese person. However, this answer does depend on the circumstance in which you are wearing it.
Kimonos are a great example of the fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation –how you wear it will be the main factor in determining if you’re taking advantage of another culture, or simply appreciating and participating in the culture.
In many places around the world, you can see the kimono being sold with the wrong intention, such as for a Halloween outfit. Not only can this be considered disrespectful to Japanese communities, but it suggests that the kimono is a novelty and somewhat of a joke.
Furthermore, it is offensive to wear kimonos in a sexualized way. Be careful not to wear it too short, too tight, too low, or generally too revealing, resulting in the wrong attitude of both the kimono wearer and those who associate with them.
A Brief History of the Kimono
Originally worn in Japan as part of everyday wear, the kimono is not a garment that has any particular religious or deeply ceremonial meaning.
It was introduced to the Western world when the Dutch East India Company was given a brightly colored and beautifully decorated silk kimono by the ruler and lords of Japan, immediately causing a stir amongst Dutch communities.
As such, the Dutch East India Company began to commission versions of this kimono from other Japanese artisans, who added a thick wadding and sleeves which had been slightly adapted.
Soon, the style of these kimonos were being replicated by European tailors as they symbolized status, style, and an international connection. This resulted in a craze for all types of Japanese artistic goods, as they seemed to stand for exoticism and novelty.
Over the next century, kimonos became an important fashion piece for European women such as American socialite Emilie Grigsby.
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Kimonos in Western Fashion
Over the last two centuries, fashion designers have taken inspiration from the Japanese kimono. For example, Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny, and Madeleine Vionnet all began to incorporate draping layers of fabric into their work.
John Galliano, Christian Dior, and Alexander McQueen have also taken inspiration from the kimono, generally with the idea that the original Japanese style of clothing is being appreciated rather than appropriated. However, there are other designers and brands who do not do this.
Whilst many Western brands have began to incorporate the kimono into their work, an interest in this style of dress has also sparked further interest in the work of Japanese artisans. With such global interest in the kimono, the industry has been revived, and careers relating to the garment have flourished.
However, with so much interest coming from outside Japan rather than just inside, the industry has a precarious future which relies on the rhythm and flow of the fashion industry.
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How To Know If You Are Culturally Appropriating the Kimono
If you do not know and understand the origin of the garment, or are wearing it to mock or disrespect Japanese culture, then you are potentially partaking in cultural appropriation.
Along with that, if you purchase from companies which profit from the garment without acknowledging or crediting Japanese culture, then this could be considered cultural appropriation.
Kimonos in Japan are expensive and the industry is struggling, and clothing brands selling this garment should acknowledge that.
The worst form of appropriation in this case is if you are directly supporting or helping to fund a brand which actively offends and exploits people from Japanese culture.
Similarly, if you decide to wear a kimono and you don’t particularly care about where it has come from, then you may be accused of participating in cultural appropriation.
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The Kimono and Cultural Appreciation (Not Appropriation)
Historically, the kimono was part of general everyday wear in Japan, and it is only recently that it has reached such a heightened fashion status. As such, many Japanese people are excited that their culture is being appreciated worldwide.
But before you wear a kimono, you should first consider the reason why you want to wear it. Maybe it is because you are interested in Japanese culture, and would like to purchase from and support a Japanese kimono designer.
If you are also constantly looking for more ways to educate yourself on the history and culture of Japan, then this is cultural appreciation and is a positive thing.
Generally, the Japanese are very supportive of foreigners who want to wear a kimono, and will likely give you compliments on it.
They will usually be willing to help you should you have any problems with it, and are very unlikely to be offended or concerned that you are wearing a kimono.
So long as it is done with respect and understanding, wearing a kimono is not an example of cultural appropriation.
Whilst many things are considered to be cultural appropriation, wearing a kimono as a foreigner is generally not one of them.
However, if you are wearing a kimono in a gimicky, disrespectful way in which you do not care about the original culture, then this is cultural appropriation and should absolutely be avoided.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.