Kimono Cardigans

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

A Tokyo style blogger recently took issue with a mislabeled kimono:

While it seems like the accompanying photo of a sundress was unintentional and due to the awkwardness of Twitter image selection (the linked Telegraph article includes story-appropriate images), this tweet started a conversation about the various non-kimono items currently going by “kimono”:

Indeed, there’s “kimono” everything, even, from Kate Spade of all places, a kimono-themed iPad cover.

Graham Ruddick explains the pseudo-kimono trend in Britain:

The kimono is a traditional Japanese garment that has been historically known as a thin full-length robe influenced by the east Asian culture However, it has been reimagined for western shoppers in a similar form to a casual cardigan and is flying off the shelves of fashion retailers. New Look is selling a kimono every five seconds, the equivalent of 1,440 a day, and claims to have been the first major fashion chain to sell them in the UK.

Things did not go so well the last time a traditional garment was “reimagined for western shoppers in a similar form to a casual cardigan.” Remember Navajo-chic-gate of 2011-2012?

What often happens, in such conversations, is a descent into utter confusion. It’s not clear where the line falls between the cultures one can and cannot dress as. A generic “British” is presumably fine – by all means, take Hyacinth Bucket as your style inspiration. (Some of those floral dressed weren’t bad, in a kind of Elaine Benes way…) But how about the traditional dress of Estonia? Is the line whiteness-or-not, the wealth of the country, or both? It seems not all that exploitative – if still Orientalist – to go out and buy all Korean skincare products after reading a blog post about how Korean women get “poreless skin.” (Yes, I do believe that positive stereotypes about East Asian women’s skin were Edward Said’s main concern.)

Now for some first-person-as-second-person:

If you happen to be a bit of a Francophile and a Japanophile, is one of these acceptable but not the other? Is a Breton-inspired shirt from Muji or Uniqlo (says someone who owns both) different than a kimono-inspired cardigan from a Western European company? If you yourself are of an ethnicity (Eastern European Jewish) that was, until relatively recently, thought to be in disguise if in Western attire, aren’t you sort of always culturally appropriating (unless in Hasidic garb), or is this just like everything else to do with white privilege – all that matters is the time you live in? My ancestors would have been defined as ‘Oriental,’ but I am not.

Discussions of cultural appropriation, at least in the first person, tend to inspire such sinkholes. Consider the following, from Jarune Uwujaren’s 2013 post:

Is the Asian fusion takeout I order every week culturally appropriative? Even though I’m Black, is wearing dreadlocks appropriating forms of religious expression that really don’t belong to me? Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?

Each, then, to her own, culturally-specific sinkhole.

The best I can conclude is as follows: If people of the group in question are offended, then you have to at least consider that you’ve crossed a line. I mean, you don’t have to. I suppose one could take the approach that the offended are in the wrong, but in such cases, why? There are times when violating rules of PC is courageous, but wearing a headdress to a music festival after learning that this offends many American Indians isn’t one of them. As for the kimono cardigans, it seems as if the offensiveness comes not from Westerners wearing traditional Japanese dress because they find it attractive, but rather from things that are not kimonos being labeled as such. And – speaking still more generally – if the culture you’re appropriating from looks down its nose at you, someone from what they view as an inferior culture, trying to imitate theirs (hi, France!), you’re in the clear.