Friday, 17 May 2019

is kimono a naughty word?

Hi there everyone

Reading my instagram this evening I was interested to come across a debate flaring in the sewing community again. The independent pattern publishing business Papercut Patterns, based in New Zealand, was criticised for calling one their patterns a "kimono" and there was subsequently a barrage of outraged commentary. Many indignant people demanded that the name must be changed to avoid causing offence to Japanese people.

A few months ago I read an earlier outbreak of this argument directed to the pattern company Helens Closet in regard to her pattern named the Suki Kimono. In the last few days Helen changed the name to the Suki Robe and issued a heartfelt apology on instagram and her blog. Papercut patterns also issued and apology and said they would change the name of their patterns. I read the discussion at the time and had some opinions but decided to keep them to myself because I thought Ito's contention of cultural appropriation was on pretty shaky ground and would soon be intelligently disputed...

Reading the instagram commentary tonight I learned an acronym new to me - "BIPOC" - and feel embarassed to admit I've been so ignorant of it I had to google it to find out who they were. After working that out I had to rush over to my Etsy shop to check the names of the patterns I’ve published in the last 5 years to make sure there was no name that might offend BIPOCs or potentially anybody else!

Most of the people expressing their outrage and indignation over the commandeering of "kimono" purported to be either people who identified as BIPOC or were channelling with great certainty that their opinions would be representative of the BIPOC community. I invite a properly endorsed person with verifiable credentials from the BIPOC community to please contribute here what their opinions are about people of western extraction who adopt the term kimono to describe a garment they have designed are.

Most of the argument that using the description "kimono" is hurtful and offensive seems to be based on a blog opinion published by Emi Ito of California, who says that her mother immigrated to the USA in the 1960s. 
My Kimono is not your couture

Here are my opinions on this matter, altered slightly from another version which I posted to instagram and on the Helens Closet blog:

I disagree with Emi Ito’s contention that using the name “kimono” to describe a garment is a disrespectful cultural appropriation. In complete contradiction to her opinion I believe it is an absolutely respectful attribution to acknowledge that characteristics of a particular garment have been derived from an Asian dressing aesthetic rather than a European one. I think that if a designer didn’t acknowledge their influence it would be more disrespectful to be in denial of it.

As an artist the cultural appropriation debate has raged in our community for decades so I come from a position of familiarity with it and have often had to consider the issues in my own work.

Are Japanese people as a whole expressing offence at the commandeering of the term “kimono”? Apart from what Emi Ito wrote on her personal blog where else are Japanese expressing their hurt and grievance…? I’m not intending to be sarcastic asking this, I’m genuinely asking to be directed to any place where a significant number of Japanese people are stating that they don’t want people outside their ethnic/cultural group to use the word kimono to describe a garment.

Personally I read using the descriptor “kimono” more as a generic term to describe certain elements of a garment. Thus, I might understand it indicates the garment has styling coming from an Asian aesthetic, such as a crossover front with bands on the edges, wide sleeves, patch pockets and not having western type buttons for closures.  Labelling a garment “kimono” implies it has these styling characteristics, and that the designer has selected that name as a respectful tribute to acknowledge styling attributes deriving from Asia.

The reduction ad absurdum of this argument is that if anybody of western cultural background cannot ascribe the description “kimono” to the styling of a garment without being rude and offensive then perhaps Japanese people shouldn’t be adopting the suit and tie, Japanese women shouldn’t wear trench coats, tutus or Chanel suits (is “trench” a rude appropriation of what WW1 soldiers wore in battle…? Would they be hurt and offended that this description has evolved into something that women now wear as a classic fashion….?). Then perhaps this could be extended to criticising Japanese people who “appropriate” our European heritage crafts such as knitting and crotcheting….?


I enjoyed reading what Emi Ito wrote expressing her opinion that using “kimono” to describe a garment that is designed by a person of western/non BIPOC background is a cultural appropriation. I was curious and open minded to understand her reason for having that point of view. But at this point I’m unconvinced that any genuine offence or issue of cultural appropriation is caused by using the word kimono as a general descriptor.


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