Recently, we’ve seen US influencer and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian-West trademark the word “kimono” for her line of shapewear and then swiftly backtrack when social media criticized her lack of cultural sensitivity. Nobody doubted why it was such a big deal. After all, she did try to trademark a word that represents a national treasure in Japan. In fact, what Kardashian-West did smacked heavily of cultural appropriation—adopting something from a foreign culture and using it in an entirely different and wholly inappropriate context.
Just like the article of clothing, the word itself is quite straightforward: a combination of the characters for “to wear” (着る) and “thing” (物). The minimalist garment has been synonymous with Japanese culture since it was first worn by aristocrats during the Heian period (794-1185). At the time, they wore several layers of clothing, including the kosode (小袖), a layer that was worn closest to the body. Over time, this underlayer evolved into the modern-day kimono.
How Japanese people have worn the kimono has changed significantly over the years. It became hugely popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), especially among the trendsetting geishas and kabuki actors. Then, in 1683, Tokugawa, the fifth shogun, banned people from wearing expensive and showy kimonos. However, this didn’t stop people from wearing the garment. Instead, they rebelled by donning pieces with designs that were only apparent if someone looked at the fabric very closely.