by Zoria Petkoska
The Japanese kimono is not just an art piece to be displayed in a museum. The word kimono plainly explains that it is a thing to be worn (着 – to wear, 物 – a thing). It is a thing to be worn, to be loved, to be experimented with, to style and to incorporate into 21st century fashion.
Take a stroll through any hip Tokyo neighbourhood and you'll see many fashion savvy people agree that kimono is timeless fashion. Secondhand kimono, yukata, haori, hakama, zori, obi are back in style in a big way (if you’re unfamiliar with some of these items check out these 20 Types of Traditional Japanese Clothing).
Where Do These Vintage Kimono Come From?
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Purple Kimono
With the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era Western clothes started gaining popularity over the kimono. These process has continued over the last century so that many valued collections that used to be handed down through the generations have ended up in secondhand shops.
Nowadays, many people who buy a kimono for a single special occasion tend to sell it right after. Kimono from Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods (1868–1930s) are considered antique, while anything made after the 1930s falls into the vintage category. Japan's vintage fashion market is booming, partly because pieces tend to be in great shape, and partly because cramped dwelling and less storage space prevents people from collecting excessively.
Breaking the Rules of Kimono with Professional Kimono Stylist Yui Michael
Traditional kimono kitsuke (dressing) can be so complex and intense that there are schools dedicated to learning the proper way to put on a kimono. Yui Michael learned that to a T in such a dressing school, while also learning that not everyone is obligated to strictly follow the rules. For a quick parallel, medieval European corsets and dresses had their own tight rules, but that hasn't stopped people reinventing them in modern fashion.
Michael Yui, Neo Kimono Stylist founder
Yui confirms that “the formal and 'proper' kimono style of today is just one of the styles worn in the Edo period, now frozen in time, but Japanese people wore kimono differently before that and after”. If you think wearing a kimono with a top hat is a novel hipster thing, any photo from Ginza from the 1920s will change your mind. Of course you don’t need to go to school to learn to put on a kimono – check out our videos on how to wear kimono and how to tie an obi belt.
In what she calls Neo-Kimono styling Yui often adds hats to kimono outfits, as well as belts, neckties, button up shirts, brooches, but most of all – non-traditional footwear. It's how she started reinventing the kimono look, first out of necessity as zori shoes didn't come in the sizes for her foreign clients, and then realizing how cool a yukata with boots looks! “High-heeled shoes look super stylish too, and flip-flops are a great compromise as they are inspired by traditional Japanese zori shoes” adds Yui.
You can also let your hair down, both metaphorically and literally, as vintage kimono fashion today liberates the hairstyle rules too. Forget about gender limitations, as fashionistas in Japan are blurring the lines with girls wearing hakama pants, guys wearing popping colours, and young people wearing black kimono once reserved only for ageing mothers. It's all a natural progression of kimono wearing, from the Heian period to Meiji, to Heiwa, to today's Reiwa – reinventing, adding novelty and wearing it with style.
Kimono Twins, Insta-Fashion, and Wearing Japanese Kimono in the 21st Century
Yi Ping and Yi Fang are a pair of the most stylish kimono Instagrammers, effortlessly remixing vintage kimono pieces since 2017. For them, it's all about a person's style and how they incorporate the kimono in it.
The twins often sport button-down shirts or turtlenecks under a yukata, berets on their heads and Doc Martens on their feet. They ingeniously fold the kimono to make it knee-length, and combine it with leggings. Tying the obi can involve belts or sliding the back knot to the front. They choose bold and funky patterns and modern accessories, mix fabrics, add lace and denim to the silk and cotton staples of kimono. Finally, they often wear backpacks with their kimono outfits. “The combinations of kimono and obi are practically infinite,” the twins say.
The twins have started buying kimono from second-hand markets and joining meet-ups of kimono fashionistas where they do photo shoots, exchange styling tips and hang out. “We jumped straight into the experimental fashion community, without dealing with formal kitsuke, and were charmed by the way traditional clothes are being styled in the 21st century” Yi Ping and Yi Fang tell me. Even though they know of the so-called 'kimono police' online, their overall experience is positive, as they keep being stopped in public by locals admiring their style.
Even grannies recognize that this non-formal kimono outfit is cute and compliment Yi Ping and Yi Fang and ask to take photos. “When people learn that we come from China they are even more touched by our interest in kimono,” the twins add.
Apart from purely relishing kimono fashion, Twins Kimono hope their online presence will help remove people's stereotypes on kimono and make it a daily and personalized fashion item for more people. They believe kimono is timeless, transnational, and universally beautiful.
Japanese Kimono and Sustainability
The kimono is a versatile and sustainable garment without trying too hard. It's cut from one piece of cloth and the size is flexible depending on how you wrap it and tie it around each person's body. For exceptionally tall people, length can be an issue, in which case, as the kimono's fabric is never cut when resized, you should check vintage kimono for extra fabric tucked in the hems. This and the hand-sewn high quality fabric is why kimono can be passed down from generation to generation, and vintage kimono retain most of their lustre.
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Red Kimono
When a kimono can no longer be worn, the fabric can be repurposed for other items, since there are no complicated cuts and it's basically a long rectangle. Yui explains how in the past kimono was useful until the very end: “kimono fabric that could not be repurposed became kindling for fire, and even the ashes had their use as fertilizer”!
Vintage Kimono Repurposing
Remaking or, as it's better known in Japan, re-forming kimono robes takes the fabric and gives it a new purpose. This is usually done with unsalvageably damaged kimono, the preserved parts turned into jackets, blouses, skirts, or even wallets, handbags, pillow cases, or tablecloths. You will see many of the most popular kimono patterns on these type of handcrafted items. No fabric scrap wasted, smaller pieces can be used for dolls, hair ornaments, jewellery, and so on.
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Blue Kimono
As an added bonus to the stylish outcome, repurposing kimono fabric is eco-friendly. Popular both in Japan and abroad, kimono repurposing is a great way to keep the memory of an heirloom item, or own a piece of kimono if wearing one is not your style.
Where to Buy Vintage Kimono?
Thanks to kimono enthusiasts, the vintage shopping scene has expanded, from specialized kimono shops to secondhand shops that would not break the bank. Renowned hipster or fashionista areas like Shimokitazawa, Koenji, Harajuku, Shibuya and the like are bound to have quirky kimono pieces. Always be on the lookout for flea-markets, temple and shrine stalls, and online auctions.
SHOP THE LOOK | Vintage Black Kimono
Wear Vintage Kimono With Style
Like other vintage kimono stylists and enthusiasts, Yui and Twins Kimono reject the notion of cultural appropriation, “as long as you're wearing kimono with love, knowledge and style” Yui emphasizes. Kimono is both fashion and art, and a product that kimono-makers and Japanese people want to share with the world.
If you want to start wearing vintage kimono pieces, Yui recommends starting small, like draping a haori like any jacket, or tying an obi-belt on top of a dress. Learn more with these 8 Pro-Tips for Beginners. Above all all, kimono influencers would agree you should feel free to be your stylish self in kimono.