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  • Japan Beyond the Kimono: Innovation and Tradition in the Kyoto Textile Industry by Jenny Hall
  • Kaori Nakano (bio)
Japan Beyond the Kimono: Innovation and Tradition in the Kyoto Textile Industry. By Jenny Hall. Bloomsbury, 2020. xxiv, 243 pages. $115.00, cloth; $36.95, paper; $33.25, E-book.

It has been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the end of March 2020, bringing international travel to a standstill. Until then, the Japanese fashion world had regularly traveled overseas to view new collections and exhibitions. Designers from other countries also visited Japan to promote their work, and reports on their latest offerings occupied the mainstream of Japanese fashion news. Suddenly, all of this came to a screeching halt.

As if to fill this gap, the focus in Japan shifted to Japanese fashion brands and traditional Japanese culture—which, admittedly, were always present, but often went unnoticed and unremarked, obscured by the prestige of Western fashion. Today, however, Japanese fashion brands and luxury goods associated with traditional Japanese culture are increasingly featured in the fashion news, and many Japanese are beginning to "discover" and pay attention to the beauty and charm of their native tradition. The kimono is one of the products of Japanese culture that is attracting renewed attention at home. This reawakening of Japan to its own cultural legacy can perhaps be seen as a kind of de-colonization. Appearing fortuitously at this moment when the Japanese are taking a new interest in their fashion and its tradition, Jenny Hall's Japan Beyond the Kimono is an epochal and comprehensive exploration of the past, present, and future of the kimono and its world.

Sustainability has become an important touchstone in recent years, but kimono were sustainable long before the term became a buzzword. Along with the knowledge for their proper wear and care, kimono are handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. When the fabric eventually begins to show signs of wear, the kimono will be refashioned into a cushion cover or other household object. As it finally reaches the end of its useful life, it will be recycled as a cleaning rag.

The kimono is not just sustainable, it also endorses body diversity. Consisting of several rectangles of fabric, the kimono gently wraps bodies of all shapes, without forcing them into some oppressive "ideal" form. At a recent body diversity fashion show in Japan, a celebrity with prosthetic hands and legs wore a kimono, the body-positive garment creating an elegance that would not have been possible with a Western suit. Supporting sustainability, body diversity, and local industry, the kimono is in the limelight as a garment for our times. [End Page 255]

And yet some, invoking the kimono's long tradition and historical weight, still insist on dogmatic rules for wearing kimono. These ultraconservative guardians—the "kimono police"—are always on the alert for any violations of the "proper" way to wear kimono and are eager to enforce orthodoxy. Lacking confidence about the proper way to wear kimono, most Japanese today are increasingly reluctant to don them on a daily basis. The kimono is now mostly limited to ceremonial occasions and special events, for which people call on a professional kimono master and hairdresser to dress them properly. Such formal kimono are often too tight and rigid to allow any extended activity and can even be hard to breathe in—another reason the kimono has come to be shunned as everyday wear.

If the situation of the prospective kimono wearer is so daunting, the outlook for the kimono producer is even bleaker. A lack of successors to the elderly kimono craftspeople of the previous generation is putting many kimono workshops in danger of closure, and the precious lineage of traditional technical know-how is at risk of being severed. Most Japanese today are ignorant about both the kimono and the industry that produces it. While there are many books teaching the proper way to wear kimono, there are few books offering comprehensive information about the cultural significance of kimono or its industry, and probably very few Japanese even know how kimonos are actually made and distributed.

Japan Beyond the Kimono investigates...