Life Lessons from the Kimono Closet


Life Lessons from the Kimono Closet

by Anna Jamieson | LIFESTYLE

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Sally in one of her 20 kimono.

An integral part of Japanese history and tradition, it’s easy to forget that kimonos have a place in contemporary Japan too. Increasingly, researchers and artists are drawn to the kimono’s rich history, as well as its new, modern meanings for Japanese women today.

One brilliant initiative to help us learn more about the kimono, is The Kimono Closet. Founded by Sheila Cliffe, author of The Social Life of Kimono, the project focuses on the real stories of Japanese women and the kimono they wear, fuelled by Sheila’s burning curiosity to learn more about the place of the kimono in Japanese culture.

We spoke to Sheila to find out more about why kimonos make her tick. Read on for some fascinating insights into the reality of the kimono.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Sheila Cliffe working on the Kimono Closet project.

Japan Objects: Sheila, can you tell us a little more about how this project first came about?

Sheila Cliffe: I wrote a PhD thesis on the relationship between fashion, tradition and kimonos, and then a book called The Social Life of Kimono. In the book I discuss the work of a Japanese anthropologist called Kon Wajiro, who realised that while everyone was busy collecting data on ‘primitive’ societies, no one had collected similar data about Japan. So Kon started to use the same techniques to examine and document daily Japanese life, including a lot of research on clothing. Thanks to his work, we can know about the clothing practices of Japanese people in the early to mid twentieth century.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Black furisode worn by Atsuko’s mother at her wedding in 1937.

Now the only data that is available about contemporary kimono are sales figures, so I thought it would be interesting to reveal real wardrobes, real women, and their kimono stories. If this is done with women of different age groups, we can find out how life with kimono is changing over time.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Atsuko with the kimono collection she inherited from her mother. Many women like her face a problem with what to do with this priceless heritage when the younger generation don’t wear kimono anymore.

The name of the project, Tansu Biraki, or the Kimono Closet, was a practice in many rural and some urban areas of Japan, in some places until quite recently. When a woman married and moved to her husband’s village or town, her kimono were publicly displayed and her status in the new community was evaluated by the kimono in her closet. Our project is much more supportive and designed to be a positive and not a scary experience.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Nozomi’s wedding kimono.

JO: What is it that interests you most about the kimono?

SC: How long do you have?! The design of the garment from one long role of cloth, the fact that it can bind people together over 3 generations, the fact that it doesn’t go out of style because in itself it is not a finished garment. It makes me feel like a present. It is also my habitat and my teacher. I learn so much about Japan and its history through my study of the kimono.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Makoto with a kimono that she made herself. She tries to wear it at least once a year.

JO: What do you think the kimono symbolizes for modern Japanese women?

SC: That depends on the age of the women. For older women it is material for connecting them with their families and ancestors. For most older women I have interviewed, they did not choose most of their kimono. They were given by parents, grandmothers or aunts.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Rena is a performer who wears her kimono on stage, but also while sightseeing.

Many middle-aged women have a negative view of kimono. They were supposed to wear it and in a restrictive way, to be proper women. They experience it as something uncomfortable that was forced on them, and they ran. For younger women who like kimono, it is mostly fashion. It offers an alternative to the anonymous and plain jeans and T shirts. Pattern is a big part of kimono style. Girls who like pattern and lots of colour, enjoy kimono as alternative fashion.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Mitsuyo: “If you go to an event with those Japanese Culture people you have to be very careful about what kimono you wear because their judgment is severe”.

JO: How do you find the women who share the stories of their kimono?

SC: This is very difficult, and it is especially difficult to find older people, who feel embarrassed. It is a very personal thing to examine someone’s wardrobe, and it often involves hearing family history. My assistant has worked in the kimono-selling business and so she has a lot of contacts which we have used. I have also recruited from friends on Facebook, people at kimono related events, and even from a woman who came up to talk to me in the supermarket, because she saw me on television.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Mitsuyo fell in love with this kimono, but she never had the opportunity to wear it, until some friends from overseas got married, and asked her especially to wear it.

JO: Have you any future plans for the project?

SC: The plan is to interview 50 women, and we are halfway through. After gathering all the data, it will be analysed and the age groups will be compared. Any significant changes will indicate a change of role for the kimono in women’s lives. I think this is significant and important information for the kimono industry to know, as well as for people who are interested in preserving and keeping alive Japanese culture.

© Todd Fong, Kimono Closet. Hiromi prefers to buy kimono on the internet, because there is no pressure from salespeople trying to influence her choices.

I plan to do a research presentation on the results, and if possible, I would like to turn the project into a book. Each person would be able to discuss their kimono closet and have their photographs, shown. That is my dream and if it actually happens, I would love to throw a big party and invite the 50 women participants to join it. I think that would be totally amazing!

If you would like to find out more about the project, head over to

Do have any kimono in your closet? Let us know in the comments below!


February 16, 2018 | LifestyleFashionKimono

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