Outrage at Museum of Fine Arts Boston over Disgraceful “Dress Up in a Kimono" EventCultural appropriation controversy erupts as Bostom Museum of Fine Arts encourages visitors to try on kimono. Here’s a quote from the “Stand Against Yellow-Face” group protesting:“The act of non-Japanese museum staff throwing these kimonos on [passersby] as a ‘costume’ event is an insult not only to our identities, experiences, and histories as Asian-Americans in America, but affects how society as a whole continues to deny our voices today.“The underlying question seems to be, in what context might a westerner wearing a kimono become offensive (and offensive to who)?
Full Article at Artnet
While I fully understand that many non-Asians, especially those who don’t share more than a passing interest in Japanese culture, are going to view this event as nothing more than a “costume” or “dress up” event, does this become less offensive if one stops to realize that the kimono itself is most likely considered a “costume” within a Japanese kimono wearing context as well?
I mean, both the replica and the original kimono in the painting, are clearly an example of uchikake style kimono. As clothing, uchikake serve only three purposes since the Edo period: outer kimono for pleasure quarter courtesans (oiran & tayuu), outer kimono for bridal ensembles, and outer kimono of a courtesan costume for onnagata kabuki actors. Analyzing the kimono for clues, you quickly realize that it isn’t a wedding uchikake because it doesn’t share the furisode style sleeves typical of bridal wear and the motifs on the uchikake are not the typical wedding motifs that promote happiness and longevity.
As a possible courtesan garment, the sleeves are typical, but the prominent samurai motif near the hemline is problematic. Courtesans, who would often doll themselves up in several layers of kimono and uchikake when making processions within the pleasure quarters, had to pick up and tie off the hems of their uchikake around their hips in order to expose their nagajuban and koma-geta (very sexy) as well as to prevent soiling the kimono on the dirt streets. The placement of the samurai means, if they tied their uchikake as normal for processions, it would be largely obscured, which defeats the purpose of their attention-seeking ensemble. Thus it strikes me as odd that it was ever used by an actual oiran or tayuu.
As a stage costume for a kabuki actor (i.e. onnagata) playing a courtesan, this kimono is, by my estimation, perfect! As stated above, it fits the general requirements for a real world courtesan, but the design on the hem isn’t an issue. Since the actor doesn’t have to worry about dirtying the hem and lining of the kimono on the far cleaner stage, he can wear it trailing and show off the samurai design.
As someone who has a very thorough knowledge of kimono and is involved in the online kimono wearing community, it’s my firm belief that anyone who is knowledgeable (or interested in learning) about kimono would recognize right away that this is not a “wearable” item. This is a kimono that was made to be a costume from it’s inception because it was, most likely, a commissioned kimono as part of a courtesan ensemble for a kabuki play. Especially when the Japanese were still a “wearing-kimono-every-day” kind of people, Japanese people would have picked it out as a costume right away.
Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to be offended that people are going to don this replica and (with nearly 99.9% certainty…) going to strike some kind of seductive pose and spout something along the lines of “oooh, I’m such a sexy geisha!” as they take pictures. The very thought makes my blood boil and it’s not even my culture they’re mocking! I’m no one to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be offended by.
My concern is, I guess, that I don’t want people to think that they (i.e. Boston Museum of Art or Monet) took some sort of “sacred garment,” some “beautiful elegant piece of art,” and made a circus out of it. This garment in particular, again by my estimation, was commissioned as a costume by actors to garner the attention of their audiences. This kimono isn’t being MADE INTO a circus, it was DESIGNED TO BE a circus!
tl;dr The kimono, during Monet’s time and the present, would be classified as a costume (i.e. stage kimono), not an everyday kimono or even as a sacred garment. Therefore, why is it offensive for non-Asian people (ignorant though they may be) to wear this replica as a “costume,” when that’s what Japanese people would, and did, consider this kimono in the first place?
Facinating analysis of the kimono featured in the painting and photo above.
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