August 22, 2020

When a Kimono is Not a Kimono

When a Kimono is Not a Kimono

The term “Cultural Appropriation” has been tossed around quite a bit in the past few years. Mayamam Weavers is very sensitive to the theft of the beautiful huipil designs of the traditional Maya dress and the women in the weaving cooperative participate in the struggle for the recognition of the designs as heritage and identity. And it is clear when a fashion designer uses a design copied from traditional Maya embroidery that that is appropriation and it’s wrong. But it took listening to a recent podcast episode to sensitize ourselves to our own act of cultural appropriation as we had appropriated the name “kimono” for one of our woven products.

Cultural appropriation happens when we make use of something without fully understanding its context or meaning. Several years ago, we had chosen to use the name kimono for an open front, “flowy” long jacket that is handwoven on a foot loom by the women of our cooperative. Our inspiration for change began with Manpreet Kalra of the Art of Citizenry and her July 2020 Navigating an Unequal World podcast, episode 3 titled “Which is it, Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation”. The podcast had recommended reading an article written by a Japanese American woman, Emi Ito titled, "An Open Letter to White Makers & Deisgners Who are Inspired by the Kimono and Japanese Culture." Ito is a teacher and sustainable fashion advocate who has been successful in reaching out to fashion brands who misuse the name kimono and helping them find alternative solutions. The article made the role of the kimono in Japanese culture, tradition, and identity very clear. It was such a learning experience to discover how easily lack of knowledge about another culture can lead to unintentional cultural appropriation, but cultural appropriation nonetheless.

Photo by Jie on Unsplash

The fact that we meant nothing bad by naming our garment a kimono is fine, but once we understood the deep cultural significance of the kimono in Japanese culture it was clear we had to change the name of our product. The kimono is a sacred garment. When companies sell kimonos as fashion, they are erasing the definition as well as the history of kimonos. Not only did our kimono have its own unique shape and style, it didn’t have a connection with Japan, or with Japanese culture.


While the concept of fair trade no doubt celebrates cultural differences, one of the nine principles of Fair Trade is to respect cultural identity. As a fair trade organization, this is extremely important to us. So with a little brainstorming with our team, we came up with a new name for our product – introducing the Windowpane Weave Wraparound!

If you're interested in additional reading about this topic:

My Kimono is Not Your Couture by Emi Ito