How fateful underwear turned this Brit into a kimono
An ethnic Briton spends almost 365 days of the year wearing a kimono, even though the daily use of traditional Japanese clothing is on the decline among modern Japanese fashionistas.
Sheila Cliffe, 60, lectures on kimono culture at a university and is a popular Instagrammer who poses as a model in her online posts about kimono coordination.
Cliffe was 24 when she first visited Japan on a summer vacation trip while at university and had a fateful encounter with a long red “juban” at an antique fair. Traditional Japanese clothing fascinated her with its brilliant red color and silky, supple luster.
Cliffe became even more interested in the piece when a friend told him it was some kind of underwear.
Eager to learn more about the kimono, she decides to come and live in Japan.
Once in the country, Cliffe taught English, researched kimono extensively by reading books, and visited kimono fabric stores where she asked question after question.
“Kimono was my teacher,” she said. “I studied Japanese to learn more about kimono, and kimono taught me about Japanese culture.”
The fashion world has always been Cliffe’s passion. Born as a twin, she was often confused with her sister in her early childhood as they were both forced to wear matching clothes day in and day out.
“I am what I am,” she recalls thinking at the time.
She came to see fashion as a tool for self-expression.
The kimono became appealing to Cliffe partly because the patterns can be used to embody the seasons and sentiments, and also because they can be worn stylishly in so many ways by designing combinations of an obi sash and a collar to accompany them.
“What did the women (of this country) want to express with their kimono?” she came to wonder.
Cliffe married, had children and divorced in Japan.
She had three children to raise and English lessons to teach, but she stayed up late at night and early in the morning studying the history of kimono fashion trends. She earned a doctorate on the subject at the age of 52, nearly three decades after first encountering this long undergarment.
She published a book based on her research findings, titled “The Social Life of Kimono”, in English with Bloomsbury Publishing in 2017.
A style book she published in 2018 has been reprinted three times, and she published “Sheila Kimono Style Plus”, a sequel to the style book, in November 2021.
Fewer and fewer people regularly wear kimonos in Japan, and the kimono industry is shrinking. Cliffe said she wanted to make a breakthrough by reviving him.
“Kimono-making is closely related to climate and other natural characteristics,” she said. “Manufacturers are also enriched by their unique features. A technique that is so distinctive, even by world standards, should be preserved in living form.
Cliffe features portraits of herself to show stylish ways to wear kimono, as she is eager to help expand the base of kimono wearers.
“Hiding a kimono is no different than what you would do in a museum,” she said. “Having them worn by young people like fashion items helps to transmit culture.”
Cliffe has mastered the theory and rules of the kimono, and she follows the orthodox way of wearing it. But she thinks combining it with the latest fashion trends can make the experience even more free and fun.
Her signature style is to combine a brightly colored kimono with hats, large earrings or boots.
Cliffe believed she was targeting an overseas audience, but she realized that Japanese people made up 80% of her social media followers.
Cliffe’s online subscribers are largely those between the ages of 20 and 40.
“It’s not that young people aren’t interested in kimono,” she said. “It’s just that the hurdles got higher for them.”
The used kimono she bought at auctions, antique fairs and elsewhere, often for only several thousand yen (tens of dollars) apiece, accounts for about 90% of the 150 pieces in Cliffe’s possession.
“You can turn to YouTube for more on the proper way to put on a kimono,” she said. “You can start fun, and within your means.”
Cliffe has also worked on a “Kimono Closet” project, which involves discovering old kimonos hidden in the closets of ordinary citizens. She and her colleagues have already opened the closets of about 50 people and plan to organize the results of their project in book form.
“Kimonos are a wealth of information,” Cliffe said. “They’re so appealing because they make you realize there are connections.”
A single piece of fabric, for example, can give clues to age and area of production, making it possible to feel connected to the makers. A kimono passed down from generation to generation gives a glimpse of its connection to the family.
“Such a view is exactly the opposite of fast fashion,” Cliffe said. “There are things in the kimono that cannot be with western clothes.”
cliffe plans to continue using her own personal style to pass on kimono culture to the next generation.