British Kimono Buff Tailors the Robe to Modern Life

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sheila Cliffe poses for a photo in Tokyo in a kimono made of Tango Chirimen silk. Twenty-one colors of thread woven into the kimono create a floral pattern. “I hope more people will enjoy wearing kimono as they like,” she said.

Sheila Cliffe moved from Britain to Japan 38 years ago after falling in love with kimono. Today, she’s a kimono influencer, and wears the traditional robe with playfulness and flare.

Cliffe, 62, also introduces traditional Japanese culture to people in Japan and overseas even as such customs have ebbed from everyday life.

I visited Cliffe at her home in Tokyo in late August. She welcomed me dressed in a kimono of Tango Chirimen silk, which bore a floral pattern in blue, purple and other colors.

“It’s one of my favorite kimono,” Cliffe said in fluent Japanese. “A factory in Kyoto Prefecture wove the textile specially for me using 21 colors of thread.”

She also wore a silver obi sash, light blue obijime sash band, and obidome ornamental clasp with a penguin motif, which matched the kimono and was cool and refreshing to the eye. Large pink earrings added a modern, light touch.

Cliffe says she wears a kimono whenever she goes out to meet people.

She first came to Japan during a summer vacation at age 24. She was fascinated by the beauty of a red nagajuban — a long undergarment for kimono — that she found at an antique market. She quickly decided to study kimono in Japan and subsequently attended a kimono school, working as an English teacher.

She also wrote a Ph.D with the University of Leeds on the study of kimono, deepening her understanding about the garment’s history, production areas for various kimono fabrics and weaving and dyeing techniques, while teaching at a Japanese university.

“Through kimono, I was able to travel around Japan and learn about Japanese lifestyle and culture. Kimono are my teacher,” Cliffe said.

About five years ago, she began posting information about kimono on Instagram, hoping to share its charm with non-Japanese people.

To her surprise, it was Japanese people who took notice of her colorful and unique use of kimono. She began getting requests to appear on TV and feature in magazines. She also published photo books.

Cliffe follows the rules for tying obi sashes and putting on kimono, while creating new outfits by adding accessories and other items that are often designed for Western wear.

For example, she picks out hats and accessories that match the kimono’s colors and patterns. She also wears boots or pumps, instead of regular footwear for kimono. And sometimes, she throws a Western-style jacket on top. If the kimono is short, she may wear a long skirt underneath so that it peaks out at the bottom.

Courtesy of Sheila Cliffe
Cliffe wears a kimono with pink boots.
Courtesy of Sheila Cliffe
Cliffe combines a kimono with a shirt, long skirt and coat.

“Kimono work by addition. I enjoy wearing kimono without creating a wall between them and Western-style clothes,” she said.

Only for special events

Today, many Japanese wear kimono only when attending special events, such as coming-of-age ceremonies or weddings.

Last year, kimono sales company CommonStyle conducted an online survey of about 1,000 men and women in their 20s to 40s. Thirty-one percent of those in their 20s, 40% of those in their 30s, and 45% of those in their 40s said they had never worn a kimono.

But overseas, kimono are drawing more and more interest.

Large-scale kimono exhibitions were held at art museums in London and Paris between 2020 and last year. Japanese anime has also helped foster kimono enthusiasts in Britain, the United States, Australia and other countries. Some people buy kimono online and share their purchases at events and on social media.

In early September, Cliffe went to the United States to give a lecture on kimono at the request of a New Mexico gallery.

“Kimono will disappear if we only try to protect them. As a non-Japanese kimono enthusiast, I want to convey their beauty and appeal in my own way,” said Cliffe, her eyes shining.