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British Kimono Buff adapts the robe to modern life

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

Sheila Cliffe moved from Britain to Japan 38 years ago after falling in love with kimono. Today, she is a kimono influencer and wears the traditional garb with playfulness and flair.

Cliffe, 62, is also introducing traditional Japanese culture to people in Japan and abroad, even as such customs have faded from everyday life.

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

“It’s one of my favorite kimonos,” Cliffe said in fluent Japanese. “A factory in Kyoto Prefecture woven the textile especially for me with 21 colors of thread.”

She also wore a silver obi sash, a light blue obijime sash band, and an obidom 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 when she goes out to meet people.

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

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

“Kimono allowed me to travel around Japan and learn about the Japanese lifestyle and culture. Kimono is my teacher,” Cliffe said.

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

To her surprise, it was the Japanese who noticed her colorful and unique use of kimono. She received requests to appear on TV and appear in magazines. She also published photo books.

Cliffe follows the rules of tying obi sashes and donning kimono, while creating new outfits by adding accessories and other items often designed for Western clothing.

For example, she chooses hats and accessories that match the colors and patterns of the kimono. She also wears boots or pumps, instead of regular kimono footwear. And sometimes she throws a Western-style jacket over it. If the kimono is short, she can wear a long skirt underneath so that it sticks out at the bottom.

Thanks to Sheila Cliffe
Cliffe wears a kimono with pink boots.

Thanks to Sheila Cliffe
Cliffe combines a kimono with a shirt, long skirt and jacket.

“Kimono work by addition. I like to wear kimono without creating a wall between Western-style clothes,” she said.

Only for special events

Nowadays, many Japanese people only wear kimono 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 between the ages of 20 and 40. Thirty-one percent of those in their twenties, 40% of those in their thirties and 45% of those in their forties said they had never worn a kimono.

But abroad kimono is attracting more and more interest.

Large-scale kimono exhibitions took place 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 gallery in New Mexico.

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



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