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A Short History of Kigurumi (You’ll Never Look At Your Cute Animal Onesie the Same Way Again)

When you think about cute, cuddly kigurumi onesies, it’s hard to imagine that they might have an ancient history dating back hundreds of years. But they do! So, if you are curious about the historical antecedents of kigurumi, then keep reading…

The cute fleecy dinosaur kigurumi you might be wearing right now actually has its modern origins in a form of Japanese cosplay called animegao kigurumi. This term refers to a highly stylized form of theatrical acting, in which the participants cover their faces with masks and then dress in full-body costumes. Usually, these costumes depict popular characters from Japanese manga and anime. Animegao kigurumi dates back to the mid-1990’s, and the first recorded animegao kigurumi performance dates back to 1993. 

So, as you can see, it has been about 25 years since the first modern kigurumi appeared. However – and this is where things get really interesting – it’s possible to find historical antecedents to kigurumi that date back to the 1600’s. That’s when the form of theater known as Kabuki first appeared in Japan. This was a highly stylized form of “dance-drama” that often featured sword fighting and wild costumes. Some performers wore “Kabuki masks,” while others wore elaborate makeup. And while many Kabuki drama were based on historical events, some of them featured fantastic and exotic creatures (including ghosts). 

And there are other forms of ancient Japanese performance that also may be historical antecedents for kigurumi. For example, there’s a form of Japanese puppet theater called Bunraku, in which puppeteers dressed all in black and wearing masks physically manipulated puppets that could be as tall as 3-4 feet high. These puppeteers would appear in full view of the audience, so in a sense, they were performing as well. 

In terms of going mainstream in the modern era, a big moment for kigurumi came when Japanese companies and production studios began to make high-quality masks of well-known Japanese characters that anyone could buy in the mid-1990’s. Before that, all masks and kigurumi had to be meticulously handmade out of readily available materials. To put this into context – you can think of this as the difference between making your own Halloween costumes from scratch, or simply going to a brick-and-mortar store or online storefront and buying the costume for a specific character. If you can buy a commercially available mask at an affordable price, it really opens up a niche to the pop culture mainstream.

Around the mid-1990’s, too, the whole idea of “street fashion” became very trendy, especially in Japan’s largest city, Tokyo. Suddenly, it became cool and trendy to wear kigurumi as part of elaborate outfits. On weekends, the cool kids of Shibuya would roam the streets dressed in animal onesies. The trend became so popular, in fact, that Western bloggers and fashionistas began to notice – and that led to the “export” of the kigurumi tradition to the West. The first Western kigurumi performance is usually dated as 1999. 

Between 1999 and 2004, kigurumi was largely an underground trend in the United States and Europe. But another big tipping point came in 2005, when Japanese comics, manga and anime began to be released to the West. At the same time, massive new conventions dedicated to comics and anime began to be popular. And, to top it all off, some mainstream Western performers and musicians – most notably, Gwen Stefani, began to integrate elements of Japanese street fashion into their shows and music videos. 

The rest, as they say, is history.