It may be surprising to find out for many people living in America and Canada, but the cute, cuddly animal onesies known as kigurumi have been part of the cultural mainstream in Japan for nearly 25 years. The origin of this fashion-lifestyle trend is generally traced back to the mid-1990’s, when a perfect storm of different cultural factors – the rise of Shibuya and Harajuku fashion culture in Tokyo, the popularity of “kawaii” (literally, the “culture of cute”), and young teenagers’ fascination with anime and manga characters – led to the creation of the first kigurumi.
The first kigurumi, though, were not the types of kigurumi you can purchase on Kigurumi.com. The first ones were more akin to costumes used for a specific form of cosplay (“costume play”), in which young teenagers dressed up as their favorite anime and mange characters, complete with masks and full-length costumes. Within a short period of time, though, young trendsetters in two of Tokyo’s most fashionable and hip districts – Shibuya and Harajuku – had appropriated that trend as part of continually pushing the envelope on outrageous street fashion.
To get an idea of how important this was for the kigurumi – just think of how Brooklyn hipsters and Manhattan downtown glitterati can help to transform a New York City trend into something that goes viral nationwide. Harajuku, for example, was famous for closing off streets during the weekends, and letting roaming groups of teenagers hang out in all of their creative outfits – everything from animal onesies to super-futuristic cyberpunk costumes to “wamono” (basically, a mashup of Western attire and traditional Japanese garb). The area was filled with street artists, young fashionistas and trendy cafes – so you can just imagine how the trend immediately blew up nationwide. Imagine if you visited a major city like New York City or Toronto for the weekend, and everywhere you walked, you saw kigurumi dinosaurs and foxes hanging out!
Not surprisingly, Japanese entertainers, musicians and celebrities began to adopt the trend, and by the mid-2000’s, the kigurumi trend was seemingly everywhere. Western fashion bloggers were writing about “Japan’s bizarre street fashion trends,” and Western tourists were coming back home from trips to Japan, where both Shibuya and Harajuku became “must-visit” spots for travel bloggers. Terms like “Shibuya girls” entered the cultural mainstream, and pop stars like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (if you don’t recognize the name, just Google “PON PON PON” and your mind will be blown) became the celebrity face of Harajuku fashion culture.
At about the same time, the cultural trend known as “kawaii” was sweeping over Japan, and cute animal onesies were the perfect fit for this trend. At popular stores like Don Quixote (i.e. DONKI) in Japan, kigurumi outfits became the new “must-have” item to buy for young Japanese consumers. And Western tourists heading over to Tokyo discussed DONKI on travel blogs and online travel forums, desperate to find out where they should be looking for kigurumi in Japan.
Today, the kigurumi trend appears to be transforming once again, this time to include Halloween costumes, toddler outfits and kigurumi accessories – like caps, backpacks, hats, ponchos and even sleeping bags. Soft, snuggly fleece is still very much a thing, and people are even wearing kigurumi to work and to school.
We’ve come a long way since kigurumi was just a niche fad for young teenagers; now one of the hottest Japanese trends of the past 20 years is starting to experience the same type of popularity in places like the United States and Canada.