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In the video for “Paper Mache,” rapper Miss Eaves’s ode to being, as she puts it, “single AF,” a middle-aged woman makes her way through Brooklyn, beset on all sides by happy, lovestruck couples. When she finally makes it home, she stages a solo dance party in celebration of her singledom, busting out bowls of snacks and a giant tray of alien-eye cupcakes, then donning a full-body dinosaur onesie, complete with tail.
That onesie, commonly known as a kigurumi, isn’t just some outrageous music video fashion. It’s identical to one that Eaves owns — and is wearing while we chat on the phone. “I wear them about 50 percent of the time,” she tells me, explaining that the dinosaur is one of three kigurumis in her collection (she’s also got a cat and a skeleton). “I have more fun when I’m wearing them.”
What’s the appeal of kigurumi? For Eaves, they’re the perfect blend of comfort and style. “Sweatpants are also equally comfortable, but they’re not as funny,” she says. “When people look at me, I want them to smile. When people see me, I want them to be like, ‘That’s fun, that makes me happy.’”
Like many things whimsical — Tamagotchi, elaborately adorable bento boxes, Pokemon — kigurumi got their start in Japan, as a short-lived youth fashion trend that peaked in the mid-aughts. Although the word “kigurumi” can mean many things in Japan, the animal garments Americans associate with the term were developed by loungewear company SAZAC in the early aughts; not long after their initial debut, teenagers turned them from indoor wear to outdoor wear, sparking a whole new fashion trend.
According to Brian Ashcraft, senior contributing editor at Kotaku and author of Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, the height of kigurumi fever was 2004. “You might still occasionally see them at Universal Studios Japan or Tokyo Disneyland,” he tells me, “But that’s different, because in summer 2004, [teens would] be out roaming the streets dressed in those PJ-type outfits.”
In Japan, the trend was a way to combine a cultural love of cute animal characters with a rebellion against rigid fashion norms. “A huge importance has long been place in Japan on proper dress, so wandering around the streets in these outfits is a pushback on those norms,” Ashcraft tells me. “These [kigurumi wearers] were so comfortable with themselves that they wore these inside clothes outside.”
How did kigurumi get from the streets of Japan to Miss Eaves’s Brooklyn bedroom? Their first stop outside of Japan seems to have been the UK music scene, where concertgoers realized that kigurumi could be a fun, colorful way to stay warm during a long day outside. “People started wearing kigurumi instead of ponchos,” says Atsushi Miyamoto, one of the co-founders of Japanese gift distributor Clever Idiots. As kigurumi found footing in the UK, Miyamoto and his co-founder Michael John Adams began to wonder if the garments might do well Stateside — and after some discussions with kigurumi creator SAZAC, the Los Angeles-based Kigurumi Shop was born. Around the same time, Canadian entrepreneur Maria Pham-Beaupré launched Kigurumi.com; together, these shops have helped grow and develop the North American kigurumi market (and, Pham-Beaupré tells me, worked with SAZAC to ensure its offering designs that meet the size and style needs of the Western consumers).
As kigurumi made their way west, they started popping up in a variety of celebrity Instagrams (and even the occasional fashion spread). Cara Delevigne declared herself a huge fan, as did Lena Dunham, Meghan Trainor, and even Die Antwoord; in 2014, Boing Boing published a piece declaring it to be “the year we all wore kigurumi.” Though acquiring a kigurumi used to require going through specialty shops, these days they’re easily available through Amazon: A search on the retail size reveals over 2,000 results for kigurumi, a seemingly definitive sign that these animal onesies have gone mainstream.
(Another sign? During YouTube star Logan Paul’s much maligned trip to Japan, he terrorized locals while wearing a Pikachu kigurumi, an ugly signal that the trend had gone full circle.)
In some ways, it’s unsurprising that kigurumi have found such a thriving fandom on American shores. They are, after all, something along the lines of an IRL Snapchat filter crossed with a Snuggie; a way of looking super cute while staying ultra comfortable. Could there possibly be a better garment for our social media-obsessed era?
But in other ways, there’s something odd about the American embrace of kigurumi. Because as more and more of us find our way into these full body animal suits, we’re closing the gap between mainstream fashion and a group that’s long been treated as little more than the butt of a joke.
“I’ve always had a huge love of both anthropomorphic (animal) characters and animal-based movies,” Katie, a 25-year-old from the New York area, tells me. “Growing up, I was The Lion King kid while my siblings loved the Disney princesses and cars... There was just something much more interesting and magical about animals being the star of movies.”
Katie’s other love? Costuming and cosplay. “I loved the process of creating the costumes and the pride of wearing them around thousands of people,” she says, telling me that, as a shy person, “having any sort of costume with a mask helps me relax and just goof around.”
Eventually, Katie’s love of animals drew her to the furry community. And her love of cosplay inspired her to explore fursuiting, a costume-focused corner of the furry community (“Furries are people who love anthropomorphic characters and art,” Katie tells me; fursuiters are furries who also love costuming and cosplay). Six years after her first fursuit venture, she’s now a professional suit maker, selling suit parts and taking commissions for custom designs.
When Katie talks about fursuits, she doesn’t sound that different from Miss Eaves talking about kigurumi. Like Eaves, she’s an artist; like Eaves, she enjoys the way her whimsical outfits inspire joy and happiness in the people around her. But unlike Eaves, Katie has to contend with some nasty stigma and stereotypes around her animalwear.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the CSI episode,” says Bill, another fursuit aficionado, referencing a 2003 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation titled “Fur and Loathing.” If you haven’t, you can probably guess the gist: while investigating a murder, the show’s stars wind up at a furry convention, where they quickly discover a seedy underside to all the festivities (read: people boning in their fursuits). That sort of characterization, combined the vast array of furry porn available online, has led to a skewed perception of the fandom that, Bill tells me, has long made the fur community the “punching bag of the internet.”
(A brief note on the above: Do people have sex in fursuits? It’s likely that someone, somewhere has, but it’s not particularly common. Fursuits “are hot, heavy, limit your vision and movement, hard to clean,” Katie tells me, making them ill suited for sexy times. Plus, if you’re a known fursuit fornicator, “you will be blacklisted from all of the major fursuit artists — we don’t want our giant art pieces being used that way!”
And, yes, furry porn is a thriving community, but that’s hardly something to write home about: If there’s a fandom, it’s got an erotic subset, as a quick browse through the sexy stories of fan fiction site Archive of Our Own handily proves.)
It’s a frustrating reputation to be saddled with, and one that’s made many a fur-curious person shy away from exploring the community. But as kigurumi become increasingly mainstream, is it possible they’ll help fursuit wearers find a little bit of understanding?
Katie certainly hopes so. Granted, even without the sexual stigma, fursuits are likely to remain a niche garment. Not everyone has the stamina to drape their entire body in something as hot and heavy as faux fur and polyfill padding, and giant, full head masks seem unlikely to become on trend anytime soon. There’s also the price factor: commissioning a fursuit can run you a couple thousand dollars; even if you’re skilled enough to make one, they require a hefty investment of time and materials. (In contrast, kigurumi are usually between $50 and $100.)
Those factors are intimidating enough that fursuit wearers are a minority even within the fur community — though, interestingly, kigurumi have become an affordable way for non-suiters to join in the animal outfit fun, and for fursuiters to stay in character while getting an escape from the heat and a chance to eat. “People like wearing kigurumi on the last day of [costuming conventions],” Pham-Beaupré explains to me. “They spend all this time making these elaborate costumes that aren’t the most comfortable. For Sunday they just want to be relaxed and have a lazy day.”
But even if kigurumi don’t make fursuits a household item, as cute animal outfits become more and more normalized, it can only help out fursuit fans, by making their hobby feel a little less out there. The feelings that kigurumi inspire — the lack of inhibition, the whimsy, the thrill of inhabiting a whole new identity — aren’t all that different from the things that draw people to fursuits. And the more appreciation we develop for the former, the easier it will be to understand the latter.
Miss Eaves, for one, is convinced that kigurumi are only going to get more popular. “Once you start wearing them, I guarantee you’re going to keep buying them,” she says. And once we all start buying them, maybe fursuits won’t seem that strange.