Hello Kitty Turns 50: How a Cartoon Cat Became the Ultimate Icon of Cuteness

I first met Hello Kitty through a friend of hers named Pompompurin. I was about six years old when one of my mother’s coworkers gave me a pen featuring the bright yellow golden retriever and a small rolling stamp that fit precisely within the tiny circumference of the cap. I was so enamored with this new writing device that my mother had to ask where her coworker found it; it was from the Sanrio store. There, at my local mall in the confines of the brightly-lit-and-pink-accented shop, I met my lifelong best friend: Hello Kitty.

This year marks Hello Kitty’s 50th anniversary and she’s celebrating her golden jubilee with a slew of products to commemorate her everlasting cuteness, like this Loungefly lunchbox journal and an Igloo cooler. Hello Kitty made her grand debut in 1974 on a vinyl coin purse designed by Yuko Shimizu, who was commissioned by Shintaro Tsuji to create a character for his burgeoning company Sanrio. It’s nearly impossible to name all of the products Hello Kitty has in her oeuvre since becoming a global pop cultural icon, but one of my all-time favorites is the infamous plushie dress worn by Lady Gaga in 2009. In 2021, Susan Alexandra, New York City’s queen of beaded baubles, designed a collection in collaboration with Hello Kitty that included her renditions of Miss Kitty’s infamous bow in hair clips and handbags—her favorite piece in the collection is the Hello Kitty classic bag in the shape of her iconic face. (While designing the collection, she learned that “wearing a signature bow is the chicest thing a person can do!”)

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Hello Love by Hattie Stewart on display at Somerset House in London, ahead of the opening of CUTE.

David Parry

This past January, Somerset House in London opened an exhibition titled “CUTE” that features a collection of contemporary artworks, new artist commissions, and various items of cultural phenomena that illustrate the impact and influence of cute culture. This show is the most monumental out of Hello Kitty’s birthday gifts this year, as this was put on in partnership with Sanrio and two of the key pieces on view are a Hello Kitty–themed disco, a fully immersive space showcasing the plushie collection of Amy-Louise Allen, and a Cute Coffee Shop by ArtBox Cafe.

“Cuteness is childlike, but to say it is infantilizing is wrong,” explains Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House. “It’s more a case of simply reflecting a change in society, even more so now as the boundaries between childhood and adulthood are becoming increasingly blurred. And by inviting us to become childlike again, cuteness offers respite from the pressures and anxieties of everyday life.” She also notes that cuteness encourages comfort, kindness, and a sense of belonging and community. “Equally, cute’s feminine qualities can be used to reflect on how, in so many ways, cute is a refuge for those in society who are othered—not only women but also queer and non-binary people and people of color and mixed heritage—allowing a safe and empowering space to express themselves freely without judgment or boundaries,” Claire adds.

With my own fascination of all things cute, my childhood room progressively became more shades of light pink and red as the five-apple-tall titan of cuteness became my central decor theme. Having a friend in Hello Kitty kept me company at home, but she also helped me form connections and friendships with other fans of hers while I was in school. Throughout elementary and middle school, I was required to wear a uniform, but I found a way to express myself and my interests with my Hello Kitty backpacks, lunch boxes, pencil bags, and pens, as did many of my classmates. This angel landline had exclusive access to all of our secrets between banal homework-related questions.

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