Until the Meiji Restoration, Western fashions were virtually unknown in Japan. Sumptuary laws passed by the Shogun in 1643 imposed a dress code that revealed an individual’s social status. Only nobles and members of the military class were permitted to wear luxurious, patterned silks, satins, and elaborate brocades and to adorn themselves with fancy sashes. With the abolition of the laws by the Restoration government, the Japanese were free to wear whatever they pleased. After the Emperor appeared in Western dress, government officials and the educated elite began wearing Western-style clothing in public. In 1871, the Emperor issued a mandate requiring high officials to wear Western clothes during business hours or when at official functions. Shortly afterwards, fashion conscious women also began wear Western dresses in public, following the example of the Empress.
Until the Meiji Restoration, Western fashions were virtually unknown in Japan. Sumptuary laws passed by the Shogun in 1643 imposed a dress code that revealed an individual’s social status. Only nobles and members of the military class were permitted to wear luxurious, patterned silks, satins, and elaborate brocades and to adorn themselves with fancy sashes. With the abolition of the laws by the Restoration government, the Japanese were free to wear whatever they pleased. After the Emperor appeared in Western dress, government officials and the educated elite began wearing Western-style clothing in public. In 1871, the Emperor issued a mandate requiring high officials to wear Western clothes during business hours or when at official functions. Shortly afterwards, fashion conscious women also began wear Western dresses in public, following the example of the Empress.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Fashion

Women in the Changing Fashions, From the Kimono of the Early Edo Period to the Western Fashions of the Meiji.

Hashimoto Chikanobu
Edo-Tokyo Museum
c. 1890
Woodblock print
91220260-82
© Edo-Tokyo Museum


Many Japanese who wore Western clothes in public changed back into Japanese garments at home. In fact, nineteenth-century Western clothes were ill-suited for Japanese homes: the full skirts and bustles of the 1870s and 1880s were impractical for sitting on tatami mats, and Western shoes, especially the high-buttoned styles of the Victorian period, were equally unsuitable given the Japanese custom of removing one’s footwear upon entering a building.
Many Japanese who wore Western clothes in public changed back into Japanese garments at home. In fact, nineteenth-century Western clothes were ill-suited for Japanese homes: the full skirts and bustles of the 1870s and 1880s were impractical for sitting on tatami mats, and Western shoes, especially the high-buttoned styles of the Victorian period, were equally unsuitable given the Japanese custom of removing one’s footwear upon entering a building.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

A Women's dress draped over a bustle

Edo-Tokyo Museum

9001974-75
© Edo-Tokyo Museum


Both women and men were quick to adopt Western hairstyles early in the Meiji period. Following the example of the Emperor who cut off his topknot in 1872, many Japanese men began to do likewise, and Western haircuts, mustaches and beards soon became the norm. Women followed the rapidly changing hairstyles of the Victorian period, which they wore with either Western dress or Japanese kimono. With the advent of western hairstyles, both men and women began to wear hats.
Both women and men were quick to adopt Western hairstyles early in the Meiji period. Following the example of the Emperor who cut off his topknot in 1872, many Japanese men began to do likewise, and Western haircuts, mustaches and beards soon became the norm. Women followed the rapidly changing hairstyles of the Victorian period, which they wore with either Western dress or Japanese kimono. With the advent of western hairstyles, both men and women began to wear hats.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Women in Western fashion and their changing hair styles

Edo-Tokyo Museum

Woodblock print
90200030
© Edo-Tokyo Museum


Meiji prints enthusiastically portrayed the latest in Western fashions, leaving the impression that everyone embraced suits and dresses. However, it should be noted that clothing did not change significantly for the majority of Japanese. While many upper-class Japanese did occasionally wear Western suits and dresses, most preferred the kimono. More common, however, was the incorporation of several Western garments, accessories, and hairstyles into Japanese dress, including umbrellas, hats, shawls, watches, jewellery, and shoes. In addition to the kimono, many Japanese men wore hakama, loosely fitted, pleated pants, which were also often worn with Western accessories.
Meiji prints enthusiastically portrayed the latest in Western fashions, leaving the impression that everyone embraced suits and dresses. However, it should be noted that clothing did not change significantly for the majority of Japanese. While many upper-class Japanese did occasionally wear Western suits and dresses, most preferred the kimono. More common, however, was the incorporation of several Western garments, accessories, and hairstyles into Japanese dress, including umbrellas, hats, shawls, watches, jewellery, and shoes. In addition to the kimono, many Japanese men wore hakama, loosely fitted, pleated pants, which were also often worn with Western accessories.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Preparing to take a stroll; a married woman in the Meiji period

Taiso Yoshitoshi
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
c. 1888
Woodblock print
95.33
© Art Gallery of Greater Victoria


The kimono is the principal garment of Japanese dress. Made of materials that vary in weight, type, and design according to the seasons, it is formed from a long rectangle of cloth cut into eight pieces. It is generally thinly lined in summer, lined in spring and autumn, and heavily wadded in winter. Despite the kimono’s simple pattern, it conveys a complex network of messages and meanings through its fabric, colour, pattern, and form. For instance, brighter colours are more suitable for younger people, whereas more subdued colours were reserved for older individuals. Men’s kimono sleeves are square-cut, whereas women’s sleeves are slightly rounded. The sleeves of a single woman’s kimono are even more rounded than those of a married woman’s, and the sleeves on children’s kimonos are the roundest of all. The obi, or sash, of a man’s kimono is distinguished from a woman’s by its narrower width, subdued colours, and manner of tying. Ceremonial kimonos, made of exquisite silks, are more elaborate in design and richer in colour than formal, casual, street-wear and home-wear kimonos.
The kimono is the principal garment of Japanese dress. Made of materials that vary in weight, type, and design according to the seasons, it is formed from a long rectangle of cloth cut into eight pieces. It is generally thinly lined in summer, lined in spring and autumn, and heavily wadded in winter. Despite the kimono’s simple pattern, it conveys a complex network of messages and meanings through its fabric, colour, pattern, and form. For instance, brighter colours are more suitable for younger people, whereas more subdued colours were reserved for older individuals. Men’s kimono sleeves are square-cut, whereas women’s sleeves are slightly rounded. The sleeves of a single woman’s kimono are even more rounded than those of a married woman’s, and the sleeves on children’s kimonos are the roundest of all. The obi, or sash, of a man’s kimono is distinguished from a woman’s by its narrower width, subdued colours, and manner of tying. Ceremonial kimonos, made of exquisite silks, are more elaborate in design and richer in colour than formal, casual, street-wear and home-wear kimonos.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

A Kimono

Edo-Tokyo Museum

86213002
© Edo-Tokyo Museum


This pattern shows how the eight pieces of a kimono are cut from a strip of cloth.

National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Vancouver Museum, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, The Montre

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


The pattern of a kimono remains the same for everyone, male or female, child or adult. Economical in design, every inch of cloth is used, and there are no buttons, hooks or any other fasteners, as the obi -- a sash tied around the waist -- is used to keep a kimono closed. As a result of the garment’s simple design, it is taken apart every time it is washed. The various pieces of fabric are then placed on flat boards to dry, eliminating the need for ironing. Once dried, the kimono is then re-sewn.
The pattern of a kimono remains the same for everyone, male or female, child or adult. Economical in design, every inch of cloth is used, and there are no buttons, hooks or any other fasteners, as the obi -- a sash tied around the waist -- is used to keep a kimono closed. As a result of the garment’s simple design, it is taken apart every time it is washed. The various pieces of fabric are then placed on flat boards to dry, eliminating the need for ironing. Once dried, the kimono is then re-sewn.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Describe the history of the incorporation of Western-style fashions in Meiji Japan, giving examples
  • Recognize the conflict that can exist between fashion styles and practicality, using the Meiji period in Japan as an example
  • Describe traditional Japanese dress with particular reference to the kimono
  • Explain how a kimono is made and maintained
  • Relate fashions in late 19th century Japan to fashions in their own culture

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