Simple is chic, fashion in Edo Period

Shortly after the reunification of the Country in the seventeenth century, the bakufu, embarked on a strict campaign to redefine the social roles and to keep control of the entire society. The new hierarchical system took the name of  Shinōkōshō 士農工商and it was divided into four main social categories: the bushi 武士, the farmers, the craftsmen, and the merchants; the latter were often regarded as ill-reputated. Above the Shinōkōshō system stood the Shōgun, the clergy, the Emperor and his family, and the kuge 公家. People whose work dealt with blood and death, criminals, beggars, and art performers belonged to special classes known as eta 穢多and hinin 非人and they were considered outcasts. To further enhance this new social division, the Tokugawa authority had enacted a strict code of fashion rules aimed at fixing people’s clothing and aesthetic appearance. Details such as shapes, colours, fabrics and hairstyle had to be perfectly observed and in case these rules were broken, the punishment would be extremely severe. Luxurious silk-woven garments, for instance, became an exclusive prerogative of the upper classes, whereas the lower classes were allowed to wear only garments made of more modest fabrics like cotton or hemp. The same distinction concerned the colours: bright, flamboyant hues only belonged to the aristocracy and wealthy warrior households, while blue, grey, and brown became the official colours of the middle class. These new laws proved that the Tokugawa rulers were truly aware that fashion could be crucial to keep a hold on the entire population, since controlling clothes, hairstyle, and makeup was an effective way to control people’s identity. Since, fashion was also a  hierarchical reminder, the very first years of the era bushi and nobles were authentic trendsetters for the lower classes. Their garments were generally tailored after the fashion of the former Azuchi-Momoyama and Muromachi periods, which involved a broad use of gold, reds, and purples for both genders.   

Okumura Masanobu 奥村 政信, Asao Jujiro as a Cake Seller and Ikushima Shingoro as Bushi, ink on paper, ca. 1709, MET Museum, New York.
However, as time went by, a different type of beauty had been spreading among the urban bourgeois. In order to abide in the rigid sumptuary system, commoners living in cities like Edo or Ōsaka started seeking sophistication in delicacy, simplicity, and softness, giving birth to that complex aesthetic philosophy known as iki いき. Unlike the opulence pursued by the high classes, the iki sensitiveness would find refinement in blue and grey rather than bright red and gold, and in modesty rather than boldness. The courtesans of the Red Lights quarters used the word “iki” as an adjective meant to indicate an erotic yet subdued elegance. Iki represented the yearns to be seductive in a polite manner. Being “iki”, in fact, was more than simply wearing pastel-hued garments. Instead, it was about showing behaviours as important as a garment to create a well-defined style. Kabuki actors, especially onnagata 女形 and geisha were the apotheosis of the iki aesthetic, either for their appearance or their manners. Nonetheless, not every dweller in the ukiyo embodied the iki taste. The anthropologist Liza Dalby wrote that, in the Edo era, a geisha was more likely to be considered iki than an oiran 花魁 or a yūjo 遊女. Their sparkling garments, their huge reversed sash and their verbosity were actually the antithesis of the iki philosophy. Good wives could not be considered iki either, since the simplicity of their style coupled with the lack of make-up was thought as plainly insignificant. Conversely, a geisha wearing a kosode 小袖 with delicate patterns and an obi simply tied in a ribbon on her back represented an exquisite example of the iki aesthetic. Even hinted erotism and a touch of originality contributed to reaching the top of the iki imagines. An iki geisha had to be elegant but never artificial, bold but never eccentric. 
Fashion in Edo Period Japan
Torii Kiyomine 鳥居清峯, Woman Trying on Kimono 着物を着ている女, from the series Patterns for Modern Beauties 当世美人女雛形, ink and colour on paper, early 19th century, MFA Boston.

The Floating World characters overtook the high-classes members in setting the new fashion trends, but that did not block a bushi or an oiran to be labelled as iki. Thea is because iki standards could not help evolving throughout the years, constantly changing the trends but hardly the principles. The iki aesthetic grew into a cross between the ukiyo sensitiveness and the taste of the urban commoners, playing a leading role in shaping the fashion awareness of the chōnin 町人reality. The word primarily refers to the dynamic urban culture that arose in the eighteenth century in the major cities of Edo Japan and it means “people of the city” or simply “citizens”. It also refers to a cultural phenomenon that gave birth to innovative fashion trends. In this sense, the chōnin culture undoubtedly represents a pivot point not only of the Edo era itself but also of the whole Japanese aesthetics from this moment on. The rising of the chōnin class is mainly related to the collapse of the warrior class, which had been dealing for decades with the heavy tax-loss caused by the sankinkōtai 参勤交代 system. The law had been imposed by the Tokugawa shōgunate and it required every daimyō 大名 to leave their lands in order to periodically spend a certain amount of time in the capital, Edo. Furthermore, while the daimyō had returned to his original domains, his wife and heirs had to stay in their dwelling in Edo as hostages. With this law, the daimyō were more unlikely to afford the costs of a war, since maintaining two dwellings and facing periodical travels through the Country was extremely expensive. This consequentially led to the rapid ascent of the merchants and the separating lines between classes became blurrier. A new urban economy with strong fashion awareness started to spread in cities like Edo and Ōsaka and the market had now to also meet the demand of the middle class.  

Rekisentei Eiri 礫川亭永理, Fish Market at Odawara-chō, Nihonbashi, Edo 江戸日本橋小田原町魚市之図, from the series Perspective Pictures 浮き絵, ink and colour on paper, Edo Period, MFA Boston.

Since the commoners had been craving the newest trend, the merchants created special fashion catalogues called hinagata 雛形or hinagatabon 雛形本, through which the customers could choose among different kinds of pattern for their garments and accessories and also the combination of colours and textile. Hinagata magazines helped  to increase the economy of the merchants’ class, consolidating its new social position. Moreover, the coming of the hinagatabon increased the importance of the obi. Until that time, it had been no more than a simple sash used to hold the different layers of the outfit but, eventually, it became a relevant garment as the kosode itself, often reaching the same price.

Hinagata Magazine, ink on paper, mid-Edo period, British Museum, London.

As the spreading mass-fashion went on, a new category of clothing stores developed; that is the case of the iconic Echigoya 越後屋. Founded in 1673, Echigoya started its activity with the typical “door-to-door” selling method. In less than ten years, the company turned into a real shop where customers could purchase every sort of  fashion good. Echigoya buyers could be either high-lords of a noble house or merchant’s daughters, as it would deal with any social class. After Echigoya, other fashion stores with the same retail model appeared. Moreover, thanks to the fixed-price policy these companies would pursue, even the commoners could afford a bright, silk-woven kosode or an elaborate golden obi. Whereas the middle-class had adopted an ostentatious look mainly focused on luxury textiles and brilliant shades, high-class’ outfits became more modest and sober, especially in the male context. That is because the high-class members had to invest almost all of their wealth to preserve their dwells. Fashion was not a priority anymore. Thus, their clothes shifted from shimmering shades of red and gold to darker hues of blue, grey and brown, becoming a sort of work uniform rather than trendy outfits. Women became the new leaders of change in fashion trends, regardless of their social status, especially those of the Floating World. Most compelling, they were aware of the power they had on it. Kabuki actors and geisha would wear garments with patterns and decorations that they created themselves while performing, precisely to appear in the hinagata magazines. The day after the performance, dozens of women were already queueing in front of their favourite shop, waiting to buy the same kosode their beloved wore the night before. Although there is no historical confirmation, it is also said that many wealthy women probably used to hold some “style contests” in their residence to vote for the best outfit among the guests who had joined the competition. However, the Floating World had a considerable impact on the fashion system of both genders. The Red-Lights districts of Edo, Kyōto and Ōsaka had been the first location where people could dismiss their social uniform once entered the gates of the district. The Shōgunate itself had chosen not to include the Red-Lights neibhourhoods in the fashion laws, for it was convinced that if its subjects had a place where to be occasionally free, it would be easier for them to obey the rules in daily life.

Torii Kiyonaga 鳥居清長, Street Traffic at Nihonbashi 日本橋の往来, ink and colour on paper, 1786, Honolulu Museum of Art.

Mass-fashion in Edo Japan proves that a passion for novelty in lothing was not just a European matter. Indeed, when Europe came into touch with Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, it unavoidably had to clash with a country whose solid fashion awareness had been a pillar for two and half centuries.

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