fashion in Meiji period Japan

Uniforms and Corsets at the Chrisanthemum court, Victorian Fashion in Meiji Japan.

Among all the changes that Meiji Japan had to face, that related to the wearing system had  been one of the most significant. The first appearance of European fashion happened in the foreign districts of the largest harbour cities like Tōkyō and Yokohama. The charm of such exotic garments led some ukiyoe artists to leave behind their traditional artistic topics to start portraying life scenes from those districts. Known as Yokohamae 横浜絵, this kind of woodblock print achieved discrete popularity among the locals, for it often was the only way people living in the countryside had to interface with the foreign reality. The artists of the Utagawa school, in particular, dealt with this new style: they used to portray human subjects such as gentlemen wearing uniforms or black suits and noblewomen wearing the characteristic crinoline gown. The ukiyoe artist Utagawa Sadahide undoubtedly is an authority of the Yokohamae prints. His artworks were mainly focused on the foreigners’ daily life in Yokohama during the last decades of the Edo Era and he would usually depict European and US individuals strolling through the main streets of the town amidst the locals. The precision used by Utagawa Sadahide to paint the intricate details and patterns of the female gowns and accessories is outstanding. Furthermore, he also managed to emphasise the massive volumes of the crinoline cages as well as the shapes obtained by the use of the corsets. Equally compelling, the features of Sadahide’s subjects were not that different from those of the most traditional ukiyoe.

Utagawa Sadahide歌川貞秀, Two Portuguese Women, ink and colour on paper, 1860, British Museum, London
Utagawa Sadahide 歌川貞秀, Two Portuguese Women, ink and colour on paper, 1860, British Museum, London
Utagawa Yoshitora, Returning Sails at the Wharves 波止場之規範, ink and colour on paper,1861, MET NY
Utagawa Yoshitora, Returning Sails at the Wharves 波止場之規範, ink and colour on paper,1861, MET NY

It is under this light that Japan developed the urgency to push for the modernisation of the country and, like many other aspects, fashion witnessed the same rapidity both in the male and female context, though in different ways and times. The “Iwakura Mission” (1871-73)  had been one of the first occasions that required the use of Victorian fashion over the Japanese traditional one. This expedition meant to learn as much as possible about the Westerners and to bring their habits back to Japan and review the “Unequal Treaties”, the trade agreements imposed by the Americans almost two decades prior, that were suffocating the complete rise of the country. Other than the main members of the Restoration, five young girls joined the mission: Nagai Shigeko 長い茂子, Yamagawa Sutematsu 山側捨松, Ueda Teiko 上田悌子, Yoshimatsu Ryōko 吉益亮子, and Tsuda Umeko 津田梅子. The latter was the youngest member, as she only was seven years old. In the first part of the tour, the five girls exclusively wore traditional kimono, as established by her US tutor Mrs Delong who was intended to emphasize their exotic aura. However, the pressing curiosity of the locals pressed the girls to the point of  firmly requiring Iwakura himself to wear Western clothes, potentially becoming the first Japanese women to wear Western-style clothes.

Figura 3

The use of Western fashion soon became a priority in Japan as well, but its use in the men and women context happened under different circumstances. Concerning the male wearing, Western-style clothes became mandatory for workers and politicians by 1871; the Emperor himself had abandoned his traditional court garbs during public occasions. In stark contrast to this, the Westernisation of women fashion system had been slower because of the gender stereotypes related to Japanese women. Besides, the first change was not strictly related to the cloth itself but rather to make-up. The customs that stopped first were the eyebrows shaving and the ohaguro お歯黒, ie dying the teeth black. Hairstyle represented a fundamental change as well. Compared to a Japanese traditional marumage 丸髷, a Western hairstyle was, in fact, much easier and hygienic to realise. Besides, unlike the Japanese ones, European and US hairstyles could be done without the help of a professional hairdresser, turning them into an authentic trend among Japanese women.

Victorian-style clothes joined the female fashion during the Rokumeikan 鹿鳴館 Era. Projected by the British architect Josiah Corder, Rokumeikan was a majestic Victorian building meant to host foreigner delegations in Tōkyō but it eventually turned into a location for parties, bazar, and balls for the Japanese and overseas upper classes. As every social event at Rokumeikan would follow the strict étiquette of the European reigns, any guest was asked to wear Western-style garments, regardless of their provenience. Gentlemen had to wear either uniforms or black suits, whereas the ladies had to be clothed in bustle-style gowns, which required the use of a cage to create the “tail-effect” on the back. The idea to impose Western clothes female guests had been suggested by Inoue Kaoru 井上馨 e Itō Hirobumi 伊藤博文, head figures of the Meiji Restoration. They were convinced that wearing Victorian garments would help to show the Foreigners that Japan had achieved a proper level of civilisation. The ukiyoe artist Toyohara Chikanobu 豊原周延 left a record of the Rokumeikan era with his kaikae 開化絵 prints, a kind of ukiyoe concerning the representation of the Japanese upper class in Victorian clothes. 

The two prints above depict some scenes of a typical party at Rokumeikan: men and women of different ages are dealing with European traditional ball dance while young choir girls and musicians are entertaining the guests with their music. However, it can be noticed that many dancers cannot help feeling slightly awkward in dancing together but for the young couple near the piano. That is because ball dance was indeed considered extremely improper and indecent among Japanese noble people, therefore Chicanobu himself wanted to recreate the same embarrassment felt by the Japanese guests when they had to have a physical approach with the opposite gender. Another interesting point is that Chicanobu’s female subjects are not wearing evening gowns, but rather daywear gowns. The reason is that the artist thought that high collared jackets and long sleeves would give women more dignity than a low-neckline evening gown. 

The increasing number of parties at Rokumeikan consequentially increased the demand for Western clothes by the Japanese noblewomen. Thus, it had been decided to intensify the import from Europe. Nonetheless, importing from abroad was extremely expensive and, in addition, Western clothes would not properly fit the tiny Japanese bodies. Therefore, Empress Haruko decided to promote local production with the aim of making garments able to emphasize Japanese shapes and their aesthetic sensitivities. 

The production of Western-style clothes made in Japan was assigned to the tabi足袋3 makers, for they were already familiar with sinuosity and curves. A Victorian outfit made in Japan exclusively involved the use of local textiles to be realised, whereas accessories such as corsets and cages, and materials such as lace and buttons were abandoned because due of their import cost. As a consequence, a new aesthetic taste started to spread among the Japanese aristocrats. Although identical for shapes and tayloring, the patterns used in the Japanese-Western clothes were the same ones used for kimono and pottery, like peonies, plum flowers, and so on. Geometrical motifs such as rhombus and lozenges were pretty common as well. Other traditional patterns like kamon 家紋 and the traditional arabesque karakusa 唐草 were equally frequent.

Despite the efforts taken by government and Imperial household, Victorian female fashion only only extended among the highest classes of Japan. Commoners in their daily life kept wearing the traditional fashion instead. Even within the walls of the Imperial Court, Victorian fashion had been adopted only as a sort of uniform for the public occasions. In addition, the growing nationalism in the Country further slowed its spread. That is because, after many decades spent focusing on international background, Japan felt the necessity to show the rest of the world it also was perfectly able to become a strong colonial empire. To do that, gaining back its lost identity became a priority. Athough the nationalist feelings gained quite success in the last years of the era, they were not enough to completely eradicate the Western fashion. After all, we have to consider that its use had been a key point of the Restoration for more than thirty years, though it all started as an imposition rather than a choice. Consequentially, it had become altready part of the Japanese fashion. True enough, Western garments persisted in being present in the wardrobe of the Japanese noble women throughout the whole era, eventually reaching that of the commoners in the Taishō 大正 era.

Even when nationalism reached the art world, the artists kept being captivated by the latest European fashion trends. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a group of painters began painting some bijinga 美人画5 where the female subjects wore Bélle Époque outfits

The print above draws inspiration from a painting of the French artist James J. Tissot and it was realised by Tsuneshige. It depicts a woman who is melancholically looking at an indistinct man while strolling through the park on a misty day. Her features are in accordance with the traditional bijin of the Edo period, yet her outfit is a perfect example of a  fin de siècle daily look: a large feathered hat, a floral dress fastened by a white belt, a black jacket with gigot sleeves and white gloves. Moreover, with the spread of the art of photography, even geisha and maiko started posing in the photo studios wearing Bélle Époque garments, trying to imitate the poses and the style of the beautiful Gibson Girl models. 

Figura 12

After the Meiji Era, Western clothes became always more popular among every social class to the point that they eventually overwhelmed the traditional kimono as the daily outfit, both for men and women.

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