Lilly Absinthe Looks At The Meiji Era

Today we travel to Japan to talk about the impact of Western fashion during the 1880s and 90s. As it’s been often said, fashion influences are a two-way street and while Japonisme developed in Western Europe in response to contact with Japan, the converse occurred in Japan. We hope you enjoy this little introduction.


Yōshū_Chikanobu_various_hairstyles

Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延) (1838–1912), better known to his contemporaries as Yōshū Chikanobu (楊洲周延), Women and girls in Western dress with various hairstyles.

The the mid to late 19th Century, or more properly the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912, saw the rapid modernization of Japan as it strove to position itself as a nation of stature equal to the West. As part of this modernization process, the adoption of many elements of Western culture was seen as desirable and not only when it came to building and maintaining military and economic strength. The consequences of not modernizing were starkly apparent, they only had to look to their unfortunate neighbor China which was rapidly being subjugated by European imperialism, either directly through the outright seizure to territory or indirectly through economic domination and all enshrined in various unequal treaties.

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Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延) (1838–1912), better known to his contemporaries as Yōshū Chikanobu (楊洲周延), The Emperor Meiji, 1887.

In their quest to strengthen themselves vis-a-vis the West, the Japanese adopted many Western cultural elements to include dress, viewing the adoption of Western dress as a way of being taken seriously by Westerners.  In much the same way individuals in the West (.e., America and Western Europe) chose their clothes with an eye towards maintaining respectability, the Japanese as a nation sought to emulate the West by adopting its fashions. g themselves to world at their best, so did that Japanese when it came to interacting with the West. However, at the same time, the Japanese also impressed their own design aesthetic on Western clothing and making it their own.

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Yoshū Chikanobu – The Emperor, the young Crown Prince and the Empress are accompanied by court ladies on an outing to Asuka Park (1890)

Starting mainly with military uniforms, the Western was gradually adopted by ordinary Japanese, spurred along by the Emperor and the Imperial family’s example. The adoption of Western dress was formalized in 1871 when the Emperor Meiji issued an edict directing that all his officials and men at court were to wear Western dress:

The national polity is indomitable, but manners and customs should be adaptable. We greatly regret that the uniform of our court has been established following the Chinese custom, and it has become exceedingly effeminate in style and character. We should no longer appear before the people in these effeminate styles, and we have therefore decided to reform dress regulations entirely.[1]

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Emperor Meiji (1852 – 1912)

A similar edict for women was issued by the Empress Haruko on January 17, 1887:

Now we can no longer restrict ourselves to bowing from a kneeling position, but will have to observe the Naniwa style of bowing while standing.  Moreover, if we look at contemporary Western women’s wear, we find that it combines a top or jacket and a skirt in the manner of our ancient Japanese system of dress.  This is not only suitable for the formal standing bow but also convenient for action and movement and makes it only natural to adopt the Western method of sewing.[2]

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Empress Haruko (1849 – 1914)

Also, edits were issued directing that Western dress (principally prescribed uniforms) was to be worn when conducting official business.

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Family Portrait

For many Japanese of lesser rank, the adoption of Western dress was at first somewhat superficial in that it would be worn outside the home during “business hours” but at home they would change into traditional clothing. Also, it should be noted that Western dress was not  always the most practical, especially when it came to removing one’s shoes when entering a house or maneuvering around the house in a bustle dress. Finally, the adoption of Western dress was largely restricted to larger urban areas; it would take longer for more isolated rural regions.

Below are some illustrations of Japanese women wearing Western dress:

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The above illustration also includes hairstyles.

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The Imperial Family

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Close-Up

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Adachi Ginkō, illustration of Ladies Sewing, 1887. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Along with the adoption of Western fashions were the methods of creating those fashions as can be seen from the above illustration. Below are a few examples in photographs:

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Unfortunately, we were unable to date the above photograph but the style would suggest the 1890s, either early or late judging from the sleeves.

Japan Meiji Era

Nagako Nabeshima (1855-1941)

Japan Meiji Era

Nagako Nabeshima (1855-1941)

Japan Meiji Era

Nagako Nabeshima (1855-1941)

Nagako Nabeshima was married to the Marquis Naohiro Nabeshima, a nobleman who was connected with the Imperial family and had spent a lot of time in the West serving in various official positions. Below is a photograph of Akiko Maeda, Marquise and first wife of the Toshitsugu Maeda, another high-ranking noble:[3]

Japan Meiji Era

Akiko Maeda (1870 – 1949), c. 1887

Japan Meiji Era

Akiko Maeda, c. 1887, back side of picture.

Akiko’s day dress is firmly in the late 1880s in regard to style and would not be out of place in any major City in either America or Europe. From the picture, it appears that the outer skirt and bodice are silk accompanied with  cut velvet underskirt. The same cut velvet is on the front of the bodice.

Just for contrast, here’s something more in the “street style” category:

Street Style1

This picture is interesting in the somewhat awkward pose as well as the incongruous cigar that’s clearly been added in later (early Photoshop 🙂 ). The sack suit and bowler hat are a bit too large while the dress appears to fit pretty well. Judging from the styles, it appears that this picture was probably taken sometime in the late 1890s.

So far we’ve seen various pictures, both illustrations and photographs, of Western fashion in Japan. What about actual extant examples? Well, here’s a formal day dress that belonged to Nagako Nabeshima:

Day Dress - Japanese in European Style

Day Dress/Reception Dress, c. 1880s, belonging to Marquise Nagako Nabeshima; Jingu Chokokan Museum

Day Dress - Japanese In European Style 1880s

Close-up of the train.

Unfortunately, the Jingu Chokokan Museum website did not have any pictures of the front of the dress but nevertheless, this dress is a spectacular example of cultural fusion in dress. One can see the traditional Japanese design motifs in the fabric and the trim. We wish there was more information available in English on this dress.

The impact of Western dress during the Meiji Era was somewhat superficial in that, outside of the Imperial Army and Navy, it was mostly adopted by the Imperial Court and those with some sort of connection with the government. In many Japanese, Western dress was worn for public occasions or when performing official duties; at home they switched to traditional dress. In later decades, one would see a resurgence of traditional dress and especially with the Kimono.

This is admittedly just a brief overview of a somewhat complex history and in future posts we hope to explore this them of cultural interaction more closely. 🙂


1. Nakagawa, Keiichiro, and Henry Rosovsky. 1963. The Case of the Dying Kimono: The Influence of Changing Fashions on the Development of the Japanese Woolen Industry. Business History Review 37 (1 & 2):59-78.

2. Ibid.

3. Both Marquis Naohiro Nabeshima and Marquis Toshitsugu Maeda were former Daimyos, or feudal lords who had lost their hereditary land holdings with the consolidation of the Meiji regime. Essentially, these former feudal lords were co-opted into a Western-style nobility which had been created as part of Japan’s modernization. Naturally, many of these former feudal lords were put to work for the new Meiji regime.

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