Japonisme Redux

Throughout the ages, Western fashion has incorporated foreign influences and the late 19th Century was no exception, most notably with the advent of Japonisme. Originally coined in 1872 by Philippe Burty, a French art critic, “Japonisme”  was used a term used to encompass the idea of the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European (and later by extension, American) culture.1Philippe Burty, Renaissance Littéraire et Artistique, May 1872-February 1873

James Tissot, Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects, 1869

Originating as an artistic movement, interest in Japonisme stemmed from the re-opening of Japan to the world, a process that began in 1854 with the forced re-opening of trade with the West. One of the foundations of Japan’s participation in the world economy was the export of textiles, both in the form of raw fabric and finished goods designed expressly for the Western market. Along with this, there also a flood of Oriental bric-a-brac that was exported in the form of fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and of course, silks, which began to attract much interest by Westerners, especially in Great Britain and France.

During this time, Japanese designs began to attract the interest of various artists who began to incorporate them into their work. One area of special interest were woodblock prints in the Ukiyo-e Style (“Floating World”) and these designs influenced artists such as Tissot, Monet, Degas, and Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Below are some examples of these woodblock prints:

Otani Oniji II, dated 1794 Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95) Polychrome woodcut print on paper; 15 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1 x 22.9 cm) Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939 (JP2822)

Otani Oniji II, dated 1794; Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95)
Polychrome woodcut print on paper; 15 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1 x 22.9 cm)
Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939 (JP2822)

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1831–33 Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849); Published by Eijudo Polychrome ink and color on paper; 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm) (Oban size) H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847)

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1831–33; Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849); H. O. Havemeyer Collection (JP1847)

Along with woodblock prints and other Japanese artwork, interest in the Japanese design aesthetic also included fabrics which incorporated motifs such as plants, flowers, insects, birds, and geometric patterns. Below are a few examples of textile designs from the 1880s:





We can see further examples depicted by various notable Western artists themselves:

Claude Monet, Camille Monet in Japanese Costume, 1876; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


James Tissot, The Japanese Bath (La Japonaise au bain,), 1864

James Tissot, The Japanese Bath (La Japonaise au bain,), 1864.

James McNeill Whistler, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine

James McNeill Whistler, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, 1863 – 1865.

So how does this translate into fashion? Well, garments of the period began to use traditional Japanese fabrics, largely in the form of kimono fabric. In many instances, the garments themselves were made from re-worked kimonos which were largely made from silk. Below are some examples:

1870 Court Dress

Day Dress, c. 1870s; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC8938 93-28-1AB)

1870 Tea Gown

Tea Gown, American, c. 1870; Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (80.1.4)

Side profile

Side profile

Close-up of the front.

Close-up of the front.

The above pictures are interesting in that they illustrate typical Japanese design motifs that would normally be found in Kimonos. Also, interestingly enough, the two above dresses were made from re-worked Kimono fabric which suggests that new markets were being found for kimonos that normally would be worn by a small class of upper class Japanese, primarily the wives of Samurai. Below is another interesting dress that utilizes a quilted habutai silk fabric:

House Dress,, Japanese c. 1875; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC989 78-30-3AB)

Moving forward into the 1880s, Japanese design influences still remained strong as can be seen in these examples:

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

Side Profile

Three-Quarter Rear Profile



Close-up of the train.

What is interesting about the above dress is that this one appears to have been made for the Japanese market. In this case, the dress reflects Japan’s increasing westernization and is a mix of traditional fabric design with western dress style. Note that the line of the cuirass bodice has fringe running along the bottom, creating a visual effect of elongating the bodice’s lines, covering the hips completely.

Dressing Gown/Wrapper, c. 1885; FIDM (80.40.1)

Three-Quarter Rear View

The use of kimonos as dressing gowns and even tea gowns was popular in the West and it allowed women to be able to wear something that did not not require the use of the corset, or at least having to lace up the corset to the degree normally required when wearing a dress. As the bustle disappeared from use in the 1890s and the lines of women’s dresses became more upright, kimonos began to be incorporated into designs for evening wear and some day wear and this is especially evident during the years from 1900 – 1913. Here’s one example from 1894-1896:

1890s Dress

Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; Indianapolis Museum of Art (74.351A-B)

The above example is a day dress typical of the mid 1890s with the characteristic leg-o-mutton sleeves, thin waist, and open bodice designed to appear to be a coat with an exposed shirtwaist (which was often a fake one that was actually part of the bodice itself). What is interesting in terms of Japonisme is the geometric pattern of the fabric which follows a fairly standard Japanese design motif. The provenance of the fabric is unknown but it’s clear that it’s not material from a reworked kimono.

Image result for japonisme definition philippe burty

Finally, we end this series with a wonderful example of Japonisme in the form of a Visite from Paris, circa 1890:

Cape/Visite, c. 1890; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC5367 86-17-7)

The above illustrations and descriptions barely touch the range of Japanese influences that were found in Western fashion during the late 19th Century but even from this limited sample, it can be seen that they served to create some stunning effects that only served to enhance the aesthetics and sheer beauty of the period styles. This is an area that has been largely neglected by those striving to recreate the fashions of the period and it merits further consideration.

House Dress? Wrapper? Morning Dress?


Wrapper? House Dress? Morning Dress? When it comes to these three garments, there’s a lot of overlap and it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart. One useful way to approach this is to consider the characteristics that all these garments have, or to tend to have, in common:

  • Princess Line Styling
  • Relatively Loose Fit (This can be subjective)
  • Worn At Home Either In Private Or For Social Situations

When  stripped of all their trim and lace, they become functional, stripped-down versions of day dresses characteristic of the 1880s and 90s. Also, while it envisioned that a corset wasn’t worn with these garments, that wasn’t always the case but either way, the created a less structured silhouette. The Princess line style with its lack of a defined waistline was especially useful in this endeavor.

To further illustrate, we start with this dress from circa 1879-1880:

Wrapper/House Dress, c. 1879-1880; John Bright Collection

Side Profile

Rear View

This dress has clean lines and little ornamentation except for the embroidered middle hem, cuffs, and pockets. While this dress appears to be somewhat looser than a conventional day dress, it’s clear that it was meant for wear with a corset. This dress below is more unstructured and almost could be mistaken for being a robe:

And dresses could be more structured as with this one:

House Dress, c. 1880s; University of New Hampshire Textile Library

In looking at the side profile, to a great degree it maintains the robe-like appearance although it’s much elaborately trimmed.

This one has far more ornamentation and in our opinion really is more of a day dress than a house dress per se. But, as with a lot of this, the border between something that was worn out in public versus strictly at home is blurred and it’s possible that dresses often served “double duty,” especially for those of lesser means.


In the end, probably the easiest way to distinguish between dress types is to consider the dress silhouette, style, and use of fabrics and trims. Dresses meant to be worn in the privacy of the home are more likely to be functional and not as structured as dresses that were meant to be seen in social situations in the home. Finally, we wish to note that while we don’t profess to have the definitive answer, we do hope that we’ve provided some useful tools for trying to distinguish between dress types while acknowledging that there’s bound to be inconsistencies. Stay tuned for more!

The House Dress – 1878

In the course of our research, we found the term “house dress” to be somewhat confusing in that it is often used interchangeably with “morning dress.” Below, we will attempt to shed some more light on this use of terminology and what it means in practical terms. Enjoy! 🙂

In a previous post, we discussed the etiquette of what dress to wear on what occasion and in particular, the role of the “morning dress” or “house dress.” Specifically, in an article on dress etiquette from the January 1878 issue of Peterson’s Magazine (page 87), the terms “morning dress” and “house dress” are used somewhat interchangeably but they are both talking about the same dress: a relatively simple, unadorned dress that was worn at home and only seen by immediate members of the woman’s family; it was not meant to be worn out or to receive visitors. Later on into the 20th Century, the term “house dress” became applied more exclusively to a dress that one wore for cleaning chores and the like. Below are a few examples from various issues of Peterson’s for 1878:

HOuse Dress 1878_1

Dress With Cuirass Bodice

House Dress 1878_5

Polonaise Cut In Princess Shape

House Dress 1878_3

Princess Line Dress

Each of the above figures demonstrate styles that were characteristic of the Mid-Bustle Era and especially with the cuirass bodice and the princess line dress.  While both of these styles are well-suited for are fairly simple and while they appear to still be elaborate by today’s standards, by Victorian standards these are restrained.

In some instances, ensemble dresses were made that combine the features of the more simple house dress with a more formal dress by means of two interchangeable bodices. Below is an excellent example of this:

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Day Dress Ensemble With “Home” Bodice, c. 1878 – 1982; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.87a-c)

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Ensemble With More Formal Bodice

39.377a,c_back 0002

Rear View With “Home” Bodice

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Rear View With Formal Bodice

The “house bodice” (for want of a better term) is extremely simple and fairly shapeless as bodices go and fact, it basically looks like a loose coat. This is perfectly suited for working around the house but in terms of style, it is spare except for the paisley-like trim on the rear and sleeve cuffs. The formal bodice is more conventional with a closely shaped cut. Decoration in the form of ruching on the front and fringed gold-colored edging, and knife-pleating on each sleeve cuff.  The dress’ stone gray color is perfectly suited for this dress and it fits perfectly within the bounds of proper etiquette, as least as prescribed by Peterson’s.

Below is yet another example of the loose bodice and skirt combination from that could have easily been utilized as a “house” dress:


Day Dress, 1877; Manchester City Galleries (1934.493)


Right Side Profile (that pocket you see was NOT meant for a parasol but rather a handkerchief)


Left Side Profile


Rear View


Trim Detail

Now admittedly we could be reaching in our interpretation in terms of fabric detail but it is still relatively simple in design and style. But more importantly, even it it’s not spot on, it does goes a long way towards illustrating what Peterson’s had in mind when talking about the house dress.

The princess line which was another popular dress style during the late 1870s – early 1880s and below is just one example:

Czech Dress1

Day Dress, c. 1878; National Museum, Prague (H2-193316)

Czech Dress2

Side Profile

Czech Dress4

Three-Quarter Rear Profile

The princess line could be fancy or plain and anywhere in between. The relatively loose fit made it perfect for use as a “house” dress. In some ways, it could be argued that, aside from the tea dress, this was about as casual as Victorian women’s clothing could get. 🙂

The above are just a few illustrations of the house dress and its potential. We hope that you have enjoyed this small detour as we attempt to bring greater clarity to the world of Victorian fashion.