My personal favourite episode so far is episode 9, as we took a walk down Memory Catwalk, looking at Japanese fashion through the ages.
Japan is full of traditional culture — salarymen in business suits rub shoulders with groups of young women wearing gorgeous floral robes, and trendy hipsters who combine their modern tees and trousers with stilted sandals from centuries past. But Japanese fashion didn’t always look quite like this — the story of how these outfits morphed and developed over the years is the story of Japanese history itself.
Fashion reflects the times, and if you want the whole shabang of a walk down memory lane, give the episode a listen — this article is merely a summary of what we talked about!
Japan was heavily influenced by the Chinese in these early days in everything from food to language, so it’s only natural that the clothing was as well. Chinese fashion was the primary style of clothing in Japan. It was only in the Heian Era (794-1185) that there was a shift in not only the fashion but the overall culture of Nippon as a whole, when the identity of Japan became more distinct from China.
We all know what the most famous Japanese traditional clothing piece is: it’s definitely the kimono (着物), a long robe with short, wide sleeves. The short-sleeved style of kimono-like robe popular in those days were known as kosode (小袖). This servedasa base layer upon which the fancier garments would be layered. Commoners were also wearing kosode-style clothing, just without the fancy layers on top. Usually, the kimonos were made from plain material, but high-ranking people at the Imperial Court had theirs made in brocades and top-quality silk.
Even on casual occasions, women would wear at least two or three layers of kimono, with each layer’s hem and sleeves peeking out from underneath the others. Plenty of novels and poems from the Heian Period took the subtle swish of kimono-clad arms past bamboo screens to flirt with the boys as a romantic gesture.
Colour played quite a big role too, as it was an indicator of rank. Want to know how? Listen to episode 9 of the Nihongo Master podcast!
Edo Era (1603-1868)
When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power during this era, they brought peace and stability to Japan for about 250 years. It was pretty chill, until the Shogun passed some pretty restrictive clothing laws.
Only the nobles and military class were allowed to wear the most luxurious fabrics. Anything silk and satin, pattern and brocade, was limited to the high ranks. This law allowed people to strut their social status and power, because it would be several centuries until Louis Vuitton shoes and Gucci handbags allowed people to do that without the need for legal backing.
The traditional garment became an art form due to this, and that called for greater manufacturing capabilities and developments embroidery skills for new patterns. The wealth from the higher ups trickled down to the merchant class — and with it a nice helping of the arts, culture and fashion.
Back in the Heian Era, the yukata (浴衣) was worn by the nobles after a bath. It’s kind of similar to a kimono — only it’s usually made from cotton or linen, extremely lightweight and worn loosely. During the Edo period, when public baths became more common, even the commoners were using yukata, and you’ll still see them worn as a lighter summer kimono today.
As the commoner class became more fashionable, the noble class also took to wearing the haori (羽織), an outerwear piece worn over the kimono. This thigh-length flowing jacket was pioneered by the Geisha, but both genders could be seen wearing it after the craze caught on. Most of the time, it was worn to protect their kimono from getting wet or dirty when they were out and about.
If you’ve been to a Japanese festival, you would most definitely have seen the japanese people wear the happi (法被). What to know what it is? Listen to the episode now!
So, in short: the Edo Era marked an important time in the history of Japanese fashion — as things got a bit more comfortable for everyday people, they could start to enjoy some of the finer things in life.
Meiji Era (1868-1912)
We also looked at the Meiji Era, which is arguably the most significant time in Japanese fashion’s evolution. Before this time, Japan was sealed off from the Western world, but thanks to the Meiji Restoration this all changed.
After World War I, there was a huge rise in the middle class. With more people working, more businesses raking in profits, and more taxes to be collected, there was a whole lot of money going around. What’s more, their old wardrobes were hardly going to cut it when the Emperor had issued a mandate in 1871 for all officials to wear Western clothes during work and official events.
Men were quick to switch to suits and women started wearing Western-style clothing, too, after the empress herself started dressing in the latest Parisienne trends. Hair trends were adopted as well — when the Emperor himself cut off his topknot in 1872, his loyal followers couldn’t resist but to do the same. Western haircuts and facial grooming for the men as well as Victorian updo hairstyles for the women were huge.
Oh, schools changed their look too — the Meiji Era saw the birth of gakuran (学ラン, Western-style clothes for uniform), based on the Prussian Waffenrock, a kind of outerwear worn by German military. The women got the sera fuku (セ-ラ-服, sailor-style school uniform) came into the picture, inspired by the British Royal Navy uniform.
Do you think the people wore Western clothing at home as well during the Meiji Era, or did they change back into their traditional clothes after work? Listen to the episode to find out!
Taisho Era (1912-1926)
While the Meiji Era bombarded the Japanese with momentous modernizations day after day, and the Edo Era represented the old traditions, the Taisho Era struck a nice balance between the two.
Even though this era was short-lived, it made quite an impact. When the Emperor basically made everyone give up their comfy robes for woolen trousers, it was an analogy for some bigger societal changes which were happening at the time: the old ideological garb of medieval feudalism was being switched out for a shiny new Westernized liberalism.
Some of the Japanese people took that as a way out of wearing youfuku and sticking to their traditional garb of robes. The liberalization of fashion to them meant the freedom to go retro traditional. Others took it to mean the complete opposite.
It was also the time when even the lower middle class and working class were getting in on the Westernization trend. However, not everyone could afford them, so it was be merely adding a new piece of accessory in the outfit, like a short-brimmed hat for the men and a shawl wrapped around the neck for the women.
Chronologically trapped between Japan’s first major wave of modernization, and the more restrictive and totalitarian pre-war days, the Japanese people of the time took what they wanted from Western ideas and fused it with their own culture.
I guess we could say that the Taisho Era was like puberty for contemporary Japanese fashion — when it really started to figure out what it was going to be when it was all grown up.
Showa Era (1926-1989) to Present Day
Image Credit: tomoike_2525
The Showa era (1926-1989) pretty much set the fashion scene up as we know it today. With the American occupation came a wave of americanization. This was also the iconic period of time that various Japanese subcultures were formed — if you had listened to one of our previous episodes (episode 7), you’d know the teenage tearaways known as the Yankii started stomping around the streets of Japan during the Showa era.
Moving through the 70s and 80s, things started to get pretty weird, with the arrival of more subcultures like Lolita and Visual K. These were all about expressing yourself in the most visually ostentatious way possible.
Everyday fashion here remains quite sedate and modest, though — every man in a business suit, students, mothers, and school-kids on their day off tend to wear simple, loose-fitting pants and t-shirts. I bet Uniqlo got their whole aesthetics from that.
The rise in unique fashion movements and clean-cut contemporary styles weren’t the only things the Showa era had to offer. The good ol traditions stayed alive, and can still be seen today.
Kimonos went from traditionally handmade to mass production. We talked a bit about why traditional kimonos are priced so high in the episode, so check that out if you’re interested. We also talked about the process of handmade to mass production.
Here’s the full list from our various vocab recaps in the podcast episode:
Kimono (着物) — traditional Japanese clothing
Hakama (袴) — a skirt-like garment worn over kimono robes
Umanori (馬乗り) — a type of hakama with split legs
Yukata (浴衣) — a loose kimono worn after a bath, or in summer
Haori (羽織) — a loose jacket usually worn over the kimono
Geta (下駄) — traditional wooden raised sandals
Obi (帯) — a thick sash which ties around the waist of a kimono
Happi (法被) — an overcoat with a family crest emblazoned on it
Youfuku (洋服) — Western-style clothing
Gakuran (学ラン) — Western-style male school uniform
Seira fuku (セイラ服) — Sailor-style female school uniform
Chonmage (ちょんまげ) — topknot hairstyle popularly worn by men
Akusesari (アクセサリー) — accessory
Tokei (時計) — watch
Hōshoku (飽食) — jewelry. Or nowadays people commonly use the katakana version: juerī ジュエリー
Sebiro (背広) — business suit, also known casually as a suutsu
Kurubizu (クールビズ) — the summer business style
Hana (はな) — flower
ikebana (生け花) — traditional Japanese flower arrangement
We looked at how the Japanese fashion scene came to be the unique blend of tradition, westernization, and crazy experimentation which we know today, just in 500 years all in one podcast episode. If you want to hear more about each era’s fashion, head over to Spotify or Apple Podcast to give Episode 9 a listen!