Japanese Fashion

Westernized Samurai 1866

The appearance of Western clothing and fashion during the Meiji era (1868-1912) represents one of the most remarkable transformations in Japanese history. Since the United States' 1854 treaty allowing commerce, negotiated by Commodore Matthew Perry, the Japanese have enthusiastically and effectively borrowed and adapted styles and practices from Western countries. Until then, Japan had isolated itself economically, politically, and culturally from the West as well as neighboring countries for two hundred years. The new Meiji era heralded hope for the future, and government officials felt change necessary for the system to quickly convert Japan into a modern state. Emperor Meiji instituted a parliamentary form of government and introduced modern Western educational and technological practices. The Japanese were then exposed widely to Western influences, and its impact on people's lives has been impressive.

Western Fashion Meets Japanese Attire

This new modern phenomenon encouraged and expedited the spread of Western clothing among ordinary people, and it became a desirable symbol of modernization. It was first adopted for men's military uniforms, with French- and British-style uniforms designed for the army and navy, as this style was what Westerners wore when they first arrived in Japan. Similarly, starting in 1870, government workers, such as policemen, railroad workers, and postal carriers, were required to wear Western male suits. Even in the court of the emperor, the mandate to dress in Western clothing was passed for men in 1872 and for women in 1886. The emperor and empress, as public role models, took the lead and also adopted Western clothing and hairstyles when attending official events, and Japanese socialites were also participating in lavish balls in Western-style evening gowns and tuxedos.

By the 1880s, both men and women had more or less adopted Western fashions. By 1890, men were wearing Western suits although it was still not the norm, and Western-style attire for women was still limited to the high nobility and wives of diplomats. Kimonos continued to dominate in the early Meiji period, and men and women combined Japanese kimonos with Western accessories. For instance, for formal occasions, men wore Western-style hats with haori, a traditional waistcoat, hakama, an outer garment worn over the kimono that is either split like pants between the legs or nonsplit like a skirt.

Conversely, there was also a trend for Japanese goods in the West. The opening of Japan's doors to the West enabled the West to significantly come into contact with Japanese culture for the first time. New trade agreements beginning in the 1850s resulted in an unprecedented flow of travelers and goods between the two cultures. By the end of the nineteenth century, Japan was everywhere, such as in fashion, interior design, and art, and this trend was called Japonisme, a term coined by Philip Burty, a French art critic. Western appreciation for Japanese art and objects quickly intensified, and World Fairs played a major role in the spread of the taste for Japanese things. In an age before the media, these fairs were influential forums for the cultural exchange of ideas: London in 1862, Philadelphia in 1876, and Paris in 1867, 1878, and 1889.

Fashion After World War II

During the Taisho period (1912-1926), wearing Western clothing continued to be a symbol of sophistication and an expression of modernity. It was in this period that working women such as bus conductors, nurses, and typists started wearing Western clothes in everyday life. By the beginning of the Showa period (1926-1989), men's clothing had become largely Western, and by this time, the business suit was gradually becoming standard apparel for company employees. It took about a century for western clothing to completely infiltrate Japanese culture and for people to adopt it, although women were slower to change.

Woman in 1955 Japan
Japanese woman, 1955

After World War II, the strong influence from the United States caused Japanese ways of dressing to undergo a major transition, and people began to more readily follow the trends from the West. Japanese women were starting to replace the loose-fitting trousers called monpe, required wear for war-related work, with Western-style skirts. By the early 2000s, the kimono had virtually disappeared from everyday life in Japan. Kimonos were worn only by some elderly women, waitresses in certain traditional Japanese restaurants, and those who teach traditional Japanese arts, such as Japanese dance, the tea ceremony, or flower arrangement. Furthermore, special events at which women wear kimonos included hatsumode (the new year's visit to shrines or temples), seijinshiki (ceremonies celebrating young people's reaching the age of twenty), university graduation ceremonies, weddings, and other important celebrations and formal parties.

Fashion information from Europe, such as Christian Dior's New Look, was disseminated by way of the United States. The new trends and fashion were generated primarily from the American and European movies shown to the Japanese public. For instance, when the English film The Red Shoes was first screened in Japan in 1950, red shoes became fashionable among young people. Similarly, when the film Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn, was shown in 1954, young Japanese women became fond of tight-fitted Sabrina pants, and flat low-heel Sabrina sandals became trendy. After the mid-1960s, Japanese men adopted the new "Ivy Style," which paid homage to the fashions of American Ivy League university students. This style supposedly came from the traditional fashions of America's elite class and spread from young students to middle-aged Japanese men.

Economic Trends Leading Fashion

As Japan's economy prospered in the 1980s, the Japanese fashion and apparel industries expanded rapidly and became very profitable as consumers were becoming fashion-conscious. A new fashion movement called the "DC Burando" was focused on brands of clothing with insignia or with clearly identified styling of specific fashion designers. Famous brands, such as Isao Kaneko, Bigi by Takeo Kikuchi, and Nicole by Hiromitsu Matsuda, among many others, had cult-like followings. Some of the women's fashion trends diffused during this decade were bodikon (body-conscious) style, emphasizing the natural lines of the body, and shibukaji (Shibuya casual), originating among high school and college students who frequented the boutiques of Tokyo's Shibuya Ward shopping streets.

While Japanese create their own unique trends, they are at the same time voracious followers of Western fashion. They are eager to dress themselves in the latest designs from such names as Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Gucci. Even in the traditional corporate world, many companies implemented the trend "Casual Friday" that originated in the United States, allowing workers to wear casual clothing on Fridays.

"The widespread popularity of the 'Japanese fashion' in the 1980s was a decisive factor in placing Tokyo on the list of international fashion capitals. A number of Japanese designers … established the Tokyo Designers' Council in the early 1980s to handle the inflow of foreign editors covering the local collections."

Japanese Fashion Designers

Lise Skov, in "Fashion Trends, Japonisme and Postmodernism."

Table 1: Japanese Designers' Year of First Collection in Paris
Japanese Designers First Collection in Paris
*Hiroko Koshino, Kansai Yamamoto, and Mitsuhiro Matusda are no longer showing their collections in Paris but continue to design in Japan.
**Takizawa started designing for Issey Miyake's menswear in 1994 and, after Miyake withdrew from his women's wear in 1999, Takizawa took over the collection.
Kenzo 1970
Issey Miyake 1973
Kansai Yamamoto* 1974
Yuki Torii 1975
Hanae Mori 1977
Junko Koshino 1977
Yohji Yamamoto 1981
Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo 1981
Junko Shimada 1981
Hiroko Koshino* 1982
Zucca by Akira Onozuka 1988
Mitsuhiro Matsuda* 1990
Trace Koji Tatsuno 1990
Atsuro Tayama 1990
Yoshiki Hishinuma 1992
Masaki Matsushita 1992
Junya Watanabe 1993
Shinichiro Arakawa 1993
Naoki Takizawa** 1994
Koji Nihonmatsu 1995
Miki Mialy 1996
Junji Tsuchiya 1996
Yoichi Nagasawa 1997
Keita Maruyama 1997
Oh!Ya? By Hiroaki Ohya 1997
Gomme by Hiroshige Maki 1997
Hiromichi Nakano 1998
Yuji Yamada 1999
Undercover by Jun Takahashi 2002

Japanese Youth Fashion

Kawaii fashion
Contemporary Kawaii Fashion in Tokyo

In Japanese society of the early twenty-first century, the uncontested arbiters of fashion, street fashion in particular, were high school and junior high school students. Among them, loose, baggy white knee socks deliberately pushed down to the ankles like leg warmers were all the rage. Fashion-conscious girls have took the lead in setting fashion trends. Young Japanese embraced Western fashion in a unique Japanese way. While Japan produced its own distinctive fashion, it drew on a mix of the latest trends from the United States and Europe. They became the new breed of young Japanese who were not afraid to break and challenge the traditional values and norms.

In the early twenty-first century, it became common on the streets of Tokyo to see groups of young girls with long, dyed-brown hair, tanned skin, and miniskirts or short pants that flare out at the bottom. Their natural black hair was often replaced with hues of bleached-blond and red. It became fashionable to have a light suntan with heavy makeup. Many of them wore thick-soled mules in the summer and white boots with towering platform soles in winter. As in the West, tattoos were also part of the latest fashion. Previously, tattoos held a connection to the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, who adorned themselves with elaborate tattoos as a badge of membership.

As Japan faced the worst economic recession in history, the younger generation's value system had become changed-the result of a deliberate move away from traditional ideology and ways of life. The previous generation's Japanese values, such as selfless devotion to their employers, respect for seniors, and perseverance, were breaking down. The decline of traditional way of thinking had accelerated in the teenage generation. Attending cram schools after their regular school hours was no longer the norm. The Japanese shifted from deeply disciplined, industrial attitudes to much freer consumerist ways. The doctrine of long study hours and single-minded focus on exams and careers that helped build Japan were disappearing and evaporating. The Japanese youth post-World War II became more hedonistic and wanted to have fun and live moment to moment, and their attitude was reflected in their norm-breaking fashion and styles.

Designers and Their Influence

As Japanese began to consume Western fashion, Japanese designers were becoming prominent in the West, especially in Paris. They are said to have created the Japanese fashion phenomenon and influenced many Western designers. Kenzo in 1970, Issey Miyake in 1973, Hanae Mori in 1977, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto in 1981, first appeared in the Western fashion world and have since solidified their positions. Fashion professionals recognize and accept their achievements because of their "Japaneseness" reflected on their designs, and many called it "the Japanese fashion" only because these clothes were definitely not Western in regard to constructions, silhouettes, shapes, prints, and combination of fabrics. The Japanese public is reminded of its racial and ethnic heritage every fashion season with the references to Japanese cultural products and artifacts. Fashion journalists and critics in the West used everyday Japanese vocabulary familiar to Westerners to describe their designs. The source of their design inspiration undoubtedly came from symbols of Japanese culture, such as Kabuki, Mount Fuji, the geisha, and cherry blossoms, but their uniqueness lies in the ways they deconstructed existing rules of clothing and reconstructed their own interpretation of what fashion is and what fashion can be. These Japanese first proved to Paris, and then to the world, that they were masters of fashion design, prompting Western societies to reassess the concept of clothing and fashion and also the universalism of beauty. They shocked fashion professionals in the West by showing something none of them had seen before.

The Japanese designers were the key players in the redefinition of clothing and fashion, and some even destroyed the Western definition of the clothing system. Rather than being isolated as deviant and left outside the French fashion establishment, they were labeled as creative and innovative and were given the status and privilege that, until then, only Western designers have acquired. These Japanese managed to stay within the territory that is under the authorization of the system and the fashion gatekeepers.

After the first generation Japanese designers, other Japanese were flocking to Paris one after another. The second, the third, and the fourth generations were emerging in Paris. There were formal and informal connections among almost all the Japanese designers in Paris, some through school networks and others through professional networks. They can be traced back directly or indirectly to Kenzo, Miyake, Yamamoto, Kawakubo, and Mori as they have learned the mechanism of the fashion system in France.

"When I first began working in Japan, I had to confront the Japanese people's excessive worship of things foreign and fixed idea of what clothes ought to be. I began … to change the rigid formula for clothing that the Japanese followed."

Issey Miyake, quoted in Issey Miyake: Bodyworks.

These Japanese acquired the means to enter the French fashion system and at the same time used their ethnic affinity as a strategy. They achieved insider status in the realms where artistic power is concentrated and where gatekeepers, such as editors and critics, participate. The line between inside and outside the system is an issue about status and legitimacy, and the inside bound-aries provide privilege and status whose boundaries in the world of fashion can be expanded and manipulated through style experiments and innovation. Fashion professionals accept and welcome designers who push and test the boundaries, signs of creativity. Once the designers are acknowledged as insiders, although recognition is never permanent, they slowly gain worldwide attention. Fashion design is an occupation where prestige necessarily antedates financial success. Prestige, image, and name bring financial resources. Until designers reach that stage, they struggle to achieve it; once it is achieved, they struggle to maintain it.

Due to the structural weaknesses of the fashion system in Japan, Japanese designers have continued to mobilize in Paris, permanently or temporarily, to take part during the Paris Collection. Though Kenzo's appearance in Paris in 1970 through Yamamoto's and Kawakubo's in 1981 had some impact, in the early 2000s Tokyo still fell far behind Paris in the production of "fashion"-that is, setting the fashion trends, creating designers' reputation, and spreading their names worldwide. Tokyo as a fashion city lacked the kind of structural strength and effectiveness that the French system had. Thus, lack of institutionalization and of the centralized fashion establishment in Japan forced designers to come to Paris, the battlefield for designers, where only the most ambitious can compete and survive.

Acceptance of the new Japanese styles led to the success of a group of Belgian designers, who also utilized the French fashion system to their advantage. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, a group of radical Belgian designers trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp followed the path that the Japanese had taken: Dirk Bikkembergs in 1986, Martin Margiela in 1988, Dries Van Noten in 1991, and Ann Demeulemeester in 1992, among others. By tracing the success of new designers, such as the Japanese and the Belgians, in Paris, one can see whether they are promoting and reinforcing the existence of the French fashion authority and the system, or are impeding the stability of the system and proposing the emergence of a new institutional system.

Influence in Western Fashion

Exhibitions such as Orientalism at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1994, Japonisme et Mode at the Palais Galliéra costume museum in 1996, Touches d'Exotisme at the Art Museum of Fashion and Textile in Paris in 1998, and Japonisme at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1998, show that Western designers have long been inspired by the Eastern textiles, designs, construction, and utility, including Japanese kimonos. For instance, Jeanne Lanvin's dress with its bolero jacket in the 1930s simulated kimono sleeves. Similarly, in the beginning of the twentieth century, as boning and corsetry were reduced to a minimum, a loose fitting kimono sleeve of Paul Poiret came in, and the high-neck collar was abandoned for an open V-neck resembling a kimono. Chrysanthemum prints or the exotic fabrics were used by many couturiers, such as Charles Worth and Coco Chanel. Those fascinated by the kimono's geometry, such as Madeleine Vionnet, cut dresses in flat panels and decorated only with wave-seaming, a Japanese hand-stitching technique. The East remained a fashion influence through World War I. Western designers incorporated Japanese elements into Western clothing with Western interpretation while remaining within the normative definitions of clothing and fashion.

See also Japanese Traditional Dress and Adornment; Kimono; Issey Miyake; Hanae Mori; Yohji Yamamoto.


Dalby, Liza. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Kawamura Yuniya. The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2004.

Kenzo. Tokyo: Bunka Publishing, 1995.

Mendes, Valerie, and Amy de la Haye. 20th Century Fashion. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Modem. Collections femme printemps-Été, 1999 (Women's Spring-Summer Collection, 1999), 1998.

--. Collections femme autumne-hiver 1999-2000 (Women's Fall-Winter Collection, 1999-2000), 1999.

Mori Hanae. Hanae Mori Style. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

Skov, Lise. "Fashion Trends, Japonisme and Postmodernism." Theory, Culture and Society 13, no. 3 (August 1996): 129-151.

Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.

Sudjic, Deyan. Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons. New York: Rizzoli International, 1990.

Tsurumoto Shozo, ed. Issey Miyake: Bodyworks. Tokyo: Shogakkan Publishing Co., 1983.

Wichmann, Siegfried. Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Art since 1858. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1981.

Japanese Fashion