Kimono fashion: the consumer and the growth of the textile industry in pre-war Japan

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Fashion and Japanese clothing

The silk and cotton fabrics that dominated the domestic textile market throughout the pre-World War II period were designed to be made up into garments and accessories the basic forms of which had become more-or-less fixed early on in the Tokugawa period. These include the full-length robes generically now known as kimono, together with the short unfitted jacket (haori) worn over kimono, and a huge range of accessories, from the obi sash that holds a kimono outfit together, through under-kimono, collars, ties and purses, to split-toed socks and sandals. Increasing contact with the West from the mid-nineteenth century brought with it knowledge of Western-style clothing, and a significant number, though by no means all, men gradually adopted suits or uniforms for public activities, including white-collar work, though many continued to dress in Japanese style on more relaxed occasions. By the inter-war period, ‘advanced’ young women and urban sophisticates, together with those obliged to adopt ‘modern’ uniforms, were wearing Western-style outfits at least some of the time, while children were increasingly dressed in what were regarded as cheap and efficient Western forms. Nonetheless, the vast majority of women – rich or poor –continued to dress in Japanese fashion, so that, into the inter-war years, observers in even high-fashion spots such as the Ginza in Tokyo found almost all to be wearing kimono.2

The kimono is an unfitted garment, usually sold as a fixed length of cloth, to be cut and sewn at home or by a seamstress, and periodically taken apart for cleaning or alteration.3 Historically, the kimono market divided into, on the one hand, an haute couture sector centring on individually dyed lengths produced to order on the basis of pattern books and, on the other, an off-the-shelf sector involving lengths of dyed and woven silk or cotton in stripes and other all-over patterns (Kiyoshi 2006: 68). Both forms were sold in the draperies from which Japan’s department stores were eventually to emerge, but also far and wide by travelling sales-people, and there has always been an active second-hand market. At the same time, until the late nineteenth century, many poorer households spun and/or wove their own clothing materials in hemp or cotton, according to traditional local designs.
The general assumption among experts in Western clothing systems has been that the decisive move in the emergence of fashion was the shift, beginning in medieval European cities, away from draped robes towards fitted and ultimately cut and tailored garments (Wilson 2007: 16). Although it is possible to discern changes in, for example, the cut of kimono sleeves, this has not generally been the case with Japanese-style clothing, encouraging the belief that it has remained unchangingly ‘traditional’ and unsusceptible to fashion. In other respects too the kimono might seem a far from ideal vehicle for the kind of rapid turnover in clothing implied by the fashion system. Although there clearly were fashion trends operating in both male and female clothing during the Tokugawa period, the garments involved, especially when made of silk, were expensively hand-crafted and available only to the better-off. In general, kimono fabrics are produced in such a way as to be long-lasting and hard-wearing, but relatively expensive. Being unfitted or easily adjusted, they can be handed on from person to person, patched and repaired, and, if carefully stored and maintained, can last for generations. In some respects, they resemble investment goods or stores of value, acquired through inheritance or dowry and easily pawned or cashed in through the second-hand market if necessary.4
Nonetheless, as the growth in expenditure on clothing through the pre-war period indicates, these features of Japanese dress did not stand in the way of consumers’ using their rising incomes to purchase more clothes, more often and more cheaply, and it is clearly possible to discern at work a number of the same forces as defined the operation of fashion in Europe, even if the persistence of the kimono dictated the form that fashion would take. As is now becoming increasingly clear, the adoption of cotton world-wide was driven as much by its fashion possibilities as by its cheapness and convenience, compared with linen and other alternatives (Styles 2009). Inspired to compete with imported Indian fabrics, European producers developed clothing materials that were lighter and more easily washable, but also susceptible to manufacture in a wide range of more rapidly changing colours and designs. In Japan, high-quality cotton in elegant stripes had become fashion-wear among samurai and urban merchants by the early decades of the nineteenth century, competing with less expensive forms of silk for casual occasions (Tamura 2004: 302—7). Thereafter, Japan experienced its own ‘cotton revolution’, as clothing consumers, first in cities and towns but gradually also in the countryside, abandoned home-made cloth for the products of those weaving Japanese-style fabrics commercially for the domestic market.
This process is usually interpreted as driven by supply-side forces, such as the growing availability of paid work for women who would otherwise have spun and woven home-made clothes, but it is also the case that commercial producers, often making use of the labour of those very women, could offer a much wider range of colours and designs in fabrics that were of a more consistent quality and easier to care for and wear. Through the nineteenth century and beyond, such cotton fabrics typically appeared in the standard formats of woven stripes or kasuri (ikat/resist dyed) patterns – originally influenced, it is now argued, by Indian fabrics imported during the Tokugawa period (Fujita 2009) – but in a growing range of regionally branded colours and designs. A new kimono-length in such a fabric was not particularly cheap: Uchida presents data that suggest it would have cost the equivalent of about a month’s wages (at day-wage rates) for a female spinner or weaver in the late Tokugawa period (Uchida 1988: 162—3). As elsewhere, therefore, the expanding market for cotton fabrics has to be explained, at least in part, by their role in the spread, if not of high fashion, at least of an appreciation of the possibilities of variation in colour and pattern in relatively everyday clothing.5
Nonetheless, in the Japanese context, the emergence of cotton as a fashion good could not undermine the historical cachet of silk as a kimono fabric. It did however mean that, if silk producers were to tap into the growth of the domestic clothing market, they had no choice but to seek to compete with cotton in the fashion stakes. They too, therefore, set about developing and designing cheaper but also more wearable and exciting fabrics intended to appeal to the expanding market of clothing consumers pursuing kimono fashion. Meanwhile, wool muslin, increasingly produced as a kimono fabric after the opening of the ports, also competed with silk for its feel and wearability and for the clear and bright colours in which it could be dyed or printed (Rosovsky and Nakagawa 1963: 64—5). Given the historically conditioned form of Japanese-style clothes, the focus would remain on the fabric, but success in the expanding clothing market depended on producing material that was distinctive in colour and design, wearable and not too expensive, but with the visual and sensual qualities that had defined luxury silk.
If being in fashion meant acquiring a whole new kimono length in an up-to-date fabric, then it would demand a relatively significant outlay, though one that more and more clothing consumers were clearly able to make, as prices fell. However, at the same time, the flexibility and adaptability of Japanese-style clothing made it in many ways ideal territory for the operation of ‘populuxe’ copying of elite fashions by means of alterations and accessories that also increased the demand for appropriate textiles in the domestic market. The periodic dismantling and cleaning of kimono provided an opportunity for a range of revamping – by the owner herself or a professional – with more up-to-date trimmings and decorations. The obi emerged as the most fashion-dependent element in women’s clothes, offering wide scope for changing patterns and materials at less than the cost of a whole kimono (Tamura 2001: 34). By the inter-war years, the detachable kimono collar (han-eri) had become a fashion battleground, available in a shifting range of colours, and forms of decoration (Nakamura 2005: 76).6 Accessories also provided a vehicle for the introduction of new materials and Western-style elements into kimono fashion, and from the opening of the ports onwards, shawls and bags, as well as collars and linings in soft and brightly-coloured, newly-introduced wool, were increasingly being utilised to add a ‘modern’ element to a kimono look.
At the same time, the long-term value of a kimono length, together with the fact that it could be made to fit anyone, provided the conditions for a large-scale second-hand market in Japanese-style clothing that operated as a means to transmit fashion geographically and through the income range. As Lemire (1991: 61—4) shows in the British case, the existence of a second-hand market lessens the risks involved in buying an expensive, fashionable item and acts to diffuse fashion to the less well-off. Tamura demonstrates the spread of clothing fashion into the provinces in the mid-nineteenth century through analysis of items pawned (and also stolen) which typically included both relatively expensive formal silk goods and also fashionable cotton stripes and kasuri (Tamura 2004: 311—16). In Tokyo, dealers in second-hand clothes, specialising and carefully differentiating what they had to sell by type and region of origin, collected in the Kanda area and specialist shippers bought up large orders of items for transport, from nearby Ueno and Akihabara stations, to dealers in the North-East (Asaoka 2003: 161—80). There and elsewhere, networks of second-hand clothes shops and itinerant sellers expanded the market for male and female clothing and accessories, in the growing range of colours, designs and types that city fashions first demanded.
Furthermore, the ways in which kimono were worn meant that, despite their cost and durability, a consumer would ideally want to own and display several. Japanese-style clothes are clearly differentiated, in terms of colour/pattern and type of material, according to season, age and status of wearer, and degree of formality. Although there were shifts and relaxations over time within this structure, it remained the case that those who desired and could afford to be properly kitted out needed fashionable garments appropriate to each season, for each degree of formality.7 In particular, the distinction between everyday clothes and those that could be worn as ‘best’ remained strong. Moreover, ‘best’ was meant for display and the custom of dressing up and going out to see and be seen (o-share) in a relatively elaborate and fashionable outfit can still be observed on Japanese streets. As soon as they could afford to do so, therefore, Japanese girls and women sought to acquire kimono, or at least accessories, which they could enjoy displaying on high days and holidays (Fig. 1). By the inter-war period, the practice of o-share had spread well beyond the upper classes, as incomes had risen and new urban environments offered more opportunities for display (Fujiwara 2006: 38—40).
Hence, although ‘traditional’ Japanese dress never moved, as its Chinese counterpart did, from the draped to the fitted and tailored, this did not prove a barrier to the development of many of the same forces of fashion as can be observed driving the growth in demand for clothes in Europe. Commercially produced cotton fabrics offered a range of new, cheaper and more convenient possibilities for increasing numbers of clothing consumers; as their spending power grew, more and more women were able to acquire versions of urban high fashion, even if only in the form of accessories, and eventually to aspire to something in silk; the second-hand trade spread fashion more widely and reduced the cost of being up-to-date. While modernising Chinese women shifted from flowing robes to gradually more-and-more close-fitting and fashionably-cut qipao, just as European ones had earlier developed the fitted dress, Japanese ones focused on new colours, textures and designs in cheaper and more convenient forms of cotton, silk and even wool fabric that could be incorporated within the basic structure of a kimono outfit. The implications of this path in kimono fashion for producers within the textile industry are the subject of the next section.

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