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



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Demand and supply interact: fashion and the development of the textile industry

As we have seen, therefore, producers of textiles for the domestic market in Japan faced expanding and changing demand, in forms largely determined by the nature of fashion in Japanese-style clothing. Their responses involved the development of more widely available versions of the high-class kimono fabrics and accessories that had been urban fashion among the better-off, but this process was inter-twined with the influence of imported goods that opened up new possibilities in terms of colour, texture and design. What emerged was an industry made up of small-scale producers in regional concentrations, producing an ever widening range of products, differentiated by colour and design, by texture and feel, by seasonal use and social function, as much as by price. As Itoh and Tanimoto recognise, ‘quality’, essentially involving the design and appeal of the fabric, was the key to success for small-scale producing regions in the competitive market that the growth of demand generated from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards (Itoh and Tanimoto 1998: 58).


In broad terms, changes in demand were reflected in the fortunes of different fabrics in the domestic market. By the later decades of the nineteenth century, and before there were any significant exports of woven cloth, the domestic ‘cotton revolution’ had made cotton the dominant product, while silk remained something of a luxury. Thereafter, however, the share of silk steadily rose, reflecting growing domestic demand, as consumers’ incomes increased and producers took silk down-market in innovative, cheaper forms. By 1910, the shares of cotton and silk (including silk mixes) in consumer expenditure on clothing were roughly equivalent at a little over 40 per cent. By the 1930s, silk’s share had risen to almost 50 per cent, while cotton’s had fallen to little more than 25 percent, reflecting also the rising market share (from approximately 10 per cent in 1910 to over 20 per cent by the 1930s) of the woollen fabrics now used in everyday kimono as well as Western-style clothes (LTES 6: Table 78).
Underneath these broad trends, however, lay a continually shifting and diversifying pattern of production, as the fabric industry responded to the growth in its market, under the influence of fashion. With the opening to trade in the 1850s, imported textiles became part of the picture, but the cotton broad-cloth that foreign producers mainly had to sell was not in direct competition with home-produced textiles for kimono and accessories. Nonetheless, newly-available fabrics, such as wool and calico, dyed in bright colours and exciting patterns, suggested the directions in which textile producers had to go to meet the growing and widening demand for clothing materials. Increasingly, success in the domestic market depended on being able to offer populuxe textiles that combined the look and feel of the high-quality silk fashions of the Tokugawa cities with the colours, textures and design possibilities that imported inputs and new techniques opened up.
For ‘traditional’ cotton fabric producers, it thus became increasingly hard to rely on sales of the same basic stripes and kasuri. By the end of the nineteenth century, they were facing growing competition in the domestic clothing market, not from imported or factory-made textiles, but from an expanding range of kimono materials using new inputs, such as wool muslin or cotton flannel, but also lower-grade silk, on its own or in combination with cotton and later rayon. Such fabrics were not necessarily cheaper than standard cotton, but they were produced in more varied and colourful designs than the straightforward stripes and splash patterns and they could be made to look and feel much more like luxury silk (Uchida 1988: 167—8). As a result, ordinary striped and kasuri cotton was gradually relegated to the role of rural work-wear, eventually to be transformed into the ‘traditional’ craft textile that it represents today. Meanwhile, consumers sought to choose from a wide and changing range of Japanese-style fabrics, available in quantities, consistent quality and innovative design not known before.
The capacity to meet demand of this kind was determined by technical and organisational developments among the producers of Japanese-style clothing textiles. In cotton-weaving, the shift to machine-made cotton yarn, produced from imported raw cotton, proved decisive for many production districts. Factory-produced yarn was not only cheaper and more uniform, but also finer and more even, creating a clearer and smoother effect when dyed and making it possible to produce fabric of consistent quality in the colours and patterns that the growing market required (Tamura 2004: 9—12). In silk production, on the other hand, small-scale producers ‘came to life’ again in the 1910s (Matsumura 2006: 94), in response to growth in domestic demand for kimono fabrics that were highly differentiated but made from less high-quality silk yarn than was required for the export market. In both sectors, synthetic dyes created opportunities for colours way beyond those traditionally used in ordinary woven fabrics and inherited dyeing techniques were taken in innovative new directions.
The use of new inputs was combined with technological improvements that enabled weavers to produce larger quantities of cloth in more complex patterns from cheaper raw materials, while maintaining quality and consistency (Tamura 2004: 381—2). These included improved looms, such as the takabata loom, and the Jacquard mechanism that revolutionised the design and production of complex woven patterns in silk. The electric motor was central to the survival of small-scale producers in many industries but none more so than weaving. Mechanisation of the production of Japanese-style textiles spread rapidly after the turn of the century, with electrification and the development of power-looms that could produce cloth in kimono width (Minami 1987: ch 10).
Nonetheless, while the power-loom undoubtedly raised labour productivity, its attraction for small-scale weavers may also have lain in its ability to improve the quality of the product, in terms of the evenness and consistency of the weaving, and despite the greater use of powered machinery, techniques of production continued to require high levels of labour input and skill, especially given the differentiation and frequent design changes that a market driven by fashion increasingly demanded. Complex, labour- and skill-intensive techniques of dyeing and weaving that only small-scale producers could command remained the key to producing distinctive and differentiated colours and patterns in kimono fabric.8 Hence, the relative cost reduction that the power loom offered was restricted by the frequent stops and changes necessary to achieve complex and differentiated woven designs and the consequent limitations to scale economies, while the share of the weaving element in overall cost of production was anyway lower than with simpler plain or printed fabrics that did not depend on skilled and costly dyeing (Uchida 1988: 165).
The development of fashion in Japanese clothing thus continued to give advantages to small-scale producers, technologically and in terms of product differentiation. However, their incorporation into the fashion system did present new organisational challenges. A key factor in the capacity of sanchi textile producers to respond to the growth in clothing demand was the ability to manufacture fabric consistently in the identifiable colours and patterns that differentiation in kimono fashion involved.9 Itoh and Tanimoto (1988: 58—9) show how the dealers who sought to organise and market the production of small-scale contract weavers wrestled with the problem of ensuring that they produced to consistent and high-quality design standards. In their case-study region, local textile merchants adopted the putting-out system principally as a means of controlling what small-scale household weavers produced, supplying them with pre-dyed yarn and specifying colours and designs in the light of market trends.
The solution in many cases lay in defining the qualities to which a local ‘brand’ label could be attached and groups of small-scale weavers and dyers came together to create the institutions that could guarantee the brand identity and quality of their particular type of fabric.10 These institutions also provided small-scale producers with a link to the market information necessary if they were to keep up with changing demands. Eventually, the congregation of small-scale producers into sanchi industrial districts made provision of market information and co-ordination of response easier and facilitated the regulation of a location-specific brand identity and quality. Local producer associations liaised with, for example, department-store buyers, in order to develop the product lines that the fashion market required. Electrification and the use of larger-scale, powered machinery also encouraged the concentration of textile producers within industrial districts, but the nature of the market for Japanese-style textiles continued to preclude large-scale mass production and to enable small-scale producers, suitably organised within their local sanchi, to survive and develop.
By the 1920s, therefore, while new fabrics were appearing in the market all the time, most continued to come from small-scale producers located in particular areas or industrial districts, using their local brand names. As Abe (1989 : 39—41) shows, for sanchi cotton weavers, for instance, it was no longer possible, by the inter-war period, just to go on producing more-or-less traditional Japanese-style cloth in stripes and splash patterns, but this did not mean that small-scale producers necessarily declined and disappeared. Some switched to larger-scale production of basic white cotton for export or the domestic market; others moved into new products for home or export markets such as cotton flannel. But those who could respond, through product development and the adoption of new inputs and technology, to the diversifying fashion trends of the period, remained able to take advantage of the continuing growth in the market for Japanese-style clothing. This was even more the case for silk-fabric producers and the case-study which follows describes the greatest success-story among local, small-scale silk producers in the dynamic fashion market of inter-war Japan.

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