Case-study: the meisen kimono
The emergence of a fashion system for Japanese-style clothing came to its apotheosis in the 1920s with a flowering of fashion in the form of what became known as the meisen kimono. The style icons of the period, including the famed and feared ‘modern girls’ and café waitresses who symbolised modern liberation, wore meisen, but surveys suggested that, in the inter-war years, more than half of all women walking on the Ginza were wearing it and throughout the country girls desired the distinctive meisen look for their o-share outfits.11 As growth in per capita expenditure on other textiles tailed off in the second half of the 1920s, that on silk continued to grow, driven by rapidly expanding purchases of meisen, which accounted for almost half of all sales of narrow-width silk cloth by 1930 (Yamauchi 2009: Tables 2 & 3). Meisen silk came in vivid and striking designs – stuffy commentators complained that women were going out dressed in what looked like Western-style curtains (Nitta, Tanaka and Koyama 2003: 54) – embodying the Japanese take on modernity, but it was also relatively cheap and demonstrated many of the features of a mass-market fashion item. Nonetheless, it continued to be produced by small-scale weavers concentrated in a particular region, the name of which was used to brand the product.
This region, known as Isesaki, was located in Gumma Prefecture, one of the main centres of silk production in Japan.12 Weavers within farm households had been manufacturing silk textiles in the area since the Tokugawa period, using lower-grade silk to produce plain woven fabric that was nice to wear but relatively hard-wearing (Fujiwara 2006: 49; Terada 1979: 215--20). As it developed into a specialist weaving district through the second half of the nineteenth century, production came to be organised by clothiers who sub-contracted work to weavers and dyers in farm households or small-scale workshops and who sold the finished product on through locally-based factors and wholesalers. In the 1890s, experiments began in the region with spun silk, which was produced from waste cocoons unsuitable for reeling into export-grade yarn. By the 1910s, power-looms were being adopted and a new method of dyeing was developed that made possible the production of highly coloured and patterned, but relatively cheap, clothing fabric.
Traditionally, dyed pictorial designs on silk fabric could only be produced by means of the time-consuming and expensive method known as yūzen, which depends on painting and dyeing each kimono length individually by highly skilled hand. The Isesaki method involved adaptations to traditional resist-dyeing (ikat/kasuri) techniques that enabled the desired pattern to be created through stencilling colours on to the individual threads to be woven. The subsequent weaving of the threads, combined with the use of spun silk, results in the distinctive fuzzy effect that defines meisen, but the technique could be used to produce dramatic and colourful designs consistently, on the repeated basis necessary for, relatively speaking, mass production.
Once the potential of Isesaki meisen techniques was recognised, an explosion of new, rapidly changing and increasingly radical designs was unleashed. Meisen kimono (and haori) are particularly famed for their use of art deco and art nouveau motifs, but surviving examples show them in everything from cubist-influenced abstract designs to dramatic re-workings of traditional flower patterns and geometrical repeats (Dees, 2009: 78—101). As the popularity of this kind of kimono spread, new varieties were developed, involving both high- and low-quality silk, mixed with cotton or man-made fibres, and the meisen label could be attached to anything from cheap-and-cheerful mass-market silk kimono to the high-fashion outfit of the ‘modern girl’ (Fujiwara 2006: 49). Production spread out from the Isesaki region and producers of other kinds of fabric were obliged to respond, so that the period from the Kantō earthquake of 1923 until the late 1930s was dominated by boldly patterned styles, quite different from the subdued and subtle fashions of earlier times (Fujiwara 2006: 64—5).
However, meisen kimono were radical, not just in how they looked and how they were made, but also in the ways in which they were marketed and consumed as fashion goods. For the big-city department stores, the meisen kimono provided the vehicle by means of which to introduce the techniques of the fashion system to the marketing of Japanese-style clothing. Yamauchi (2009: 7—10) concludes that, by the end of the 1920s, almost all of the output of Isesaki meisen was going to the big cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya), where it was sold in the department stores that were by then accounting for around half of urban clothes sales (see Fig 2). New designs were produced every year and widely advertised in relevant media, such as women’s magazines; meisen made a striking display to attract customers into stores and meisen kimono were commonly offered at bargain prices in sales. Although, by modern Western standards, meisen silk is of high quality and durable – plenty of pre-war examples have survived to go on sale on the internet today – it was cheap and disposable in comparison with more traditional kimono silks (Nitta, Tanaka and Koyama 2003: 66—71).13 Hence, meisen kimono could be sold ready made-up, in the expectation that they would go out of fashion, rather than be taken apart, preserved and passed on as family heirlooms. Although by no means an everyday purchase for most women, the meisen kimono nonetheless brought the concept of the mass-market fashion item to a wide market of inter-war consumers.14
This depended, however, on the ability to produce meisen silk on the scale and in the rapidly changing designs that the fashion market demanded. With stencil-dyeing and power-looms, weavers could produce in relatively large quantities, but production remained in the hands of small factories and workshops. The Isesaki brand was regulated by a producers’ association, founded in the 1880s, which sought to maintain quality as numbers and production volumes increased (Matsuzaki 2006: 249—52). As demand for the product grew, meisen techniques were copied by weavers outside the Isesaki area, but the skills involved in transferring design to fabric ruled out large-scale mass production and left the market to be supplied by relatively small-scale producers able to acquire and practise the still labour-intensive methods involved. Nonetheless, local institutions ensured that producers were in touch with fashion trends and producers’ organisations such as the Isesaki union liaised with the Tokyo and Osaka department stores that commissioned designs for their annual collections (Nitta, Tanaka and Koyama 2003: 66—7).
The meisen kimono thus displayed most of the characteristics of a modern fashion good: consciously designed to be visually striking but expected to date; advertised heavily in fast-changing designs; bought to be seen and enjoyed, rather than to last. Yet it continued to be produced by small-scale, regionally based businesses, capable of mechanised production on a relatively large scale, using factory-made inputs such as synthetic dyes and eventually yarns, but employing labour- and skill-intensive techniques derived from traditional textile-production methods. It reflected the growth in demand for up-to-date and distinctively new versions of the silk clothes the upper classes alone had once worn, as incomes rose and more and more young women, with wages of their own, found themselves in a position to buy and display clothes in the public spaces that modernising urban Japan offered. It cut out a path that might have led to the mass-market kimono, had war and Occupation not intervened to bring about a fundamental shift in the attitudes of Japanese people towards their clothing system, and it demonstrated that, even in the modernising, industrialising world of inter-war Japan, ‘traditional’ clothing could become the subject of modern fashion.
The story of the growth of clothing demand and fashion in pre-war Japan, culminating in the phenomenon of the meisen kimono, undermines both the assumption that fashion does not operate in ‘traditional’ clothing systems and the argument that it has to be associated with the large-scale mass production of modern Western-style capitalism. As economic growth and industrialisation proceeded in Japan, clothing consumers, like their European counterparts, switched to commercially produced items in growing numbers, at first in an expanding range of attractive and convenient cotton fabrics and later in ‘modern’ versions of once-luxury silk. However, the nature of Japanese-style clothing and the fashions that emerged within it meant that, although these materials were manufactured and marketed in ways that reflected the increasing absorption of new techniques and inputs, they continued to be produced in relatively small-scale establishments, concentrated in regional industrial districts. It was here that it was possible to develop and manage the skills required to create the kinds of fabric the market demanded, even if in new and fashionable designs.
It could of course be argued that the path followed by Japanese-style clothing and its production in the pre-war period represented a dead-end, cut off by the almost complete switch to Western style after World War II, which froze the kimono in a particular ‘traditional’ form suited only to the most formal of occasions (Dalby 2001: 125—36). However, the producers that it had fostered and allowed to develop did not disappear with their pre-war product. Many were able to switch into production of fabric for Western-style garments, utilising the skills they had developed pre-war. Itoh and Tanimoto (1998: 63—6) provide examples of the survival and development of putting-out systems in textile production in the post-World War II period, with small-scale weavers in regions formerly specialising in silk and cotton, entering into sub-contracting relationships with the large-scale suppliers of man-made fibres and wool yarn for the flexible production of a wide range of differentiated textile products. Ronald Dore, studying the weaving industry in the 1970s, found it still the domain of small-scale, family-based producers, congregating in industrial districts (Dore 1986: 153—78). Although most were by then producing Western-style cloth, their attention to detail, quality and differentiation reflected a market formed in the context of pre-war clothing and its fashions. Japanese people continued to spend a higher proportion of their income on clothing and to exhibit a higher turnover in clothes than their Western counterparts, while the ability of the domestic textile industry, still dominated, in crucial sectors, by small-scale, flexible businesses, to meet their exacting and changing demands was reflected in continued low levels of imports of textiles and clothing (Dore 1986: 193 & Table 7.4). In the absence of a tradition of ready-made clothes production, home-sewing of purchased fabric, aided now by the sewing machine, remained the route to accessible women’s fashion, even if now in Western style, well into the post-war period (Gordon: this volume).
It is now coming to be accepted that, rather than simply ‘catching up’ with the West, Japan followed its own distinctive path of industrialisation, involving a continued role for small-scale, labour- and skill-intensive forms of production, market-oriented but organised within institutional structures rather different from those that characterised capital-intensive industrialisation of the Anglo-American variety (Sugihara 2003, Saitō 2008). If this is so, the story of pre-war clothing demonstrates both the part played by the ‘modernisation’ of ‘indigenous’, ‘traditional’ goods, such as the kimono, and the need to recognise the influence of the consumers of these goods in determining, through a process of fashion creation, the direction of technical and economic change in their production. The pre-war consumer in her art deco meisen kimono, bought from a department store for its striking design and fashionable appearance, stepping out in her city, cannot be ignored, if we are to understand how history formed the industrial economy of modern Japan.
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