Fashion at the Dawn of Japanese Modernity

Samurai in 19th century Japan.

While the word ‘modern’ in fashion is often taken to mean ‘contemporary,’ it is valuable to turn to historians of modernity itself if we want to deeply understand the clothes of our day. In Japan, modernity is often linked to the late 19th century, and the great cultural upheavals brought about by the Meiji Restoration. Here, in what is just a small part of our ongoing research into the history of Japanese fashion, we pause to define some terms that will orient future study and to consider some of the contextual elements at stake in the origins of modern Japanese fashion.

Meiji Restoration

Modernity is a broad term. It is often deployed to capture both the vast social reordering brought about by industrial modernization and the crises of cultural understanding entailed in that shift. It is a slippery term too. Often, notions of modernism, modernity, and modernization grow tangled and overlapping. One might argue, for instance, that French modernity begins with the revolution, while French modernism begins with Baudelaire and the symbolists, nearly half a century later. In Japan, the great economic transformations of modernization took time to resolve into reflections of modernity—artifacts that signified the complex of feelings and concepts at stake in a crisis of cultural identity in transformation.  

Samurai at the edge of Japanese modernity.

With the decline of the Tokugawa shogunate signaling the end of the Edo period in Japan, a new economic order was rising. The Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, was a dramatic economic reordering of Japan that held long-term implications for the country’s culture, industry, and environment. For fashion, it opened up the traditional aesthetics of Japanese cultural hierarchy to an infusion of new luxury goods and European ideas about beauty and clothing.

Samurai sitting.

Conspicuous Consumption and Absence of a Japanese Leisure Class

As Toby Slade puts it in his history of Japanese fashion, the so-called leisure classes of modernity are “mainly reconstituted aristocracies.” In Europe, the prelude to couture was conspicuous consumption, the birth of a new consumer subjectivity that defined social status in terms of luxury purchasing. In Japan, however, at the outset of the Meiji Restoration, luxury fashion was largely an import. It was difficult to integrate new consumer goods into the traditional status hierarchies that defined codes of dress amongst Japan’s elite. In Europe, by contrast, centuries of aristocratic patronage had created the conditions for a natural transition to luxury capitalism. 

Aesthetic values changed dramatically during the Meiji Restoration.

Slade takes the example of the samurai to begin distinguishing aesthetic modernity in Japan from its counterparts in the West. The samurai, he writes, “could have been restyled into a leisure class that consumed without producing.” Indeed, dress was always fundamental to the samurai way of life. Swords, armor, and the iconic samurai topknot hairstyle were all integral components of the way these warriors understood themselves and their dedication to the nation. But the samurai of early 19th century Japan did not become the aesthetes of the 20th. Instead, the same processes of economic transformation that brought modern fashion to Japan extinguished the traditional style of the samurai. The story of the samurai reveals the unique transformations in Japanese aesthetics at stake in the ascent of modernity. 

Japanese swordsmithing

Swordsmithing and the Haitōrei Edict

On March 28, 1876, the new Meiji government of Japan issued the Haitōrei Edict, also known as the Sword Abolishment Edict. Following a period of civil war, the emperor decreed that for the sake of public safety, people would be banned from wearing weapons in public. In the same period, universal military conscription was instituted, setting the stage for the decline of the samurai’s martial status. Samurai also lost the hereditary stipends that had been provided by their daimyōs. Perhaps most visibly, though, they were encouraged to cut off the traditional topknots that had always, along with the sword, been one of their most significant identifying markers. 

19th century Japanese culture.

Swordsmithing was an ancient tradition in Japan that drew together art, technology, and expert craftsmanship. It symbolized the authority of the samurai class, their spiritual connection to the nation. It was perhaps, above all, a pre-modern fashion—the samurai made himself known by the way he looked, by the weapon at his side. And it was not only himself, but the nation he had pledged to sacrifice his life for that he incarnated when he stepped into public bearing his sword. Without it, he might only slip away into the crowd.

The culture of 19th century Japan.

Without their swords, the samurai had been stripped of one of their most significant aesthetic identifiers, the visual symbol of their political power. Times were changing, and the new economic order, inspired, in part, by the new joint-stock corporations of 19th-century incipient European capitalism, had no place for the rigid status hierarchies of old. The decline of the samurai is a window into this moment of rapidly changing aesthetic and political imagination in Japanese history. 

 Japanese modernity and the fall of the samurai.

Japanese Fashion Futures 

The Meiji Restoration is a complex moment in which cultural practices were exchanged and assimilated as traditional modes of aesthetic understanding broke down. While it is often understood as a period of ‘Westernization,’ histories like Slade’s show that we must develop a more precise and subtle language for characterizing these shifts. In the 20th-century fashion movements that followed Japan’s industrial modernization, there is no clear aesthetic throughline, no obvious trajectory that might be boiled down into a straightforward narrative. Instead, one finds artful interrogations of the relation between the new and the traditional, the national and the global, and the familiar and the strange. 

Meiji Restoration era art.

When one reaches the end of the 20th century, when Japanese fashion took the world by storm, transforming some of the fundamental norms and values of European aesthetics, one finds a group of designers whose body of work critically and constructively engages with that history to produce new reflections on Japan and its place in world history. With designers like Kiro Hirata, who adopted the mingei folk art of the Edo period and transformed it into a new statement about the relation between the East and West with his boro experiments, we see a sustained engagement with the complexity of Japanese history. While the aesthetic preoccupations of the 19th century can seem far afield of our current wear, they are vital to understanding where we are today. 

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