The Body Politic: Victorian Fashions as Agents of Social and Political Change in Meiji Japan

by Elizabeth Ives (copyright 2009-2010)

The Meiji period in Japan, from 1868 to 1912, was an era of great economic and technological growth.  It was also a time of intense contact with Western powers and deep social conflict in Japan.  By embracing both Western technology and some elements of Western culture, if only for a short period of time, the Japanese government sought to impress Western countries, to extricate themselves from unequal trade treaties and avoid colonization.  One of the most outward, and some might say contrived, examples of this effort, was the clothing of the Meiji era which used Victorian fashions to promote the governments political and social agenda.  By adopting Western dress, the Japanese sought to illustrate their modernity.  This effort was met with mixed reviews both at home and abroad.  The effort was short lived and by the 1890’s kimonos were again in fashion for women.  These kimonos were not the same as those of previous eras but rather represented a new Japanese aesthetic and cultural norm.  While Japan had garments similar to kimonos before the Meiji era, it took the sight of Japanese men and women in Western dress to force the Japanese to define their own image.  The result is that today’s kimono, as defined in the Meiji period, is a distinct garment with embedded, codified meanings, showing the wearers age, sex, marital status, wealth and taste.

Clothing such as the kimono, has been intrinsically linked with tradition, yet traditions are not always developed over long periods of time or by society at large.  In his book The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawn contends that most traditions are modern inventions with only implied and tenuous connections to the past.  In Meiji Japan these invented traditions drew upon tenuous connections to past emperors and empresses to support new ideas about what was Japanese.  Victorian fashions and the new kimono were knowingly used by the Meiji government as agents of social and political changes. Social reformers and critics also tried to use clothing to reinforce their own agendas. It is the purpose of this paper to explore these invented traditions in the context of women’s clothing as an extension of political and social concerns.

To understand the use of invented traditions and what these traditions meant to the Japanese, an examination of Meiji art, texts, propaganda, clothing and political history was undertaken.  Woodblock prints and photographs of the period have been used in two ways: to exemplify the changes in clothing and to draw a statistical map.  The images have been entered into a database that tracks the style of clothing by year and type.  These images were taken from various large collections from books, museums, online databases and personal collections.  The resulting collection of 273 images are not exhaustive of course, but are enough to draw a statistical map.  This analysis was necessary because many modern scholars say what the data suggests but do not provide the statistical analysis of their own to quantifiable prove it.  In some cases the analysis has provided clarity to existing scholarship, suggesting a more limited use of Western dress than previous assertions.  Care must be taken with these images because they contain both exaggeration and propaganda.  Therefore some images were omitted from this study while others were only used for cultural information rather than statistical analysis.

If traditions are an invention of the nineteenth century, as Eric Hobsbawm argues, then how could the Meiji establishment justify the use of Western clothing and connect it to a uniquely Japanese past?  In the case of Meiji Japan it is useful to begin with the emperor who endorsed and wore the new fashions.  [SLIDE 1] In 1872 Emperor Meiji (November 3rd, 1852 – July 30th, 1912) cut off his topknot and the next year he began wearing Western style clothing, thirteen years before his wife followed his example.[i] An official photograph taken in 1873, shows Emperor Meiji in a Western dress uniform.[ii] [SLIDE 2] This court photograph was circulated both in Japan and in the West.[iii] A royal

Emperor Meiji before his adoption of Western dress, wearing the traditional court robes that all emperors wore since the Heian Period (793-1186 ad)

Emperor Meiji-1872- wearing a Western style dress uniform

proclamation explaining the emperor’s choice soon followed the photograph in 1873.  In the proclamation, the emperor explained the use of Western style dress by sighting examples from Japanese history to mandate change.  In the proclamation he says:

We greatly regret that the uniform of our court has been established following the Chinese custom, and it has become exceedingly effeminate in style and character…The Emperor Jimmu, who founded Japan, and the Empress Jingu, who conquered Korea, were not attired in the present style.  We should no longer appear before the people in these effeminate styles.  We have therefore decided to reform dress regulations entirely.[iv]

Emperor Jimmu[v] and Empress Jingu,[vi] were chosen because of their iconic yet malleable imagery.  No one knew what they looked like and therefore they could be adapted to the current agenda.  However, no matter what their appearance might have been historically, their clothing would have looked nothing like the Western clothing they were now linked to.  The use of iconic historic figures allowed the Emperor to make factious connections between the past and the present changes as Eric Hobsbawn illustrated.  Continuity with the past was used to make changes palatable to the population in a time when they could have easily been afraid of change therefore unwilling to accept so much of it so fast.  The invention of new traditions based upon older examples, true or false, is used to bolster the efforts of the Meiji government to appear Westernized in the eyes of the world while not being overthrown at home.

Empress Haruko[vii] (May 9th, 1849-April 9th, 1914) was much slower than her husband to adopt Western style clothing.  [SLIDE 3] Preceding 1886 the empress can be seen in traditional clothing at official court functions.[viii] Her robes date from the Heian period (793-1186 ad), considered to be Japan’s golden age.[ix] These robes bear no resemblance to kimonos and only women of the royal court would wear the Heian style robes.  Even as Empress Haruko wore these traditional robes, she took on new roles that no empress had done before.  She was seen publicly, in the company of her husband and on her own, and served in his place at formal court occasions when he fell ill.  These new roles in Japan were not unknown to Victorian women.  By comparison, women in the West were expected to be seen in public and to accompany or represent their husbands at official court functions much to the initial amazement of Japanese officials.  Empress Haruko’s new public roles were part of the attempt by the Meiji government to present an image of “modern” Japan.  There was, however, a visual disconnect created when the empress appeared in public wearing robes designed nine hundred of years before.  This was emphasized when she appeared with Emperor Meiji who was dressed in a Western style military uniform.  [SLIDE 4] This presented a problem for the Meiji government one that could only be solved by ladies dress reform.

Empress Haruko weaing traditional Heian Court Robes

Woodcut showing the Emperor and Empress inspecting sericulture- neither the incongruous couple nor the old methods of sericulture fit with the goverment plan of modernization

Empress Haruko - 1886 - wearing Western Dress

In November of 1886, the empress wore Western style clothing for the emperor’s birthday celebration and a command performance of a visiting Italian Circus.[x] [SLIDE 5] She too issued a proclamation (January 17th, 1887) justifying her change and instructing the ladies of the court to follow her example.   Like the proclamation of Emperor Meiji, the empress uses the past to establish her authority to make these changes and to illustrate how clothing should be worn.  And like him, she uses examples that are legendary and nearly mythical.  Additionally she says:

Now we can no longer restrict ourselves to bowing from a kneeling position, but will have to observe the Naniwa style of bowing while standing.  Moreover, if we look at contemporary Western women’s wear, we find that it combines a top or jacket and a skirt in the manner of our ancient Japanese system of dress.  This is not only suitable for the formal standing bow but also convenient for action and movement and makes it only natural to adopt the Western method of sewing.[xi]

As one might imagine, her new duties did not always work well with the seven or more layers to the traditional court robes.  Switching to the more common Edo style kimono would have been unthinkable for royalty, for it would have reduced them to the level of a commoner or courtesan. Victorian style gowns were practical for movement, useful for the promotion of the new “modernity” and could maintain class differences.

The empress also added one additional item to the proclamation of 1887 that her husband does not: she requested that every effort should be made to use Japanese goods in production of these gowns.[xii] For Japan, who suffered economically under the unequal trade treaties, this effort became essential.  Japanese modernization was founded in part on expansion of the textile mills, as they sought economic independence through one of Japans greatest strengths: silk.[xiii] However without an examination of the royal household accounts it is difficult to tell if the empress practiced what she preached.  The images that remain suggest that she might have.  Some of these prints show the Victorian gowns made from fabrics patterned with chrysanthemum, wisteria or Japanese maple leaves.[xiv] The extant court gown in this slide [SLIDE 6] also displays embroidered chrysanthemums in a manner similar to many prints, suggesting that the woodblock prints are more than a figment of the artists’ imagination.  The empress’s proclamation was thus two fold, to command and encourage dress reform and to strengthen Japan’s domestic economy through the use of Japanese silks.

Court Gown of Empress Haruko - 1880-90 - made in a Western Style but with gold and silk embroidery in a chrysanthemum pattern (the symbol of the Japanese emperors)

Some scholars argue that Empress Haruko embraced Western dress as part of her new found sense of personal power.[xv] On further examination I find that this assertion is unlikely.  The subject of women’s roles in society is poorly defined by royalty because they are often the exception to all rules; empresses and queens were, and are, bound by duties and traditions that normal women are not.  It is far more likely that she was urged to embrace Western dress by the Meiji government and her husband and it is certain that she could not have made the change to Western dress without their support.

The empress’s proclamation dictated that Western dress was now the official uniform of the court, to be worn at all ceremonial activities.[xvi] The women of the court, ladies in waiting, extended royal family members and the wives of appointees were directed to wear it.  While numerous wood block prints were made of these ladies in Western dress there is little evidence that it spread past court circles to the general population.  They might adopt a Western umbrella or hair style as both photographs and woodblock prints illustrate, a complete Victorian gown was less likely.  In a rare view of average Japanese citizens we can see this effect.  Famous Places in Tokyo: A Picture of Azuma Bridge and a View of Distant Torpedo Explosion shows a crowd gathered along the water’s edge and bridge.[xvii] [SLIDE 7] Several of the women in the crowd are wearing Western gowns while other women wear kimonos.  Even those who wear kimonos carry Western style umbrellas, much in the same way that some men cut their hair but did not embrace Western clothes completely.  This woodblock was created only three years after the empress changed to Western dress.  To spite the haphazard adoption of Western elements by commoners and the use of Western uniforms in some areas, the ladies of the court were the largest consumers and promoters of Western dress.  They were also the segment of the population that interacted with Western diplomats and businessmen most frequently.

Famous Places in Tokyo: A Picture of Azuma Bridge and a View of a Distant Torpedo Explosion (1888)- crowd scene showing a mix of Japanese and Western Dress

Images like the one of Azuma Bridge exemplify the locations at which these gowns were worn.  One particular location stands out: Rokumeikan, the Western style building built in Tokyo in 1883.  [SLIDE 8] At Rokumeikan both Japanese and Westerners could attend balls together.[xviii] These events were not hosted, however, for the entertainment of the ladies but rather political functions held by Meiji officials for the entertainment of Western guests.  The wives and daughters that attended were often required to do so by their husbands or fathers.[xix] While some might have objections to the morality of these events, many members of the upper classes “had decided that it was a necessary social accomplishment.”[xx] At Rokumikan Westerners could interact with Japanese men and women in an environment that they would find familiar and comfortable to them.

Dancers at Rokumeikan, a Western style building built in Tokyo in 1883, to house Western style balls with both Japanese and Western visitors.

The reactions of Westerners vary, both positively and negatively, when faced with Japanese in Western clothing.  Some Westerners believed that the changes were good for Japan.  Mr. W.E. Griffis (September 17th, 1843- February 5th, 1928) wrote in 1915 that the great ambition of the Japanese (quote):

is to be treated as men, as gentlemen, and as the equal of Occidentals.  In their antiquated garb they knew that neither they or their country would never be taken seriously….In fact, this revolution in clothes helped powerfully in the recognition by the whole world of Japan as an equal in the brotherhood of nations.[xxi]

Mr. Griffis opinion was likely influenced by his close association with the Japanese government. However the most typical reaction, especially during the early years of the Meiji period, was one of contempt.  Pierre Loti, (January 14th, 1850-June 10th, 1923) a French naval officer and author, commented in his diary in 1886, that “the first European-style ball, held in the middle of Tokyo, was quite simply a monkey show….This contemptible imitation is certainly interesting for the visiting foreigner to observe but it reveals that this people have no taste and is absolutely lacking in national pride.”[xxii]

The sentiments of critical Westerns echo the sentiments of many contemporary Japanese.  The social reformer Miyake Setsurei (1860-1945) argued in his treatise Shin-zen-bi Nihonjin (The Japanese: Truth, Goodness and Beauty, 1891) that “social customs, for example, ought not to be discarded readily; they had evolved during the nations history according to the nature of its people.”[xxiii] He questioned the wisdom of Western dress for the “bent posture” of the Japanese.  He also believed that the ill fitted clothes invited the contempt of Westerners and that “Westerners might laugh openly at the pigtail and the robe of a Chinese, but they inwardly respected his independence; they might only praise a Japanese for his Western clothing, but inwardly they mocked his unseemly imitation.”[xxiv] Miyake was not opposed to the adoption of Western things but believed it should be done with forethought.  Miyake was not alone in his concerns; artists, writers and even some supporters of the Meiji government voiced their concerns.

The popularity of Western fashions was a short lived trend, from 1887 to 1890.  The survey of 273 pieces of art shows this trend.  [SLIDE 9] Some authors believe that this trend began as early as 1881-1883 but the results of the art analysis does not bear this out.[xxv] There were rare cases of women who embraced the new fashions earlier but not in numbers significant enough to call it a trend.

Graph showing the use of Wester dress, kimonos and a mix of both as seen in Japanese art

This does not mean, however, that the effects of Western dress were not felt outside of court circles.  Quite to the contrary, Western dress fueled the debate on women’s roles and nationalism.  Discussions of clothing became discussion on women’s rights.  In 1899 the government mandated that there should be at least one high school for girls in each prefecture.[xxvi] While this was intended for upper class women, Kabayama Sukenori, (December 9th, 1837-February 8th, 1922) the education minister, argued that it should be extended to others “precisely because households, which were the foundation of the nation, required good wives and wise mothers.”[xxvii] “Good wife, wise mother” became a slogan for the government policy towards women’s education.  The goal was to educate the girls, no more than necessary, so that they could better fulfill their duties at home.  Debate about the image of the wife and mother became a dialogue about clothing because the image of good wife and wise mother did not include a Victorian gown.

The ideal daughter, wife and mother, came to be linked with the idea the growing tide of nationalism in 1897-98.  Specifically good wives and wise mothers at home allowed men to go and work or fight for the nation.  The graph in this slide shows a stronger preference for the kimono just after the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) in 1898 when soldiers were coming home.  The gradual return to the kimono that precedes the war can be attributed to the pressures of social reformers such as Miyake.  By comparison, the strong presence of kimono in images after 1898 can be directly attributed to a growing tide of post-war nationalism.  One remarkable print seems to capture the surge of nationalism and the social roles of both men and women.  A Soldier’s Dream at Camp during a Truce in the Invasion of China, portrays a dreaming solder who envisions his wife, son and other family members.[xxviii] [SLIDE 10] His wife wears a kimono in the fashion of the late Meiji

A Soldier's Dream During a Truce in the Invasion of China, 1895, by Kobayashi Kiyochika

period.  Another young girl in the print is dressed in lavender and red kimonos, featuring the longer sleeves of an unwed girl.  Here then is the complete picture of the ideal Japanese “good wife, wise mother”.  Loyal to her family and country, accepting of her roles in society, the very foundations of what Japanese culture imagined itself to be; a world power equal to any Western country in modernization, warfare, and capitalism but still retaining its own unique cultural roots.

The Japanese government endorsed Western clothing when they found it useful and promoted the kimono when Western fashion was no longer of use to their agenda.  There were no government regulation or sumptuary laws concerning the shape and style of kimono during the late Meiji period, rather the new style was constructed by artists, writers, and social reformers and then used by the government.  The strong sense of nationalism that swept through Japan was, however, encouraged by government censorship.  The woodblocks of this period illustrate the government censorship, showing only victorious Japanese soldiers and loyal wives as previously illustrated.  The notable exception was the empress.  The number of images portraying Japanese women in kimono expanded rapidly, almost to the exclusion of all else.  The final result was that when the Meiji government found the use of Western dress to be expedient to their goals of modernity they encouraged it, but when nationalism was the goal of they encouraged kimonos.  Social reformers, artists and writers also found the kimono expedient to their goal of a modernized Japan with strong cultural roots.  The kimono, nationalism and women’s roles in society allowed them to invent new traditions with stronger connections to the past than the previous ones used by the government to justify Western dress.  This is why the kimono stood the test of time when Western dress did not.

The empress never returned to more traditional Japanese dress and she remained in Western dress until she died in 1914.  She could not reject the government program of modernity nor could she embrace the commoner’s kimono.  The result was that she was marginalized.  The empress who helped to propel Japan onto the world stage by embracing Western dress was replaced by the kimono clad Japanese mother who became the symbol of a modern patriarchal Japanese society.

The dialogs of the Meiji period on nationalism, dress, and women’s rights conspired to rigidly define the modern day kimono by the end of the 1920’s.  The modern kimono is not simply defined in its form but also in is function; it is worn in a very specific way without alteration.  Defined as such it is no longer questioned as the cultural property of Japanese women.  But this is an illusion as Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni points out, for the girl in the kimono is the cultural property of Japan, rather than the reverse.[xxix] One only needs to consider modern tourist advertising for Japan, typically showing a woman in her kimono, or the Types and Development of Man from the 1904 World’s Fair, to see the connection.  [Slide 11] While young Japanese ladies today might prefer a car to a new kimono, the illusion remains; an illusion created in the Meiji era.

A poster from the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair, titled "Types and Development of Man". The only woman shown is the "representative" of Japan.

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  • [i] Meech-Pekarik, Julia, The World of the Meiji Print, page 102
  • [ii] Uchida Kuichi, Emperor Meiji, 1873, photograph, (Private Collection of Barbara and Steven P Gaskin) in Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era, Emiko K. Usui Editor, (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001) page 33
  • [iii] Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World 1852-1912. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) page 194
  • [iv] Dalby, Liza, Kimono, page 66-67
  • [v] Emperor Jimmu was the mythical founding emperor of Japan and therefore no firm dates can be assigned to him if he existed at all.
  • [vi] Empress Jingu was also a mythical empress of Japan, who if she actually existed, is roughly dated to the first and second century AD.
  • [vii] She is also known as Empress Shoken
  • [viii] Toyohara Chikanobu, The Emperor Observing Sericulture, 1883, woodblock triptych, 111 x 75cm (Ohmi Gallery: The Personal  Ukiyo-e Collection of Ross Walker), (accessed July 29th, 2009)
  • [ix] Dalby, Liza, Kimono, page 66
  • [x] Ibid
  • [xi] Ibid
  • [xii] Hastings, Sally A., “The Empress’ New Clothing and Japanese Women 1868-1912”, page 677
  • [xiii] Meech-Pekarik, Julia, The World of the Meiji Print, page 97
  • [xiv] Toyohara Chikanobu, Boys Sailing Model Boats on a Pond, 1887, woodblock triptych, in Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age, page 43
  • This is but one example of Japanese patterns used in Victorian clothing.
  • [xv] Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan, page 404
  • [xvi] Hastings, Sally A., “The Empress’ New Clothing and Japanese Women 1868-1912”, page 677
  • [xvii] Inoue Tankei, Famous Places in Tokyo: Picture of Azume Bridge and a Distant View of a Torpedo Explosion, 1888, woodblock triptych, in Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era 1868-1912, Page 50
  • [xviii] Dalby, Liza, Kimono, pages 79-81 and Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan, pages 392-393
  • [xix] Dalby, Liza, Kimono, page 90-80
  • [xx] Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan, page 392
  • [xxi] Griffis, W.E., Letter, 1915, in Keene, Donald, Modern Japanese Diaries: The Japanese at Home and Abroad as Revealed Through Their Diaries (New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1995) page 194
  • [xxii] Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan, page 393-394
  • [xxiii] Pyle, Kenneth B., The New Generation in Meiji Japan: Problems of Cultural Identity, 1885-1895, (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1969) page 155
  • [xxiv] Ibid
  • [xxv] Keene, Donald, Emperor of Japan, page 243 and Dalby, Liza, Kimono, page 60
  • [xxvi] Nolte, Sharon H. and Sally Ann Hastings “The Meiji State’s Policy Toward Women, 1890-1910” found in Recreating Japanese Women, 1600-1945. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) page 158
  • [xxvii] Ibid
  • [xxviii] Koybayashi Kiyochika, A Soldier’s Dream at Camp during a Truce in the Invasion of China, 1895, woodblock triptych, in Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era 1869-1912, page 97
  • [xxix] Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra, “Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and Cultural Identities” Ethnology, Vol. 38, No.. 4 (Autumn, 1999) page 352

4 Responses to The Body Politic: Victorian Fashions as Agents of Social and Political Change in Meiji Japan

  1. Pingback: Cross-Cultural Appreciation | Historical Personality Disorder

  2. Pingback: A Brief Japanese Fashion History | Nitya Uniforms |

  3. heritagepoliceman says:

    Excellent stuff.

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