Saturday, February 14, 2015

Western Fashion in Japan in the Bustle Era

I've always been a little obsessed with the way the Japanese incorporated their own aesthetic into Western fashion during the bustle era. At the end of the 1860s, Japan had abolished the Tokugawa government, restored the Emperor, and was rapidly Westernizing their military, legal system, and industry. Their clothes were also following suit (no pun intended), and we begin to see Western fashions in traditional Japanese artforms, like the woodblock print.

But it wasn't exactly like the clothes we see ladies in Europe wearing. There are elements about the clothes that are still very Japanese. For instance, we see examples of nioi dying (what we'd call "ombre") in skirts that I've never come across in Western fashion.

Red accents are prevalent, especially at the collar and cuffs, and sometimes at the hem. Kimono were often lined in bright red, and contrasting collars were worn on the juban (under-kimono), and formal kimono might show the red lining at the hem.

Another thing that is prevalent is the Japanese colour aesthetic. We can see a clear distinction in the types of colors and prints that Japanese women would use, sometimes mixing colours that Europeans would never think of putting together. Prints were frequently mixed, sometimes with plaids, and usually in different colours. Traditional Japanese motifs were seen in the prints - rather than roses, you might see chrysanthemums or cherry blossoms. Compare these images of Japanese women wearing European fashion with the extant examples of European garments made from kimono.


While the dressing gown in blue kept the red lining of the original kimono, both garments are accented with complementary colours of silk - light blue for the dressing gown, and cream for the day dress. Both of these garments were made in the West, from kimonos that had been purchased and brought over, so the colour matching reflects the European aesthetic.

In Japan, you often see extraordinary colours and prints together. I especially love this print, because it's such an explosion of patterns.

It's my personal belief that they probably kept some of the seasonality guidelines for colour and motif going, as well. Seasonality is very important to kimono, and while it probably wasn't as strict, I can imagine it as a sort of, "I can't wear burnt orange, it's April, that's a fall colour", thing, sort of like you wouldn't wear pastels in winter nowadays.

Of course, you're probably going, "But these are all art images. Where are the extant garments? Where are the photographs?" Good question. I haven't been able to find any extant garments that are from the 1870s in Japan, and 99.99% of photos from this era are of people in traditional dress. I did find one photo of a woman and child in Western clothing.

What colour is it? Dunno. It's clearly not a print, but it could be green or blue or orange for all we know. It does seem to be all one colour, which is something, and there's a little bit of ruffle peeking out from the hem which looks like it may be a different colour from the dress. Red maybe? The child's dress looks to be at least three or four different colours - the light coloured jacket with a dark trim, and then a darker skirt with a medium colour trim.

Interestingly, other photos of this period show women almost exclusively in traditional clothing, while men are seen wearing either Western or traditional clothing in pretty much equal numbers.

Edit: I have managed to come across a few more photos!

First, we have the Empress Shōken, in a fantastic printapalooza ballgown.

I'm pretty sure all that pattern on the underskirt is actually embroidery, or a rich brocade. There's a thick line of trim or embroidery on the front edges of the overskirt. The bits on her bodice are actually medals, not embroidery or anything like that.

Next we have a group of school girls.

Their dresses aren't exciting, but they're school uniforms, and when are those ever exciting? The dresses are made up of a light coloured fabric, probably a neutral colour, and the underskirt looks like it may have a stripe pattern, or be pleated. I do think those bowler hats are pretty cute, though!

The last is a couple from just outside the bustle era, as the photo is from 1890.

I just love this photo. Her clothes are still really 1880s, so we can sort of see what was going on the decade before. It is a colourized photograph, so take the image with a grain of salt, but we can see that her skirt and portions of her bodice are one fabric, and the overskirt and other portions of the bodice are another fabric. It's hard to tell on the darker fabric, but it looks like it may have a print, and the blue-coloured skirt is definitely striped. The high-necked blouse she's wearing under her bodice is very much like those we see in the woodblock prints, though the true color is impossible to tell.

Edit Again: OMG, guys, I found an extant Japanese gown, and it's all the crazy Japanese print covered fringed tasseled glory I could hope for!

The only date given is "early 1880s", which jives with the style of the dress still being somewhat natural form from the late 70s. If you want to see more of the dress, check out the museum's page for it.

That same museum is full of all sorts of goodies! Check out this gem, too:

Stunning! Definitely the height of the 1880s bustle.

Anyway, what is all this leading up to? In October I'm hosting a bustle event that will be visiting the local fall Japanese festival. I want to do something with kimono fabric (they sell bolts of fabric, so I won't have to actually take apart a real kimono), and I want to follow October seasonality rules for kimono to some extent. Colours for fall include things like "kuchiba" which means "fallen leaf" (a yellow-orange), "asa-murasaki" which is a light purple, "azuki-iro", a reddish-brown, golds, silvers, and black. Chrysanthemums are the flower of October, but ginko, ivy, and fallen leaves are also popular motifs for the season.

I have a picture in my head of a nioi asa-murasaki (ombre light purple) underskirt, with maybe a golden yellow overskirt and bodice. I'll have to have a hat, of course, and that would be fun to trim with chrysanthemum kanzashi instead of regular silk flowers. There's still a lot of time to plan out my outfit, and the kimono fabric I ultimately buy will determine a lot of where my ensemble goes. More posts will be coming as the plan comes together!


  1. I know this is almost a year after the fact, but I thought you might like another woodblock print to add, that shows some nice use of traditional Japanese patterns, as well as the red-linings conceit. The print is from 1890, by Oumori Kakutarou, entitled "Oufuu fujo sougaku no zu (Scene of European-style women's musical performance)"