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From Junihitoe to S-Corset

Japanese Dress From the Nara to the Meiji Periods and Beyond

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Although the Cherry Blossom Festival has, alas, come and gone for the year, it is never too late to admire the intricacies and evolution of Japanese traditional dress, particularly when we are fortunate enough to have several Japanese obi and Japanese woodblock prints in our June East Meets West auction. Moreover, in an age where the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ are frequently seen as oppositional forces, taking a closer look at the development of garments like the obi and the Japanese concept of kimono (which is more a description of the process of dressing oneself than of a single garment) offers an interesting way to dissect the evolution of Japanese and Euro-American culture, including the many cross-overs and exchanges of art, mannerisms, and dress.

What is today considered Japanese traditional dress is constituted by the kimono, a long, narrow robe with a crossed collar and rectangular sleeves, bound at the waist with a wide sash (for women) known as an obi (a man’s obi, I should add, is narrower and tied slightly lower on the body). Typically, this ensemble is completed with split-toe tabi socks, straw sandals or the often high, platform geta, and, for women, an upswept coiffure ornamented with combs or flowers. A woman’s kimono ensemble is also bound together by concealed himo or datejime, ties under the bust and around the hips, the latter tucked under the peplum created by the tucked-up excess length of the robe.

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Lot 207, (2) Japanese Geisha Painted on Silk, late 19th-early 20th century. Dimensions are: 26 3/8 inches tall X 12 3/4 inches wide. All measurements are approximate.

This recognizable outfit, seen in ceremonies and formal events around Cherry Blossom season and, for those who have visited Japan, in the teahouse districts and at formal events, has a long evolution that dates back to the Nara period (710-794 CE). Taking their cue from Chinese Tang Dynasty fashions, Japanese courtiers adopted robes with crossed collars and wide sleeves; these robes were layered over one another and over a pair of loose, split-skirt like trousers (hakama), eventually evolving into the Heian noblewoman’s formal court garb, the junihitoe, or 12-layer robe.




Photograph of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako in formal court dress shortly before their wedding, 1993. From Philippa Fogarty,"Naruhito: Will Japan's crown prince be a 'fresh breeze' for the monarchy?', BBC News online, June 9, 2017.

From inside out, the junihitoe consisted of hakama trousers, a kosode, or small-sleeved under-robe, around 12 layers (despite the name of the ensemble, the actual number was variable according to season and status) of hitoe, or wide sleeved, cross-collar robes. Over this could be worn a karaginu, a half-length, open sided robe or coat and a mo, essentially a train tied on around the waist.

The image above depicts Crown Princess (now Empress) Masako shortly before her wedding in 1993 wearing this formal ensemble - both the white mo and the teal karaginu are discernable from the other layers of hitoe, the sleeves of each under-layer being pulled through its upper neighbor so that the colors show through. One can see both the similarities to the modern-day ‘kimono’ and some major differences - the overall concept of a cross-bodied, layered outfit with fairly significant sleevage remains intact, but the junihitoe is more A-lined from waist to floor and includes several layers trailing behind the wearer. Not exactly a practical outfit for a cherry blossom festival here in DC.

Towards the end of the Heian period (794-1185 CE) and then onward into the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), the formal layers of the junihitoe were replaced by garments based on the original undergarment, or kosode, with its tighter body and smaller sleeve openings. What really propelled a change in ‘traditional’ fashion, however, was the introduction of foreign culture and customs into Japan following the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the end of the Shogunate’s isolationist stance toward foreign policy, which had been introduced in 1633.

Toyohara Chikanobu, “Women in Western Fashions and Their Changing Hairstyles,” woodblock print on paper, c. 1880s-1890s. Accessed on Virtual Museum.com, May 29, 2019.

Where the Shogunate had looked for the most part with suspicion toward European influence (although the Dutch did retain their trading outpost in Nagasaki), the Meiji Emperor took the position that his country needed to industrialize and modernize to become a competitive world power. Euro-American customs, including dress and social forms, became not only fashionable but the sartorial evidence of a forward thinking, modern Japanese individual. Most Japanese individuals continued to wear kimono through the middle of the 20th century; however, the adoption by Japanese men and women of affluence in the late 19th century of Western-style clothing, illustrated in Meiji period Japanese fashion periodicals, led to a delightful amalgam of Continental cuts and Japanese textiles and color palettes.


Dress, French, cotton, c. 1882. Isabel Shults Fund, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.338a, b.


Hashimoto Chikanobu, 3-oban triptych woodblock print on paper depicting the diversity of dress in fashion in the Meiji Period, c. 1890. Original housed in the Edo-Tokyo Museum, image accessed on Virtual Museum.com, May 29, 2019.

Note the silhouettes shared by the women in the Meiji fashion print and the French walking dress from c. 1882 held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the ensembles are made up of two main clothing pieces, with skirts that are draped back over fairly wide bustles and bodices whose fitted form is moderated by the shapewear of the day - the S-front corset. There is a similar range of accessories, in the way of fruity, floral hats with lots of ribbons, gloves, and fans; however, the hairstyles ranged above the two women central to the Meiji print could just as easily be found on the ‘traditionally’ clad geisha and bijin in Edo period woodblock prints, like the following:

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Part of Lot 201, (2) Japanese Woodblock Prints Depicting 3 Geisha (or Bijin), after Torii Kiyonaga, Three Women in the Rain, from the series Current Manners in Eastern Brocade, 1783; colors differ from other known examples of print but composition is the same. Dimensions are: sight size - 9 3/4 inches wide X 14 inches high.

One of the driving forces of fashion in any society being the changing roles of women, both Meiji fashion and Euro-American fashion of the late 19th century were impacted by the increasingly active, educated woman of the period. In Japanese fashion, this meant that the extra length of the outer robe was tucked up to create a peplum peeping out from below the wide obi; it also led to a distinct fashion for the growing population of female students or jokagusei, whose uniform of crossed-collar upper garment and wide, pleated skirt lower garment reflected the desire for healthy, active, and modern wives and mothers who could nevertheless pass on traditional morals and customs.

As the upper classes of the Meiji era and especially the 20th century veered toward adopting Western fashions, the performance of traditional Japanese culture became increasingly the role of the geisha class. Always a popular subject of woodblock prints and visual culture, particularly that which filtered from Japan to Western audiences, the image of the geisha (or more accurately, the geisha in training or meiko) in her trailing, hikizuri kimono and ornately tied obi, with multiple combs and hairsticks holding up her heavy coiffure, gradually became a key visual signifier of Japanese culture to those abroad. Nowadays, the most common sight of Japanese traditional dress is in the wearing of yukata and simpler obi at times like the Cherry Blossom Festival.

The obi in our upcoming June sale are somewhat more ornate than those worn with a casual, cotton yukata - the three obi in Lot 223 are made of fairly stiff, heavy brocade, while the fourth, lighter obi in Lot 224 (see header image) is embroidered in irregular intervals with bunches of flowers. The embroidery, as well as the pattern of stripes on this latter obi, seem almost to guide the wearer in how to position the obi on the body, in order that the pattern may be visible. In all likelihood, they would have been worn with slightly more formal robes - and there is an intricate hierarchy for both color and pattern of the robe itself and the knot used to tie the obi. For the sake of time and brevity, I will simply advise the reader to take a stroll into our gallery in order to take a closer look at these lovely pieces, remembering their place in the greater narrative of Japanese dress and appreciating the continuous use of so historically rich an art of dress.


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About the Author

Katharina Biermann joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in the beginning of 2019, having completed her Master of Letters at the University of Glasgow in the History of Art with a specialization in Dress and Textile Histories. Ms. Biermann developed hands-on expertise of European arts and culture while interning in internationally renowned institutions including the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She remains particularly interested in medieval and 19th-20th century visual and material culture.


Katharina Biermann

Fri, Jun 7, 2019 9:47 AM

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