Japanese Fashion: A Journey from Ancient to Modern

Join us on a visual journey through the world of Japanese fashion, showcasing statements from ancient kimono styles to present Lolita street streaks.

the japanese fashion cover

The Japanese fashion is a vast field that is a reflection of art, tradition, and freedom. The visual culture of early Japan is showcased by a combination of multiple traditional Japanese styles. This splash of visual beauty represents the traditional and visible artistic values that shook hands while creating a form of fashion that was recognizable to foreign cultures.

From the exquisite fabrics to the intricate patterns, Japanese fashion and its beauty have influenced numerous designers all over the world. Modern Japanese fashion’s spunk, especially in Tokyo, the capital city, is something that inspires celebrities, pop stars, and social media greatly.

So let’s discover Japanese fashion from ancient to modern, and its influences on western style.

The Japanese Fashion: Where Art and Culture Shake Hands

According to the book The Kimono Inspiration by Textile Museum (Washington, D.C.), the Japanese fashion is known for its cutting-edge trends and is a highly diversified sartorial genre. It essentially includes two types of clothing:

  • the Ancient clothing known as Wafuku
  • the Western clothing known as Yōfuku

Japanese styles mix pop culture with avant-garde looks. They are led by ever-evolving and exhilarating subcultures like:

  • Kimonos (ancient Japanese attire)
  • Lolita (the Victorian-inspired cute clothing)
  • Gyaru (glamorous and youthful clothing)
  • Shibuya (styles from the famous Shibuya mall of Tokyo)
  • Harajuku (the super-fashionable Harajuku street style), and finally,
  • Cosplay (role-playing costumes).

japanese tees nature

And did you know that Japanese fashion is hugely inspired by nature? From flowers and leaves to birds and animals, it incorporates everything in its clothing.

I will now take you on a journey of the Japanese fashion world through the centuries below. So brace yourselves, here comes the glory, the glamour…

Ancient Japan

The Nara, Heian, and Muromachi Period (710 – 1600): Bow Down to the Royalty!

japanese fashion 7th century - present

In my personal view, the early Japanese fashion was quite plain and practical, as it was well suited to a nation of gatherers and hunters, that later evolved to craftsmen and farmers. The Nara period (710 – 794) included full coveralls of robes that covered the body from collarbone to feet. This was the period of social segregation, where the higher class women were to cover their body more than the lower class.

The Heian period (794-1192) saw the introduction of the most iconic garment, the kimono. The kimono, which means “something to wear” in Japanese, is the most popular form of traditional Japanese fashion. In addition, there are other types, too, which include the hakama and the yukata. These garments were usually worn by women of higher social status, weighed about 20kg, and consisted of over 12 layers of clothing.

Kosode, on the other hand, were basic robes, and Hakama were skirt-like pants that were worn under the garments.

the nara heian muromachi period
(L to R): Heian silk kimono; Linen robe; Imperial life enactment of royalties accompanied by court servants; Rice powder and rose-bud red lip makeup, Kanzashi hair clip; Origami crane earrings

Luxury in Japanese Fashion

Coming to luxury, people wrapped a waistband called Obi around the final layer of the traditional robe to keep all the layers of clothing intact. It is often bright, extremely thick, and bow-shaped, and it serves as the final touch to the costume. And brace yourselves, some of them cost even more than the total cost of all the layers of the kimono combined! This period also included accessories like Kanzashi hair clips, Origami crane earrings, and showy headdresses.

japanese film and hairstyle
English/Japanese movie Memoirs of a Geisha and impersonation of typical Japanese appearance with long hair

The materials used to design these attires included either hemp or linen. Narrow eyes, round apple cheeks, thin nose, and pouty mouth defined the Heian beauties. On matters of makeup, they used heavy rice powder to paint the face and neck white, and red paint over natural lip-lines to make its shape like rose-bud. Movies today also showcase the ancient Japanese culture lost in time by wearing these outfits, like in the English/Japanese movie Memoirs of a Geisha. All of these styles continued on in the Muromachi period (1333-1573) and became very popular by this time. This only showcases their knack for comfort and extraordinary charm I must say!

The Edo Period (1603 – 1868): Samurais to the Rescue!

The strong and the bold! This period marked the 250 years of peace and stability in the history of Japan, post the upsurge of military governance of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Samurais required more presentable attires as they entered the bureaucracy of feudal lords. As a result, this period saw a rise in demand for more artistic and expensive kimonos with the prime motive of showing off status and power. Along with wealth, art, and culture too, started reaching the merchant class.

japanese fashion edo period
Famous Edo style teeth blackening; Royalty ornamental hairpins; Neutral colored samurai kimono, tucked sword and Sandogasa (bamboo hat); Classic samurai warrior attire

The manufacturing industry developed and embroidery expanded to multiple motifs and colors inspired by famous theater artists and their costumes. In short, the theater rocked!

The era’s new looks included loose kimonos, their long hanging sleeves (usually worn by unmarried women), and obi belts triple the normal size. Makeup involved the usage of three basic colors of red, white and, yellow. Red for lip rouge and nail polish, white for face powder, and black for eyebrow pencils and teeth blackening. The later period, however, aimed at an iridescent effect that consisted of heavy makeup.

The Modernization of Japanese Fashion

The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912): Classic with a Twist of Western Modern!

During this period, the Japanese empire was restored and as a result, the country arose as a modern and industrialized power. The West mostly influenced the Meiji period. On formal occasions, the government officials and their wives used to wear western outfits. The Yofuku clothing uptake, inspired by the West, spiraled down through the classes.

japanese fashion meiji period
Meiji dress of mixed ancient and western style; Natural makeup with skin color matching foundation; School costume in the 1900s

On the other hand, Japanese women found these new fashions impractical for daily life and continued on with the kimono, newly pairing them with a variety of accessories such as scarves, hats, gloves, handbags, and umbrellas for decades to come. Can’t blame them. Can the grand Kimono ever be obsolete?

Women began using a full palette of hues in their makeup. Western influence made them realize that there was a possibility of finding makeup that would complement their real skin tones. They started embracing the natural look!

The Taisho Period (1912 – 1926): Time to Evolve!

Fashion further evolved for all classes. The Taisho period was the combination of the West and East fashion trends. Modern living kept thriving as the Japanese empire continued its domain. Fresh styles emerged with the rise of cinema, radio, and magazines. These styles included affordable and new patterns of meisen silk kimonos and decorated collars. Women’s popular fashion statements all across the globe had become quite similar in the 1920s.

japanese fashion taisho period
Taisho period meisen silk kimono; Eastern and western mix of cloche hat and kimono jacket; 1920s Japan slim dress style

These styles involved glamorous gowns, dresses, and robes with slim lines and a vertical draping. However, a majority of women still favored traditional Japanese dresses with some experimentation along the way. This included pairing up kimonos and robes with modern hairstyles and dressing up children in skirts, pants, shirts, and dresses. What a lovely blend! Don’t you think?

Women mostly preferred makeup that was quick to apply and convenient to use as they were stepping up both in society and the workplace. Other than the traditional white, face powder began to be sold in a broader range of tints. The traditional safflower-based rouge was replaced by tube lipstick made of different dyes and pigments. With the cosmetic industry becoming increasingly westernized from 1910, cold creams, vanishing creams, and emulsions also appeared in the market.

Fashion Pre and Post-World War II

The Showa Period (1926 – 1989): Shining Brightly even in Times of Crisis!

To put it straight, the Showa era was a period of art! It was under the reign of Emperor Hirohito and spanned both pre and post-war periods. In due favor of modest garments, wartime restrictions had banished extravagant and showy outfits. However, alongside the economic boom after the 1950s, fashion trends developed rapidly. Western clothing became mainstream. According to NYTimes, on special occasions, people wore kimonos inspired by the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements.

japanese fashion showa period
Modest dress styles pre-WWII; Dark eye makeup inspired by western pop culture; Western outfits styles post-WWII

The post-war pacifist constitution of 1947 allowed younger generations to embrace entertainment and pop culture along with the fads and fashions of the day. Although Showa styles still had a hint of Japanese elements. Mostly, the American and European influences like freedom-loving long-haired hippies, the Swinging-Sixties mods, and dolly girls inspired them.

The US introduced pancake makeup to Japan in 1954. The cosmetic trend shifted in the 1960s and put an emphasis on makeup for the eyes and mouth. Fads like the heavily made-up eyebrows and surfer look were a trend in the starting of 1975 and swept women in their teens and twenties in particular.

Japanese Street Fashion

The Heisei Period (1989 – 2019): The Now Wow!

According to Vogue World, fashion, art, and music have all connected with the rise of the new media. Lolita, visual kei, gyaru, host club hairstyles, cosplay, decora, otaku, Harajuku culture, and kawaii street fashion are just a handful of the aesthetic contributions of the Heisei period.

Kawaii: The Teen Trend

Now let’s talk about the Kawaii culture. It is an adorable and cute trend in Japan. It can refer to humans, non-humans, and items that are shy, charming, and childlike. The Japanese went on to incorporate this culture and characters like Hello Kitty and Pikachu in fashion and created cute outfits for teens and young adults to wear. This includes lolita dress, bunny headbands, bob wigs, kitten tees, and more.

Also read: Fairy Kei Fashion: Discover the Kawaii World

Talking about local Japanese fashion, teenagers and the general public wore mini skirts and over-sized knee-high socks during the 1990s. The general public popularized these instead of well-known fashion designers. This is known as the Kogal trend and is found in both Harajuku and Shibuya districts. It is influenced by the “schoolgirl” look. This style is also characterized by the skin with a fake tan, dark makeup, pale lipstick, and light hair.

To name some, the most famous modern Japanese street styles include over-sized shirts, tees, and pants, plaid outfits, bright tones, and layers on layers in clothing, Mori Kei (loose knitted wear), denim on denim, stylish sneakers, classic hip belt bags, and more.

japanese fashion heisei period
Japanese classic hip belt bag; Typical schoolgirl look with a short skirt; Street fashion by Yukina Kinoshita, a Japanese influencer; The Lolita look characterized by Victorian fashion; Lolita headband; Flared pants and bucket bag; Mori Kei loose knitted poncho

Freedom of the Genderless Kei

Today, the Japanese street style mostly reflects the concept of genderless Kei, which means rejecting the idea that one needs to dress according to their gender. This has enabled all men and women of Japan dressing more or less similar.

Yukina Kinoshita, a Japanese model, and Instagram influencer, with her huge 5.1 million followings (see the image above), reflects the true street style of Japan with a tee worn inside a check shirt, shorts, high rise boots, and a hat.

Now present trends in makeup include an individual approach to medicated cosmetics, nail art, and other decorations of fingernails. Times have changed, and the white-skinned Edo beauty is no longer the ideal. Now, we are in a modern era in which consumers expect that cosmetic products should serve a variety of skincare needs and functions.

The Influence of Japanese Fashion on International Designers

The Runway Effect

The influence of Japanese fashion has swayed and twirled the west coast of the United States. Since the 80s, superior Japanese fashion brands such as Comme des Garçons have been playing quite a big role in the global industry, especially through their frequent cross-over guest designs with other major brands.

Popular Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons, designed for high-end fashion brands like H&M and Louis Vuitton in 2008. London Fashion Week in 2010 featured the precious works of Tomoko Yamanaka. Tokyo is Japan’s fashion capital and is head-to-head with major fashion centers of the West like Paris and Milan.

japanese fashion international influence
Gwen Stefani with Japanese girls showcasing the Harajuku style; A Comme des Garçons collection; The Invisible Clothing collection by Rei Kawakubo; Japanese anime Cosplay outfit; A jersey jacket from Kanye West’s BAPE collection

The Celebrity Parade

The street fashion of Japan has influenced various brands by world-class celebrities. Kayne West’s BAPE and Jermaine Dupri’s A Bathing Ape, for instance, are gaining attention from the youth day by day.

Furthermore, we can see the influence of Japanese fashion on pop stars like Gwen Stefani who incorporated the cute Harajuku style in her rock song. She introduced her clothing line named L.A.M.B. in 2003, and later expanded the collection with the Harajuku Lovers line in 2005. Both were completely inspired by the Japanese fashion and culture.

As Anime and Manga have been trending, there has been an introduction of a social phenomenon of Japanese cosplay fashion. In this, teenagers and young adults find themselves trying Manga outfits inspired by Japanese pop culture. In fact, the influence of these cosplay drives fans from all over the world such as France, Germany, USA, Brazil, China, and Australia. All for one reason, to attend the annual competition of The World Cosplay Summit held in Nagoya, Japan, and rejoice to their heart’s delight!

The vast culture and aesthetics of Japanese fashion have never failed to intrigue us – both in the east and west. Japanese inspirations continue to be seen in celeb styles, fashion editorials and runway collections. And we fashionistas love to mix, match, and experiment with these styles. Why don’t you try it out for your next street style look? Do share the pictures with us by tagging us @shilpaahujadotcom on Instagram.

So which Japanese trend did you love the most? Don’t hesitate to comment and share with us your thoughts on Twitter @shilpa1ahuja! 🙂

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