Ultimate Guide to Japanese Fashion:
From 300AD to Now
By The Japan Switch Team | October 23rd, 2023
One of the many pleasures of traveling to a foreign country is getting to know a little more about the different culture, and fashion of that place. For so long, clothing almost everywhere in the world had more than just a functional purpose. It was a status symbol, a way of signaling who you were, and what your social, financial, and religious status was. It was a way of marking yourself as belonging to a certain trade or guild. In other words, clothes have never been just a surface-level endeavor, but an essential window into a person’s life.
We’ll take a look at the best fashion shopping destinations in Tokyo below, but before we do that, let’s first delve into the fascinating history of fashion in Japan.
This article is a part of our extensive series on Learning about Japan through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.
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Japanese Fashion Across Time
It’s customary that when we think of Japanese fashion, that we all have slightly different ideas of what that means. For many Western tourists, Japanese fashion is often associated with the lolita-type trend or the ever-popular kimono. But it would be a real shame to reduce this wonderfully versatile topic to just one or two, more notable styles.
Japanese fashion has a varied, multi-angle and rich history, with as many trends and different styles as to put Milan Fashion Week to shame.
A brief history of Japanese fashion
As we go back further through time, the less we can know for sure about the styles and fabrics worn in ancient Japan. It’s assumed that, in the early days, as in many other countries, Japanese people traditionally made clothes out of animal skins, and furs. Gradually, Japanese fashion came to incorporate linen, with writing from the Kofun Period (古墳時代) (300-583 AD) describing long, non-descript, and generally loose double-cloth garments, tied at the waistline. This was, we can assume, the predecessor of the more popular kimono and yukata that are still an emblem of Japanese fashion today.
The Kofun Period is generally regarded as the very first moment in Japanese history that was well-documented, so many anthropologists and archeologists refer to it as a pivotal, and a sort of starting point for modern Japanese history.
From the Kofun Period, many small, terracotta statues (haniwa, 埴輪) remain, and they often show figures, often warriors, wearing loincloths, as well as the armor of the time.
Through the eras that followed – the Asuka and Nara Periods – court fashion was heavily influenced by Chinese culture, with both male and female courtiers donning similar outfits. The garments they wore in those times were typically loose, with overlapping lapels, and collars alternating between round, v-shaped, and and narrow.
Through these changing fashions, the idea of the “hidden body” dominated. This was a belief that as much of the body as could be covered ought to be, which accounted for the loose long-sleeves and skirts that trailed along the floor. By covering the body, the wearer essentially created an armor for himself, against his naked (e.g. most vulnerable self) and the evil spirits that surrounded him.
While the idea itself is little known today, it can still be observed in some high-end fashion trends, as well as in the popular kimono style of clothing.
The Heian Period and the advent of the kimono
Looking back at Japanese fashion history, the Heian period (平安時代) (794-1185 AD) is of particular interest, as it was during this time that the kimono (きもの), as we know it, was first created. The Heian Period constituted a very interesting moment in Japanese history, as it saw tensions between the Japanese and Chinese courts rising. During the Heian Period, the Japanese court stopped sending envoys to the Chinese one, as a mark of hostility.
Because of this increasing tension, trade between the two neighboring countries ground to a halt. Suddenly, court fashion became a secret, and it was no longer acceptable for court attendants to adopt the fashions popular in China. And since courtiers and high-status people were the main trendsetters of their day, this meant the entirety of Japan abruptly abandoned Chinese trends.
As strange and difficult as the period itself was, it created a much-needed opportunity for Japanese culture to shine through in what people of the time wore. Where until this point, both male and female court members wore largely similar outfits, with the same type of sleeve, and neckline, the Heian Period put a stop to that, creating more diverse fashion for men and women.
Another important aspect of the time was that fashion started incorporating more traditional symbols. It became customary, during this time, for courtiers to wear cloth embroidered with nationalist motifs, and cultural symbols, as a way of showing their patriotism.
It was also during this time that a fashion known as kosode (小袖) first emerged. Literally translating as “small sleeves”, this type of loose, multi-layered garment was a short-sleeved predecessor to the must more well-known kimono. Normally, the short sleeves featured heavily rounded shoulders and were sewn entirely to the body of the garment, quite an innovation in Japanese fashion.
Finally, with the advent of an innovative clothesmaking technique, known as “straight-line cutting”, Japanese clothesmakers of the time ushered in the long reign of the kimono. Where, until this point, it was customary for courtiers to wear a top and a bottom to their outfit, the kimono obliterated that custom. This brand-new cutting technique allowed the dress-maker to create garments without needing to take into account the shape of the wearer’s body, and their own particularities. The kimono could be worn by anyone since it draped to the floor (or sometimes, to the ankles) and was tied in the middle with a sash).
The kimono rapidly won over the Japanese court, thanks largely to its immense versatility. A typically light-weight garment, it offered a great outfit to bear the summer heat, but could also feature thicker fabric, and be worn in layers, making it winter-appropriate.
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Over the next five hundred years, the kimono would dominate Japanese high fashion. During this time, it was customary for high-status noble women to hide their bodies under several kimono layers.
Noble women popularized the jūnihitoe (十二単). Quite simply translated as ‘twelve layers’, these were complex kimono-style outfits, featuring twelve separate layers of cloth. While in modern times, we often think of the kimono as a great, lightweight piece of clothing, the jūnihitoe was the opposite, with some outfits weighing as much as 20 kg.
As court fashion transformed, the heavy, difficult jūnihitoe was ditched in favor of the lighter kosode. Easier on the wearer, the kosode was typically paired with a light, skirt-like pair of underpants, and represented a dramatic shift in court fashion.
The Edo Period
The Edo Period (江戸時代) (1603-1867) was, by all accounts, one of the most significant (if not the most) periods in Japanese history. It was under the Tokugawa shogunate that some of the most radical changes were made to create the Japan we know today, and so, it was natural that the period ushered in some important changes in the world of fashion, also.
The Edo Period marked a long era of peace, prosperity and stability on an internal plane in Japan. In terms of fashion, the Edo Period saw the ascendance of highly-intricate kimono garments, worn as a symbol of power and status, often by samurai, but also sometimes by smaller, feudal lords.
As the country prospered, so too did the merchant class grow wealthier, and more attuned to fine art, fashion, and culture. During the Edo Period, everyone wore a kimono, although, toward the later half of the Edo era, the shogunate banned the use of fancy, bright, and elegant clothes, instead asking that people recycle and patch their existing kimono. Naturally, the number of kimonos you owned, and subsequently, the amount of damage and patches present depended on your status and social class. So during this time, the kimono became the prime indicator of who someone was, what their trade was, their social status, and so on.
The Meiji Period
The blossoming Edo Period was followed by the era of industrialization, the Meiji Period (江戸時代) (1868-1912). Though different in many ways, the Meiji era was equally relevant, as it was during this time that Japan shifted from being this small, isolated largely feudal society to a more globalized, industrialized state.
Thanks to Japan’s relationship with the Western world intensifying, this era brought quite a conflicting shift to the world of fashion. It was during the Meiji Period that the terms wafuku (和服) and youfuku (洋服) first became relevant.
Wafuku refers to traditional Japanese garments, so pretty much everything happening up until the Meiji Period qualifies under wafuku. Youfuku, on the other hand, refers to styles and trends adopted over from the Western world.
During the Meiji Period, these two ideas of fashion coexisted, often in the same outfit, with many an individual wearing a Western-style button-up shirt under their kimono, or accessorizing traditional Japanese garb with handbags, umbrellas, and other Western accessories.
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Japanese fashion in recent times
Following the disaster that was World War II, and the American occupation of Japan, in the late 1940s, Japanese fashion (understandably) became highly Westernized. The 1960s and 1970s were the era of the “preppy” fashion style. These young men, known as miyuki-zoku (since they mostly hung around Miyuki-dori in the high-end Ginza fashion district) were considered the first rebels of Japan, challenging older, conservative views, and dressing in a more Westernized, Ivy League style.
It might be strange, for the Western observer, to note that things so clean and “by the book” as wearing an elegant business suit, a crisp white shirt, and a tie could be considered rebellious. But in Japan in the 60s and 70s, led by publications such as Heibon Punch, this ivy style was youngsters’ way of challenging the social norm, and carving out their own, separate path from the older pre-war generations.
As the decades have worn on, Western fashion has continued to be a key influence on Japanese youth. This is not to say that modern-day Japanese trends can’t stand on their own two feet. Quite the contrary, at present, Japanese fashion is a fascinating blend of new and old, experimental and conservative.
3 Popular Japanese Fashion Trends
1. The Kimono
It’s unfair to say the kimono ever left the world of high fashion. Even as Japanese designers and trendsetters migrated toward a more Westernized concept of style, they never forgot their traditional roots. In other words, the wonderful versatility of the kimono continues to dazzle, centuries after it was first invented.
Today, the kimono and the yukata, with their loose-sleeved styles are still as popular as ever, even if most modern-day designers will usually pair them with a Western-style handbag, or pair of boots.
Arguably, as the Western world has adopted and embraced the kimono, recognizing the many benefits and comforts of this piece of clothing, the kimono no longer feels as “holding on to old fashion”. Rather, it’s one piece that has brilliantly adapted to the globalization of Japan and come out a champion.
2. Oversized, extra colorful
Nowadays, you can’t turn a corner in London, New York or Milan without seeing at least three youths in oversized jumpers and hoodies. Characterized by their bright, flashy colors, and now more commonly associated with the U.S. hip-hop scene, these bold garments actually originated on the streets of Tokyo, and are now making a comeback.
Usually an eclectic mix of color stains and dabs, the oversized hoodie is comfortable and versatile, being easy to pair with just about anything from a tight dress to loose jeans.
It’s no secret that Tokyo is one of the prime technology hubs in the entire world, so it stands to reason that one of the biggest trends right now is what experts are calling “techwear”. Essentially, these are also bold colors and unique designs, fashioned out of a large array of ‘unusual’ fabrics. Techwear is typically characterized as a mix of fabrics that don’t normally go together, but that modern designers are rethinking in such a way that they complement one another.
Techwear is hip. It’s off-center, and often more than a little unusual, but this visual daring usually creates a highly desirable, and street badass style that’s been slowly winning over not just the Japanese fashion scene, but also Western markets.
A Sea of Japanese Fashion Subcultures
A big aspect of visiting Japan for the first time is running into all these different, very bold, very unique styles of dress. While it can be argued that the fashion scene everywhere is becoming bolder and more daring, no city quite rivals the audacity and imagination of Tokyo youth.
So here, we look at some of the most popular fashion subcultures, and what’s driving them.
One of the biggest cultural shocks for first-time tourists is the sheer amount of cosplay on the busy streets of Tokyo. While there’s nothing new in dressing like your favorite TV character, Japanese cosplayers have been known to really take this to the next level. Often, young people are seen wearing complex, almost identical outfits to those of their favorite characters from manga, or anime programs.
These outfits are often really elaborate, with many hours going into getting the hair, make-up, accessories, and of course, the clothes themselves to mirror those of video game or anime characters.
However, it’s a common misconception that these cosplayers just throng the streets of the big cities. Typically, you won’t see serious cosplaying in Japan, except at dedicated events, or in areas like Yoyogi Park, or Harajuku.
2. Hostess / Hosuto
Also known as ‘hostess fashion’, hosuto is a type of outfit that is highly eclectic and is typically characterized by bold, flashy colors, and big, obnoxious hair. Hosuto outfits also often feature big pairs of sunglasses, and all sorts of designer accessories, used as a status statement.
3. Lolita Fashion
It’s perhaps unfair to refer to it as just one fashion since it actually features several, wildly distinctive subsections. One of the most popular styles is the gothic Lolita (ゴスロリ), which is a bit of a misnomer since these are typically highly elegant young ladies, mirroring Edwardian or Victorian high fashion. As the term gothic hints, these outfits are very dark, featuring a lot of celestial elements, and a lot of lace.
Then, you’ve got the sweet, innocent Lolita (ゴスロリ), which is perhaps closer to the eponymous Vladimir Nabokov character. Where the gothic Lolita is something of a dark academia young lady, the sweet Lolita is defined by more childlike qualities. These outfits often feature a lot of bows, ruffles, and pastel, innocent colors, like white, pink, and light yellow.
There are, of course, several other subgenres, such as the Punk Lolita (パンクロリ) who, albeit similar in some ways to the gothic Lolita, which also features bold colors, like pink or blue.
A particularly intriguing Lolita fashion is that of the Wa Lolita (パンクロリ), which uses elements of traditional Japanese fashion, incorporating those into the Western-style Lolita aesthetic.
4. Decora Fashion
Nicknamed thus from the word “decoration” (デコレーション), Decora fashion types are youngsters often dressed in loud, bold colors and decked out in several layers of cutesy, kawaii accessories. Decora fashion includes a lot of complex color schemes, and often plays into a childish aesthetic, using oversized, flashy accessories, headbands, fake cat ears, and other such items often associated with kids.
5. Fairy Key
Another variant of the Decora fashion is the Fairy Key subculture. Also characterized by a deep focus on childish accessories and styles, the Fairy Key subculture pays homage to 80s and 90s children’s programs, like My Little Pony, or Strawberry Shortcake.
For even more Japanese fashion subcultures, take a look at this great article by AllWomensTalk!
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The Japanese Fashion Lover’s
Tokyo Shopping Guide
Finally, let’s turn our attention to where you can acquire some lovely outfits in Tokyo, depending on your own individual style.
As one of Tokyo’s prime shopping districts, Ginza should be your number-one stop if you’re in the market for high-end, more fashion brand-type of clothing. Here, you’re guaranteed to find a wide selection of elegant, classy outfits and accessories (right inside an electronics paradise).
Shibuya is commonly known as the main trendsetter in Japanese fashion. As the home of many well-known clothing stores, such as Shibuya 109, this is more of a youth-oriented shopping destination. Along the district’s busy streets, you’ll find a lot more innovative, high-concept, and alternative fashion outlets and boutiques. This is definitely the place to go if you’re in the market for more subculture-oriented items.
Of course, we can’t talk about Tokyo shopping without mentioning Harajuku which, as we’ve seen, is one of the most sought-out shopping districts in the city. The district blends high fashion concepts with youthful styles, and counter-culture trendsetters, such as Takeshita Dori.
Also casually referred to as Shimokita, this is Tokyo’s more laidback, bohemian district. In Shimokitazawa, you’ll find fewer crowds and a lot of vintage clothing stores, so this is your No. 1 thrifting stop. You’ll also encounter a great selection of record stores and small bookshops, to tickle your inner artist.
Whether you’re looking to drastically revamp your wardrobe, or are just curious to sample a new, alternative style from your own, Japan’s got you covered. From the humble origins of the kimono to today’s zany subcultures, Japanese fashion is among the most fascinating in the world!
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