Printer Friendly Version

Japanese Kimono

During the Edo period, both Kabuki actors and courtesans greatly influenced Japanese fashion.
Harunobu Suzuki,Courtesan with Attendants on Parade, c. 1766, color woodblock print, Bequest of Richard P. Gale

Because of sumptuary laws, members of the lower classes became creative with their kimono designs.
Kunisada Utagawa, Making Paper Patterns for Dresses, Edo period, color woodblock print, Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr.


key idea
Rules were meant to be broken

Traditional Japanese society was divided into four distinct groups: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. At the top, the samurai were the military elite who possessed the most power and wealth. At the bottom, the merchants were low in status because they did not produce any goods or materials, as the farmers and artisans did.

The Edo period a was prosperous time in Japan, with much economic growth and urban expansion. Although the samurai were still considered the privileged class, merchants benefited the most from the booming economy. However, their newfound wealth could not change their low social standing. So they lavishly spent their money on the latest trends, including fashion.

The extravagant garments worn by members of the lower class troubled the Japanese government. In order to maintain the social order, the government imposed strict laws ("sumptuary laws") prohibiting the use of expensive fabrics, certain colors, ornate embroidery, or silver and gold in the merchants’ clothing.

The merchants were quite creative in finding ways around these restrictions. While they used simple cotton to make their outer robes, they lined these garments with the richest silk, in the boldest colors, to show off their wealth. A new style, known as iki, emphasized the refined elegance of subtle details and muted colors in clothing.

March 2008