Over the past 150 years, both Japan and China have experienced dramatic change. Both have gone from relatively isolated nations with long-standing imperial rule, to relatively modern, industrialised countries, involved in world trade and affairs. As Japan and China have changed, so have the conventions of clothing and appearance of their populations, with each new look representing greater underlying change in the values, practises and aims of the nations. This change can be directly related to select historical events for both countries in the past one and a half centuries.
Japan began to open to the western world in 1853, when the United States Navy arrived in Tokyo and instituted trade (Morton and Olenik 2005, 132). Political changes soon followed, namely the Meji Restoration, a new regime in the emperor’s name, which promoted centralisation of government and development of industry. The period lasted from 1868 to 1914, and saw a dramatic change in Japanese politics, economics, and culture (Morton and Olenik 2005, 147). The Meji Restoration was “a return to effective rule by a centralised monarchy,” viewed at the time as “restoring the emperor to his rightful position which had been usurped by the Fujiwara and a succession of shoguns” (Mason and Caiger 1997, 258). “In politics, as in economic, the Meji era was characterised by openness, willingness to experiment and innovate, and its rewards to men of exceptional ability” (Mason and Caiger 1997, 280).
At the beginning of the period, men and women both wore the traditional garb of Japan: the kimono. The Kimono had been introduced to Japan over 2,000 years before, during the Jomon period (Anon 1999). The kimono of the time was a loose robe with wide sleeves and a similarly wide belt at the waist, called an obi, which could be tied in a number of ways (Anon 1999). Some women’s obis were over thirteen feet long and their elaborate knots took as long as half an hour to tie (Anon 1999). By the mid-1800s the kimono had moved from several layers to only one, although a number of layers of undergarments were common for women, even in the hot summer months (Stinchecum 1993, 60).
Women’s kimonos were additionally more elaborate than men’s and came with several acceptable style variations (Anon 1999). The colour, fabric, sleeve length, and obi all reflected informational details of the woman herself, such as her age, marital, and social status. For example, a colourful kimono with longer, flowing sleeves indicated an unmarried woman, while a shorter sleeved kimono (wide sleeves at the wrists) and more sombre colours indicated a married woman (Anon 1999). Seasonal changes to the kimono were also common (Anon 1999).
Men’s kimonos were typically of a stiffer material in conservative colours: blue, brown, gray, white or black. It was one layer, like the woman’s, but men did not wear as many layers of undergarments, particularly in the summer heat (Stinchecum 1993, 60). The sleeves of the man’s kimono were closer to the wrist, and less flowing than that of an unmarried woman (Anon 1999). His obi was considerably shorter and knotted simply, with little variation in types of knots (Anon 1999).
In the middle of the 1800s, kimonos were typically made of ramie, with silk and other materials gradually being introduced (Stinchecum 2001, 57). However, commoners were at one point forbidden to wear ramie when its demand increased amongst Japanese training partners such as China and Korea. Banana fibre cloth gradually became additionally used for kimonos, for commoners and royalty alike (Stinchecum 2001, 57).
Royalty led the appearance changes of the Meji period. In 1872, the emperor proclaimed the switch to Western dress for all court and official ceremonies. This both symbolised Japan’s new integration into the world arena and greatly simplified his officials’ lives. (Hastings 1993). The Meji court combined two previous social elite groups, the samurai of the Tokugawa period and the Kyoto courtiers of the earlier Nara and Heian periods.
They differed also in appearance: the courtiers wore caps, while the samurai wore swords. “As the new elite tried to create a common dress code, samurai struggled with ceremonial caps while courtiers forgot their swords.” While western clothing was foreign to both groups, at least they were equally ill at ease. (Hastings 1993). Western clothing was a levelling mechanism amongst the Japanese, with samurai and courtiers no longer able to distinguish themselves with specific dress.
The empress also began a change in appearance. After 1872, the empress wore Japanese clothing while entertaining foreign diplomats and their wives. However, “she abandoned the Japanese customs of shaving her eyebrows and blackening her teeth,” which were considered strange by foreign visitors. The Empress shifted from Japanese dress to Western clothing for public appearances in 1886, requiring the same dress change for all women of the court. “The empress' change in costume in 1886 was a permanent change in her public image, both in her own personal appearance and in the representations of her viewed by the public.” (Hastings 1993).
This change was not accepted by the majority of Japanese women, who continued to wear the kimono. However, many women entering the workforce began to move to uniforms representing their occupations. Her new clothes “coincided with the creation of important public roles for women: teaching, nursing, and military support, all roles that required uniforms” (Hastings 1993). When the Japanese government established two higher educational institutions for women in the 1880s, western dress was mandated at both (Hastings 1993). “The empress' Western clothes represented the importance of women in the transformation of Japan into a strong and wealthy nation” (Hastings 1993).
Japan was undergoing fundamental shifts not only in women’s clothing, but also in its self-perception as a player on the world stage. “By the time of the emperor’s death in 1912, an official ideology was firmly established” in Japan (Mason and Caiger 1997, 294). This ideology, Kokuai, viewed the state as “a hierarchally ordered family” superior to the other “families,” or nations, of the world (Mason and Caiger 1997, 296). Japan was therefore free to borrow from other nations, whether in fashion or technological advances, but remained a superior society. Japan entered World War One with the Allies, and swiftly developed a merchant fleet (Morton and Olenik 2005, 169). Following the war, military expansion was undertaken in areas immediately around the Japanese islands, including the taking of Manchukud (Morton and Olenik 2005, 179).
The next segment of Japanese history marked a rapid expansion, liberalism, and militarism. The government developed into a system of multiple political parties, with worker’s causes being a primary rallying point for many (Morton and Olenik 2005, 171-172). Struggling through severe economic depression from 1929 to 1932, along with the rest of the world, Japan emerged from the depression with a heightened sense of nationalism. Resources were diverted to the rise of the importance of the army, and a view of Japan as a world military power (Morton and Olenik 2005, 169). Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in 1936, and began its China campaign a year later (Morton and Olenik 2005, 183-184). In 1941, Japan drew the United States into the second World War with a surprise and devastating attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii (Mason and Caiger 1997, 314).
This military expansion led to a call for the conservation of resources amongst the Japanese people. Fabric, like many other products, was in short supply. Most Japanese had shifted to western-style shirts, skirts, and trousers for everyday wear by this time (Pyle 1996, 132). As in the west, clothing became more form-fitting, allowing a greater conservation of fabric, and less accessories and details were included (Anon 2004). Fashion was not a prevalent concern amongst men or women, and generally devalued in the favour of promotion of Japan as a world military power (Pyle 1996, 131).
The Japanese, of course, fell to the Allies in World War II, after significant economic costs and loss of life, not the least of which was the utter destruction of two Japanese cities by atomic bombs (Morton and Olenik 2005, 320). At the 1946 New Year, the emperor openly supported democracy for the first time in a speech, stating his new role was as a “symbol of the state,” “deriving this position from the will of the people in whom resides sovereign power” (Mason and Caiger 1997, 356).
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Japan quietly rebuilt from its military loss. The hard work, long hours, and general diligence and productivity of the Japanese worker let to a “constant increase in real income and living standards” (Mason and Caiger 1997, 364). Japanese men and women mainly followed the fashion trends of the west throughout the period, maintaining the kimono for women for special occasions but not for everyday dress (Ni 2001). In 1955, the government was taken over by the Liberal Democratic Party, who remained in power until a party split in 1993 (Mason and Caiger 1997, 369-371). The party emphasised productivity, and led Japan through a period of rapid industrialisation and increased dominance in world trade and production, particularly in the areas of electronics and automobiles (Morton and Olenik 2005, 217).
As in their production of such technology, Japan has been content for the most part to efficiently produce the designs of other countries in its clothing for the past forty years, with a few Japanese designers having international impact. A stronger emergence of Japanese designers has occurred in the fashion world in the last fifteen years (Martin 1995, 215). The country has produced and modified western design, however, working from a position not based on the fashion model as is typical in Europe and the Americas, but on the common wearer. Martin (1995, 216) quotes famous Japanese designer Kenzo as saying “Fashion is not for the few, it is for all the people.”
Japanese design is therefore more likely to involve layers and abstract shaping, as opposed to the tailored and form-conscious styles of the west (Martin 1995, 219). Japanese designers, in particular Kawakubo, are generally accredited with the return of black as the colour of choice worldwide in the late 1980s and 1990s (Martin 1995, 220).
In China, our study begins with the Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest rebellions in the history of the country. It lasted sixteen years, until 1866, and nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Qing dynasty, China’s monarchy (Mackerras, 1998, 9). The Qing dynasty had taken over China in the 1600s. They were Manchu, a smaller and less-sophisticated people group than the Han, who comprised the majority of the Chinese population) (Anon 2005).
The Manchus, realising the difficulties that ruling the Han posed, had mandated change to their appearance conventions in the 1600s. This included the Manchu hairstyle for men, the front half of the head shaved, with the rest in a pigtail down the back, and Manchu-style clothing (Garret 1994, 47-61). Although strongly resisted by the Han, the Manchus simply and brutally forced the Han people to adopt their appearance conventions, establishing one unified clothing and hairstyle for the nation (Anon 2005). This style of dress remained remarkably stable in China for almost the entire Qing reign. “Formal dress for Han women in the Qing dynasty consisted of a full jacked and pleated skirt worn over loose trousers” (Finnane 1996, 105). Several jackets were typically layered, with low collars, so low as to be almost nonexistent, and huge sleeves.
Women wore a black skirt on the outside of trousers when going outside their home, although on certain occasions coloured skirts were acceptable (Finnane 1993, 430). Having such a ‘uniform’ of dress promoted the unity of China desired although rarely achieved during the Qing period. The almost total seclusion of women’s bodies within their volumous clothing represented their submissiveness, as did the importance placed on little movement while a woman walked (Finnane 1993, 431). For example, the typical Chinese bride of the period had numerous small bells sewn on her skirt, but “was to emit no more than a faint chime as she moved” (Finnane 1993, 431).
The founding of the Republic in 1912 signalled a move towards greater personal freedom and increased interests in world concerns. As a country, China experienced major political and economic instability, including ongoing war between various factions within the country and regular violence (Anon 2005). In 1912, after a bloody uprising, China’s Empress Dowager Longyu issued an imperial edict, which ended two thousand years of imperial rule in China. (Anon 2005). Although the nation fragmented, and remained so for the next several years, strong themes of nationalism dominated China for the first half of the twentieth century (Mackerras 1998, 4). In addition, tension between the desire for progress and industrialisation and the fear of losing traditional values and culture polarised various groups (Mackerras 1998, 4). By 1927 two primary and opposed forces had emerged, the Nationalist (KMT) and Communist (CCP) parties.
These remained at odds for the remainder of the period. In 1934, the CCP found a new leader in Mao Zedong, who led the party and its guerrilla operations, eventually taking control of the country in 1949 (Anon 2005).
One major facet of the change in appearance conventions during this period was the changing role of women in society. Literacy was only amongst well-to-do Chinese women in the early 1900s, but by 1910, there were over 120 schools for girls, sponsored by the government, missionary groups, or private individuals (Beahan 1975, 381). A number of magazines and journals for women were also started, although most were short-lived, emphasising concern over the role of China in the changing world (Beahan 1975, 383). Education was the main focus of the call for women’s rights, under the argument that as mothers of the future generations, educated women would raise stronger and more modern citizens (Beahan 1975, 385).
Calls for the end of foot-binding were also made, based on the need for Chinese women to become strong and the country’s need to compete globally (Beahan 1975, 386). The Qing court had actually outlawed the practise in 1902, but it was still common in rural areas (Mackerras 1998, 76).
The need to end foot-binding was based on the new view that “women in a physically weakened condition could do nothing, not even perform their traditional duties of companion and mother” (Beahan 1975, 390). As women began to abandon foot-binding, a change was necessary in the shoe arena. The soft cloth shoes of typical Chinese attire, which accommodated the deformed bound foot, were soon replaced by leather shoes and high heels from Europe and America (Finnane 1996, 108). This further facilitated women’s increased participation in society and industry.
Increasing influence from foreign nations, particularly those in the west, began to affect not only shoes, but the typical dress, hairstyle, and appearance for both women and men. Popular books of the times told stories of “household beauties” from America and Europe, such as Heroes’ Wives, by Ding Chu-0 (Beahan 1975, 395). Hollywood movies became increasingly popular in urban areas (Anon 2005). Literature also began to assert women’s right to work, and how it would improve the economic condition of the woman, family, and country, and better equip a woman as a mother (Beahan 1975, 401).
The high collar prevalent for decades in Chinese women’s fashion was introduced, and skirts or trousers worn individually became options (Finnane 1996, 108). One significant change in the period was the switch from women wearing a traditional two-piece costume, the shirt and skirt, to a one-piece long gown in the 1920s. The one-piece garment had historically been a male-only mode of dress (Finnane 1993, 435). Many scholars believe this change emphasized women’s increasing independence and power in society (Finnane 1993, 435).
Men were not exempt from appearance changes. Military uniforms had already changed to a western style, following the Japanese in such a change, in the beginning of the century. Men gradually abandoned “the brilliant silks and satins of Chinese gentility” in favour of more sombre western colours in men’s attire (Finnane 1996, 107). Most men additionally adopted the leather shoes, brown or black, typical of western dress, at least when they could afford to do so (Finnane 1996, 107). Government officials were required to wear western clothing, with the stipulation that these be made in China from Chinese fabric.
In addition, clothing and appearance began to have political connotations. “Before the establishment of the Republic, clothing and hairstyle were key tools for reformist intellectuals to publicize their political commitment (Edwards 2000, 129). In the 1911 revolution, for example, men “cut their long queues as a sign of defiance to the Manchu rulers” (Edwards 2000, 129). Men went through a period immediately following the revolution with some experimenting with different types of western-inspired clothing, although the majority of men in rural areas maintained traditional Qing dress until the mid-1920s (Edwards 2000, 129).
In the mid-1920s, the qipao, and its male counterpart the changpao, became popular (Finnane, 1996, 105). Its appearance can be traced to the trading port of Shanghai, and many consider the qipao and changpao adaptations of clothing worn by Japanese students at the time (Edwards 2000, 132). The qipao, or “banner gown,” was named after the eight banners under which the Manchus had launched their invasion of China two hundred years before (Finnane 1993, 435). The “qi” refers to the Manchurians, and the “chi” is their word for dress or robe. The qipao therefore, is simply a Manchu dress, although it differed significantly from the fashions of the Qing period (Ni 2001). The changpao had similar Qing connotations. Originally both were stiff, loose garments, with little difference between the male and female versions (Ni 2001).
Women across China embraced the then-androgynous qipao, and it quickly became the dominant convention of women’s dress in all but very rural areas, where it was considered too restrictive for the work demanded of women. Women adopted the qipao not in support for the Qing dynasty and GMD Party, the right-wing political party in power, but “because they wanted to look like men” (Finnane, 1993, 435). Women of the educated classes “had been immersed in Western cultural influence and were intoxicated by its calls for equality between men and women, but the yawning gap between these ideals and the reality that surrounded them was a constant humiliation” (Finnane 1993, 435).
Women of the period also began to cut their hair in the western bob, increasing the sameness of their appearance with men. Both are seen as reflections of the women’s rights movement in China during the period (Roberts 2003, 362). ”The modern woman was conceived as politically aware, patriotic, independent, and educated” (Edwards 2000, 116).
In addition to the qipao, western clothes were also increasingly popular for urban men, and urban women in particular. A Chinese version of the western ‘flapper’ could be seen on the streets of major port cities during the 1920s (Finnane 1993, 436). This was typically an adaptation rather than a direct copy of western dress, but typically included the bobbed hair and make-up that completed the flapper look in Europe and the Americas (Finnane 1993, 436).
Collapse of GMD (rightists) and CCP (leftists) relative cooperation in 1927 caused persecution of women who had begun wearing western attire, supposedly because it demonstrated their left-leaning sympathies (Edwards 2000, 118). Chaing Kai-shek set up a Nationalist government in 1928 (Wilson 2002, 608). In the White Terror of the same year, the Nationalists in power burnt books, and were generally violent against those of opposing views; in several accounts gangs literally tore the clothing off women in western dress in the public streets (Edwards 2000, 119). This further encouraged the wearing of the qipao, as it was seen as a support for the Nationalist regime, as a Chinese fashion adaptation, rather than a political alignment with the west.
Some Chinese did oppose the change in dress, however, contending that it subverted a woman’s natural role as mother and wife (Finnane 1993, 435). For example, the mother in the popular novel Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, did not want the traditional sedan chair or gown for her marriage, a decision that greatly dismayed her mother. The bride considered herself a revolutionary, versus the traditional role for women, and therefore such things were now unimportant (Chang 2003, 129). There was little of such opposition for the changpao for men.
Interestingly, Chaing’s wife, Song Meiling, initially wore western fashions in her interactions with foreign dignitaries. Both wore western clothing for their wedding; she a white Christian gown and he a western-style coat, striped trousers and spats (Wilson 2002, 615-616). Afterwards Chaing rarely wore western attire, and his wife soon adopted the qipao (Wilson 2002, 616-617). Song Meiling had an excellent command of the English language, but it was “the way she used the language of clothes to structure of effect of what she actually said,” that resulted in her eventual choice of the qipao for public appearances (Wilson 2002, 616). She was aware of her role as the photogenic symbol of China to the world. Although this produced a number of detractors within her own country (neither she or her husband were particularly popular at home), foreigners were quite taken with her beauty, grace, and embodiment of all they considered Chinese. Her 1943 trip to America, for example, was an overwhelming public relations success (Wilson 2002, 616).
The CCP, in 1931, separated from the Nationalist-controlled China and aligned itself with communist Russia. The Chinese Soviet Republic demonstrated its progressive stance for women by providing for women’s rights in its constitution (Mackerras 1998, 77). The constitution guaranteed the “thorough emancipation of women,” including economic and political provisions in addition to attention to cultural issues, such as freedom of marriage (Mackerras 1998, 77). In response the GMD launched the New Life Movement in 1934, calling for a return to traditional role for women (Edwards 2000, 119).
Amidst all the squabbling between the Nationalists and Communists, the qipao gradually developed male and female variations. The man’s changpao remained much the same, but the women’s version became softer and more form fitted, revealing a good bit more of curves and shape (Finnane 1993, 437). Shorter sleeves were a gradually accepted but controversial adaptation, with slits up the side becoming a popular aide to walking and movement, in addition to an opportunity to highlight a woman’s legs (Finnane 1993, 437). This form of the qipao, popularised in Hollywood movies and the foreign media, is the modern western concept of traditional Chinese attire.
Men’s changpao similarly became less effeminate, changing to stronger, darker colours and “masculine” fabrics with less drape (Finnane 1996, 116) 1949 was a dramatic turning point in Chinese history. Mao Zedong and the communist party took control of the country, driving many of the Nationalists to flee to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the west and implementing sweeping changes in all aspects of Chinese life (Anon 2005). While equality for men and women was prominently espoused, many personal freedoms were subjugated to communist rule. Communists began a national agenda focusing on production rather than culture, with the anticipated emergence of China as a military power (Anon 2005).
Communism was not a harbinger for improved fashion. Mao refused to wear western dress, choosing instead a loose jacket and pants that would come to be known as the “Mao suit” (Wilson 2002, 609). This suit would become the primary uniform of Chinese men and women for the next thirty years. There were minor adaptations between the women’s and men’s versions of the suit, with the woman’s jacket having a lower collar, typically buttoning at the breast, while the man’s jacket buttoned at the neck (Wilson 2002, 610). The suit symbolise the social and economic levelling espoused by communism, its seriousness, and its emphasis on economy (Wilson 2002, 610).
For the first several years of the communist regime, women could still be seen in qipao, or the occasional Manchu fur coat (Finnane 1993, 121). However, Red guards began to systematically destroy evidences of China’s cultural past in the name of purifying the country’s ideology, including destruction of clothing (Wilson 2002, 614). This was an ongoing practise, spanning many years. In Wild Swans, the author describes a raid in 1967 on her home where the grandmother’s embroidered traditional clothing, the mother’s fur-lined coat, and the daughter’s woollen trousers were all confiscated (Chang 2003, 367).
Following Mao’s death in 1976, a gradual relaxation of hard-line communist beliefs has progressively brought China into the modern world. The open-door policy of the late 1980s further exposed Chinese men and women to fashions and cultures popular around the world (Anon 2005). As China became a leading producer of low-cost western-style clothing, such garments became also available to the Chinese populace. A variety in hairstyles for both men and women has gradually emerged, particularly in the past fifteen years, with more prominent displays of independent looks occurring in the cities (Gates 1989, 826). Today China’s dress and appearance conventions in most places are similar to those of the rest of the world, taking direction from designers in Europe and the Americas (Ni 2005).
In many ways, the evolution of appearance conventions in Japan and China are remarkably similar. Both began with long-standing, traditional clothing styles emphasising layers of loose clothing, and gradually adapted to clothing and appearance conventions indistinguishable from the rest of the world. There was considerable tension in both nations as clothing and appearance changed, demonstrating a tension between the desire for increased industrialisation, economic growth, and world importance and concerns for loss of traditional culture and value systems. Analysis of clothing and appearance trends for both countries reveals a correlation between the roles of women and changes in fashion, particularly the lessening of gender-specific clothes.
Both countries have also experienced a great loss in both the perceived social appropriateness and historical significance of maintenance of traditional clothing styles. Interestingly, in Asian countries where western nations held long-term occupation, native dress was more strongly preserved. Finnane (1996, 102) contends that clothing was used as a rallying point by native populations, a way of separating themselves from and resisting occupying rule. Therefore the Sari continues to be worn in India, which for many years was under British control. In China and Japan, however, neither of whom suffered long-term occupation, much of the traditional clothing forms have passed completely from everyday use (Finnane 1996, 103).
The qipao survived in Hong Kong and amongst Chinese who fled abroad in response to the 1949 revolution (Ni 2001). Many of these expatriates continue to wear the qipao for special occasions, such as weddings. A recent movie “In the Mood for Love” sparked a renewed interest in the qipao in urban areas of China, where many young women are hiring tailors to craft one of the traditional dresses for them. It is reported to be particularly popular in Shanghai (Ni 2001). In this, Japan and China are also similar, in that the Japanese have continued to wear the kimono for symbolic and special occasions even as it passed from everyday use.
Obvious differences between the two include the linear progression of Japanese dress, with the gradual transformation from the kimono for both men and women to western clothing. This reflects the relative stability of Japanese government during the period. While there were several significant ideology shifts in Japan, the nation progressed politically from an imperial state to a democracy, and although suffered some serious economic drawbacks, compared to China had a relatively stable pattern of economic growth. China saw an adoption of western style over its traditional attire, followed by a reverse to the qipao and to some extent the changpao, then an adoption of a plain communist “suit” before a final adoption and integration of western fashion. As its politics shifted from dynasty to republic to communism to a modified communism, usually through bloody military conflict and war, so the appearance conventions of the nation swung wildly during the period.
In Japan, men’s and women’s clothing retained gender differences, with clearly defined distinctions between the two up to the relative androgyny of today’s casual jeans and shirt style. This similarly reflects the gradual increase in women’s rights and economic importance. In China, women and men wore androgynous clothing at several points, indicating the struggle for women’s rights and equality within that country, and then the espousing of equality amongst the communist ideology. This reflected the sharp jolts in women’s rights, having them increased, then withdrawn, then the attempted elimination of gender differences.
The most prominent difference between the two nations, as far as appearance conventions, however, is in the growth and development of Japanese fashion design. Japan has produced a number of international designers who have influenced clothing design not only in Japan, but also throughout the fashion world. Japan has further developed their clothing industry to support such designers, allowing the sector to differentiate across different prices levels of clothing, from inexpensive to designer (Martin 1995, 221). China, on the other hand, is known primarily for its production of clothing designed elsewhere, and for the production of lower-end clothing items. It has not produced significant designers nor impacted the fashion industry through design.
In conclusion, both Japan and China have experienced a drastic change in appearance conventions over the past 150 years. Both have moved from clothing styles evidencing little change for centuries at a time and quite unique to their geographical context, to fashions typical around the world. However, examination of their road to clothing and appearance change reveals the very different political, economic, and cultural roads the two nations have followed, particularly in regards to personal freedom and the rights of women. These divers roads have led to a distinct difference in their prominence in world fashion and influence in the appearance conventions of other nations.
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