Nobles in European Fashions by Chikanobu Toyohara (1899)
Composed of Emperor Meiji, the Empress and their retinue, this party is on a walk along the Sumida river, admiring cherry blossoms. Ladies wear sumptuous Victorian dresses and hats while the emperor sports his usual military attire. From the 1870s, the imperial government engaged Japan on a path of modernisation, including in matters of clothing. Imperial edicts of 1872 and the following years recommended to male nobles and officials to wear Western dress, based on court uniforms used in Europe at that time. Initially elite women went on wearing Japanese traditional garments, but in 1886 these regulations were extended to women, inviting them to wear Western clothes - clearly modelled on the latest Parisian fashions - on formal occasions.
The imperial couple decided to show the example, wearing Western dress on official occasions. Print artists and publishers were commissioned to portray them enjoying life at the palace or attending official events dressed in Western clothes. While the Japanese elite followed their example, the great majority of people, however, continued to wear traditional Japanese attire, especially women.
The above triptych is a perfect example of how the image of the Emperor Meiji and his family was used to promote the policies of Westernisation, from their clothing to their interior décor. The government’s objective was to push the nation to follow suit on the path of modernisation of the country.
After the initial craze for Western clothing among the Japanese elites in the 1870s and 1880s, there was a period of reckoning for the rich local traditions whereby the kimono came back into fashion amongst high-class ladies. Male fashion meanwhile persisted in following the West, which was further impelled by the increasing relations between Japan and the outside world. Hence, representative men had increasingly adopted the dark suit as the universal male garment.