Dress as political statement

January 28, 2010

Over the weekend I started reading ‘Bonds of civility: aesthetics networks and the political origins of Japanese culture’, by Eiko Ikegami. She discusses how fashion drove the economy in the Tokugawa era. As Tokugawa Ieyasu struggled to establish the shogunate government, low ranked samurai, ronin and servants expressed their discontent for the feudal order through deviant fashion. They hung around the streets wearing flamboyant clothing, long swords with large sword guards and showy red scabbards, their hair shaved at the front and long at the back, behaving raucously. Their dress signified their sense of solidarity amongst themselves and they became known as kabukimono (kabuki = not straight, mono = person). Women in the Yoshiwara quarter started imitating these men, impersonating them and putting on performances which developed into kabuki theatre.

As a form of social control the Shogun introduced various sumptuary laws which restricted apparel according to social status and class. The problem was peace. During the Warring States period, servants of samurai and other social groups had the chance to increase their status through military prowess but with peace there was no way for this to happen and also no way for samurai themselves to prove their prowess. The daimyo (lords) couldn’t spend money on military goods because that would be seen as challenging the Shogun, so they spent on silk and fashion. Samurai used fashion as their way to express their status, thus driving up demand. The introduction of cotton had also revolutionised the textile trade as it was easily stored and transported, unlike hemp. Merchants started to outstrip samurai in their earnings but were excluded from the formal political process. They began to wear stylish and expensive kimono (samurai could not do business for profit – they remained reliant on their rice tithes) as a way to circumvent the hierarchical nature of the social order. Various sumptuary laws were introduced during the era, for example non-samurai were prohibited from wearing silk, lower ranks could only wear tsumugi (a low quality silk) etc. By the 18th century clothing had become a clear marker of class boundaries, showing both individual status and demarcating formal dress from daily attire.

With the decline in the samurai’s wealth, they began to idealise an ascetic lifestyle. Quiet, somber subdued hues and restrained styles came to epitomise the aesthetic of iki. This aesthetic is still prevalent in contemporary Japan.

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