Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Victorian Fashion

The Japanese Parisian by Alfred Stevens, 1872.

During the mid-19th century, Japan opened trade with the West for the first time in more than 200 years.  The influx of Japanese imports that followed inspired an intense fascination with Japanese art and culture.  This fascination manifested itself in the paintings of Victorian era artists like Alfred Stevens, Vincent van Gogh, James McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet.  It also had a profound influence on Victorian fashion.  As the 2015 book of Clothing and Fashion states:

“The obsession with Japonism in fashion hastened permanent departure from the cumbersome Victorian layers and maximalist aesthetic, anticipating the minimalism of 20th-century modernism.”

1870 Silk Taffeta Tea Gown made from Kimono Fabric.(Image via Museum at FIT)

1870 Silk Taffeta Tea Gown made from Kimono Fabric.
(Image via Museum at FIT)

By the 1870s, the French term Japonisme (also known as Japonism) had been coined to describe the influence of Japanese aesthetics on 19th and early 20th century art and apparel in Europe and America.  One of the biggest influences—at least as far as Victorian women’s fashion was concerned—was the Japanese kimono.  19th century fashion magazines and society journals extolled its graceful lines and exotic, Eastern elegance.  As an 1892 edition of Table Talk declares:

“Every fashionable hostess who will pour tea through the spring’s sunny afternoons, will ache to possess a kimono after she has once noticed its graceful proportions setting off the figure of one of her sisters.” 

1870s Gown made from Kimono Fabric.(Image via Kyoto Costume Institute)

1870s Gown made from Kimono Fabric.
(Image via Kyoto Costume Institute)

Soon, kimono fabric and fabric with Japanese motifs, such as birds, fans, flowers, and fish, was being used to make dressing gowns and tea-gowns.  Table Talk even went so far as to state:

“The interest recently taken in the costumes and social customs of our Oriental sisters is genuine; and, with various modifications, of course, it is by no means improbable that our own and neighboring social circles may very soon be copying the Japanese modes with the same enthusiasm that for years has induced them to borrow ideas from the Parisian modistes and the London tailor establishments.”

Kimono Dressing Gown, 1885.(Image via FIDM Museum)

Kimono Dressing Gown, 1885.
(Image via FIDM Museum)

By the close of the century, the popularity of the Japanese kimono had only increased.  Though the sight of a Victorian woman wearing a kimono was still far from common, amongst the most fashionable society ladies, gowns made with kimono fabric or embellished with Japanese motifs remained all the rage.  As one example, an 1898 issue of London’s The Sketch reports on a “smart” dinner party given by a society hostess in New York where all of the women in attendance wore Japanese kimonos.

Accompanying the article in The Sketch was the following humorous poem.  I have included it in its entirety:

Good-bye to the time when the maid of our clime

Went over to France for the fashion,

And copied each craze (as the men did the plays—

Though wat‘ring Parisian passion).

But now she is fanned in Chrysanthemum Land,

By taking its fashions on loan, O!

And changing her taste for the waist that is laced,

My lady adopts the kimono.

 

At first the Savoy gave her joy in the toy

When she ventured to see ‘The Mikado,’

And straight did succumb to the charm of Yum-Yum—

Though to copy her seemed like bravado.

But losing all fears with the flight of the years,

She does up her hair in a cone, O!

And now she can’t stop, for she thinks she must flop

In the folds of a flowing kimono.

 

And if she’d begin to exhibit the pin

Which bonnets the sensible Jappy,

Instead of that vat of a matinée-hat,

I think I’d be perfectly happy.

For this aping Japan is a plan which a man

Must regard as pro publico bono

So I welcome the aid of the Japanese maid

In bringing the dragoned kimono.

 

For the only drawbacks to this beautiful sack’s

Replacing the corset and kirtle,

Is not in its hues, for our maidens can use

The shade of the delicate myrtle;

But our tongue makes it hard for the bard to discard

A rhyme which is compound in tone, O!

And thus it’s a task for a jingler to ask

The Muses to rhyme to kimono.

Portrait of a Woman by Alfred Stevens, 1880.

Portrait of a Woman by Alfred Stevens, 1880.

The fashion for all things Japanese continued on into the 20th century and beyond.  However, as much as Japonisme is evident in the fashions of later decades (with the Roaring Twenties being of particular note), I still find the Victorian era fascination with art and apparel from the exotic, mysterious East to be the most interesting period of all.

*Author’s Note: I apologize to anyone who found the above poem offensive.  Unfortunately, when quoting history, one often has to take the bad with the good. 

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Blanco, José.  Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015.

Forney, Tillie May.  “Fashionable Luncheon & Tea Toilets.”  Table Talk.  Vol. 8.  Philadelphia: Table Talk Publishing, 1893.

Miller, Scott.  Historical Dictionary of Modern Japanese Literature and Theater.  Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality.  Vol. 21.  London: Ingram Brothers, 1898.

Yokoyama, Toshio.  Japan in the Victorian Mind: A Study of Stereotyped Images of a Nation, 1850-80.  London: The Macmillan Press, 1987.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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23 thoughts on “Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Victorian Fashion

  1. saulemiorta says:

    Lovely article. I visited an exhibition this weekend on the ‘Girl in Kimono’ series by Breitner, which is another lovely example of this trend, so it’s nice to read a little more background!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. madamewriter says:

    Excellent history of Japanese aesthetics! The wildest part is – I have been looking for a lovely kimono for myself for three days. Now I understand the allure. Thank you for writing this fab essay, MiMi – your work is detailed and interesting. (Sharing)
    @MmePhilosopher

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vickie says:

    Agreed – the dressing gown is fabulous! Even today you cannot deny the beauty of kimono’s – even Mrs Breaking Bad (Walter White) wore one and looked lovely. Mimi – what would we do without you – forever bringing beauty to our attention!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jdellevsen says:

    Fascinating! Japonisme made Western artists see the world anew. Oscar Wilde said in The Decay of Lying, “If you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.” [link removed]

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Great comment, JD 🙂 I agree 100% about Japonisme helping Western artists to see the world anew. And great comment from Oscar Wilde! I’ve had to redact your link as I have stopped allowing people to post links in the comments. I was just getting too many of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. authorangelabell says:

    Quite a fascinating article! I’d never heard of this trend in Victorian fashion before, but I can understand why the comfortable kimono would have appealed to Victorian ladies who’d normally suffered for beauty’s sake.

    Liked by 1 person

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