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Hand-Coloured Photographs

Hand-Coloured Photographs

Dancers with obi sashes tied at the back, Unknown photographer, c. early 20th century 

These hand coloured Meiji period (1866-1912) photographs were produced as souvenirs of Japanese culture for international visitors. The photos maintained Japanese traditions at a time of social, political and cultural changes as a result of Westernisation. The portraits of women in their daily lives in traditional attire show an idealised version of Japanese life for foreign consumption.

The photograph of the kimono shop is stage in a studio and shows an old-fashioned style of shop which were replaced by the modern innovation of the department store at the turn of the 20th century.
In the early Meiji period, Western clothing was expensive, and was worn only by the richest in society. The general public still wore traditional Japanese clothing, only working professionals and the elite wore Western style fashion.

However this changed in the Meiji era due to the democratisation of luxury as traditional class divisions were fading. Magazine photography and kimono pattern books played a key role in this as they allowed fashions to be reproduced. Pattern books were commissioned by traditional kimono shops where attendants would counsel customers on choices of colour and design and make the kimono to measure overseeing the details of dyeing, design, embroidery and sewing.

Women washing kimono, Unknown photographer, c. early 20th century

 The emergence of the department stores in the late Meiji era was the next step in the rise of mass consumption. The first department stores in Japan were established during the early 1900s, and were influenced by their predecessors, traditional kimono shops as well as European shops. They sold newly imported Western goods creating a new shopping practice which promoted the idea of ‘being modern’ and incorporating Western products into everyday Japanese life.

Whilst today the kimono is thought of as the epitome of Japanese clothing, this was not always the case. The kimono rose to prominence in the Meiji era and was defined as the symbol of Japanese national identity becoming the basic garment of the urban citizen in order to preserve Japanese customs in the face of increasing Westernisation.

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