I
n Japan, women’s fashion, like makeup, continues to evolve, reflecting the moods and mores of the times. The following photographs of women provide tantalizing glimpses into some of the radical changes that have marked the past century.

At the opening of the Meiji era in 1868, only the few Europeans and Americans living in Japan wore Western dress. The kimono, which literally means "thing to wear," was—and had been since the thirteenth century—standard dress for all Japanese. Elaborate time-honed conventions determined everything from color and pattern to sleeve length, and signified social class as well as marital status. With the Meiji emperor’s call for "Civilization and Enlightenment," the old order—including the nuances of traditional dress—was thrown into chaos. At first men wore bowler hats with kimonos as a tangible demonstration of their patriotic attempts to modernize, while women donned high-buttoned boots with updated Japanese garments: loose-fitting hakama—trousers dating from the twelfth century—which were adapted to wear over kimonos.

Upper-class and noble women were the first to embrace Western dress from head to toe, wearing elaborate gowns at government balls. Men soon abandoned kimonos for trousers and jackets. Public schools required uniforms—shorts for boys and skirts for girls—like those worn by students attending mission schools. As women ventured out more into society, trendsetters chose Western clothes, which not only offered greater freedom of mobility but were also vastly easier to put on than kimonos. By the late 1920s a new woman emerged, known as moga, the Eastern counterpart of the Western flapper. With her bobbed hairdo flying in the face of the age-old belief that a woman’s long, black tresses were her most prized possession, she exuded an up-to-date, stylish confidence.

As more women began working as teachers, nurses, and office workers, Western clothes became as the norm at work, although Japanese dress was still preferred at home. After the American Occupation following the Second World War, Western wear became firmly entrenched. The kimono, which had already been waning on the fashion scene, was worn only at important rites of passage, such as marriage. Women increasingly took their cues from international trends, although often with a Japanese spin. In the 1960s young Japanese began to define their own street-inspired fashion trends—the latest version of which is a ganguro, deeply-tanned women sporting high platform shoes who frequent Shibuya nightclubs and bars.