Photo/IllutrationSailor suits for female students on display during an exhibition at the Yayoi Museum in 2018 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Exactly one century ago, a turning point came in the history of school uniforms for female students--a switch from kimono to Western attire.

I learned this at the Yayoi Museum in Tokyo, where an exhibition titled “Nippon Seifuku 100-nen Shi” (Japan’s 100-year history of school uniforms) is being held until June 30.

According to Shizue Uchida, 50, a curator, female students of the early Meiji Era (1868-1912) wore kimono, or traditional Japanese clothing, to school.

State-run schools recommended “hakama” formal pleated skirts, but the girls balked at wearing them. During the years of rapid Westernization in the mid-1880s, the government encouraged wearing Western dresses to school. But this didn’t catch on, either.

In the summer of 1919, Fusako Yamawaki, principal of a private girls’ school, created a uniform of an entirely new design--a navy blue one-piece dress with white collars.

It was so “radical” that many students were embarrassed to be seen in it. Yamawaki decided to lead by example by wearing it herself.

The dress not only proved to be cheaper than kimono, but also less confining. From then on, Western-style school uniforms came into broad acceptance.

The iconic sailor suits grew into the mainstay of girls’ school uniforms in the early Showa Era (1926-1989).

During World War II, “monpe” baggy work pants became de rigueur, much to the chagrin of fashion-conscious young women.

Blazers became as popular as sailor suits during the postwar years of economic growth.

From the 1980s on, school uniforms began to play an important part in the financial success of private schools. Some high schools enjoyed sharp growths in enrollment after they redesigned their uniforms.

“Since the Meiji Era, it has been clear that no matter how hard the government, schools or parents pushed certain uniforms, they never lasted long unless they were loved by the students,” said Uchida.

In recent years, some local governments have started giving students greater freedom in their choice of uniforms, such as allowing girls to opt for slacks instead of a skirt. This is in part out of consideration for sexual minorities.

Looking at the museum’s exhibits, both old and new, I felt that school uniforms epitomize the constraints and changes of the times.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 25

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.