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When Tokyo met Paris: Investigating a 1950s Japanese ready-to-wear dress

Liz Tregenza

 

San-Ai cocktail dress in silk satin, c.1955. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

San-Ai cocktail dress in silk satin, c.1955. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

My MA dissertation investigated British ready-to-wear between 1946 and 1966, but whilst completing my research I also encountered a number of curious examples of ready-to-wear garments from other countries around the world. One that particularly interested me was a pink silk satin 1950s cocktail dress from Japan.

San-Ai jacket, 1950s. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

San-Ai jacket, 1950s. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

The dress in question is from my personal collection. I purchased the dress to wear whilst completing my dissertation, enchanted by the dropped waist and huge bow detail that sat across the hipline creating a dramatic silhouette. After receiving the dress I found a label “San-Ai, Ginza, for ladies’ finery”. This was not the first time I had come across this label, having purchased a red riding style jacket with black velvet collar containing the same label a few years previously. Both garments were clearly well made. The suit jacket is fully lined in silk and is weighted at the hem to ensure it holds its shape correctly, whilst careful attention has been paid to the seams inside the dress.

San-Ai label in a dress c.1955. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

San-Ai label in a dress c.1955. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

Ginza is a district of Japan’s capital Tokyo. In the 1950s Ginza was an upmarket shopping area within the city, littered with expensive stand alone and department stores.[1] Unfortunately I have not been able to trace the store ‘San-Ai’ although, it may be connected with the current San- Ai building that stands on Ginza’s 4-chome Crossing at the intersection of Chuo Dori and Harumi Dori. The location of the store though, within the centre of Tokyo’s most fashionable district, suggested to me that this dress was an excellent example of Japanese ready-to-wear.

Japan in the 1950s was a key emerging market for ready-to-wear fashion. Consumers in Japan were purchasing European (including British) ready-to-wear. British ready-to-wear manufacturer Frederick Starke considered the Japanese market (by 1965) to be one that British wholesalers should be targeting. This is, of course, is a difficult market, but the potential is enormous. The kimono has disappeared and the people are now more westernised than the Europeans. Western clothes are everywhere. When I was there last year I was told that the traditional costumes are only worn at New Year celebrations.[2]

Extant photographs and illustrations demonstrate that Japanese women were wearing European fashions in the 1930s, particularly in the Ginza district, so this market was not a new one for the British ready-to-wear manufacturers, rather a developing one.[3] During the 1950s Japanese companies themselves were creating European influenced (particularly Parisian) ready-to-wear for both the Japanese and overseas markets and were viewed as competition by British manufacturers. A 1959 article in The Times for example suggested that Japan along with France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany was one of Britain’s biggest export competitors. [4]

The dress itself intrigued me. Its silhouette was familiar and I felt fairly certain it was adapted from a Parisian couture design. I have come to the conclusion that the dress was likely based upon Dior’s Autumn/Winter 1954 H Line. This line received a mixed response from the press, a 1954 Pathé newsreel debating whether the H stood for ‘Heavenly or Horrid’.[5] The silhouette was characterised by the elongated shape it created with its dropped waistline. It featured longline jackets finishing at or just below the hip and dresses that created a flattened bosom.

Christian Dior, ‘Priscilla’ dress, silk, Museum no. 1974.258.7 Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Christian Dior, ‘Priscilla’ dress, silk, Museum no. 1974.258.7 Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A dress held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection from Dior’s Autumn/Winter 1954 collection though has particular similarities to my dress. The dress, named ‘Priscilla’, features the same dropped waistline with huge bow detail. Furthermore the final dress worn in the Pathé newsreel feature also displays commonalities with my San-Ai dress. The dress, part of a 2-piece ensemble, worn by ‘Dior’s number one’[6] model Ala Llitchoun, features similar seam detailing, dropped waistline and bow detail to the hipline. Whilst the San-Ai dress is not a direct copy of Dior original it demonstrates how companies were copying and adapting haute couture designs for the ready-to-wear market.

San-Ai cocktail dress in silk satin- bow detail, c.1955. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

San-Ai cocktail dress in silk satin- bow detail, c.1955. Image © Liz Tregenza, 2014.

 

 

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[1] Ginza is still a popular upmarket shopping destination and one of the many stores located there is a branch of French Department store Printemps.

[2] Frederick Starke, ‘A tough but rewarding fashion market’, Financial Times,

05 July 1965, p.52

[3] See http://www.ginza.jp/history?lang=en for images of 1930s Ginza mobos and moyas dressed in both traditional Japanese and contemporary Western dress

[4] Anon, ‘When Quality will tell’, The Times, 25 May 1959, p.13

[5] Dior Show aids Red Cross, Pathé newsreel, 1954. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/dior-show-aids-red-cross (accessed 7th July 2014)

[6] Dior Show aids Red Cross, Pathé newsreel, 1954. http://www.britishpathe.com/video/dior-show-aids-red-cross (accessed 7th July 2014)

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Liz Tregenza – 

Liz is most likely to be found with her nose in a musty 1940s copy of British Vogue.  An avid fashion history specialist she is currently conducting research into the “Model House Group”. This interest in fashions of the past was nurtured whilst studying for a BA in fashion design at Leeds University.  Liz also collects vintage clothing and has appeared in a number of publications including Sunday Times Style and Homes & Antiques. She is currently writing her first book (due for release September 2014) whilst working as a museum assistant.

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© Liz Tregenza, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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