Iki (aesthetic)

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  • Japanese: 粋 (iki, sui)

Iki was one of the dominant aesthetics in popular fashion in the city of Edo. Though notoriously difficult to define, iki has been characterized as a subtle, restrained, refinement and elegance.

Though in the early 17th century bright, flashy designs in bold colors and with gold or other precious accents were the dominant fashion among those who could afford it, by the mid-to-late 18th century, browns, greys, and navy blue were the most popular. This was in part influenced by the shogunate's sumptuary regulations, which banned commoners from wearing any silk garment of higher quality than tsumugi (a silk pongee), and which encouraged maintaining appearances appropriate to one's station - in the case of commoners, particularly merchants, this was an officially rather low station. Yet, within these limitations, aesthetics and fashion evolved in their own direction; the government cannot control taste. Banned from wearing brighter colors in public, many commoners took to hiding these bold designs in the inner linings of their robes, or on inner layers; thus, a bit of bright color peeking out from under the gray or brown overrobe, or hints of color woven into the gray or brown, became some of the key ways in which people demonstrated restrained, refined, fashion sense. Striped kimono designs, relatively easy and affordable to make in a variety of patterns from simply different hues of dyed thread, were especially popular as well.

Scholar Eiko Ikegami suggests that, beyond being simply a fashion trend, iki connected into a mindset of "spirit" or "pride" (意気, iki); commoners, restricted in the colors and fabrics they could wear, and in other ways they could comport themselves more broadly speaking, turned their low station around, in a way, by showing spirit and pride in even the simplest of styles. And, by making such simple style the height of refined fashion, they effected cultural popular discursive resistance against the samurai-dominated social order. Taking pride in the simplest of garments, they came to regard ostentation as yabo (野暮), thus turning the tables against the samurai, whose demonstrations of wealth and power through flashy fashion were now quite widely, popularly, deemed the model of a boorish lack of refinement.

One particularly important feature of the emergence of popular fashion in the Edo period is that courtesans of the Yoshiwara, and actors of the kabuki stage became the chief trendsetters, with even the elites taking their fashion cues from these extremely low-culture, popular culture, figures. This marks a significant change from trends throughout previous periods, in which commoners emulated the style of elites, in order to show themselves to be cultured, refined, high-class. While the shogunate had walled off the theatre and pleasure districts in order to better control their influence, this had the perhaps unforeseen consequence of turning the theatre and pleasure districts into socio-cultural worlds of their own, in which distinctive forms of popular culture thus grew all the more rapidly and vibrantly, in these condensed cultural zones.

The growth of popular fashion was helped along considerably by pattern books, called hiinagata bon, which displayed styles and designs from which customers could then custom order fabric or readymade garments, and from which merchants could see what their competition was producing, and what was popular.

The dominant fashion aesthetic in Kamigata (the Kyoto-Osaka region) in the Edo period had different features, and was called sui, rather than iki, though it was written with the same kanji character.


  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 245-285.