Book Excerpt: Turning Western

by Niall Ferguson

By 1910 the world had been economically integrated in a way never seen before. The different bonds that linked it together – railways, steamship lines and telegraphs – were almost entirely Western-invented and Western-owned. The West literally shrank the world. If all the railroads of the United States had been laid end to end, the length would have been thirteen times the earth’s circumference. A man could travel from Versailles to Vladivostok by train. And sustained improvements in steamships – the screw propeller, iron hulls, compound engines and surface condensers – made crossing the oceans faster and cheaper than crossing land. Ocean freight costs fell by more than a third from 1870 to 1910. It cost 8 shillings to send a ton of cotton goods by rail from Manchester to Liverpool, just 30 miles away, but only 30 shillings to ship the same goods a further 7,250 miles to Bombay. The cost of shipping cloth amounted to less than one per cent of the cost of the goods. The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the Panama Canal (1914) shrank the world still further, the former reducing the distance of the London-Bombay route by more than two-fifths, the latter cutting the cost of shipping from the East to the West coast of the United States by a third. By the late 1860s, thanks to the introduction of gutta-percha coating for undersea cables, telegrams could be sent from London to Bombay or to Halifax. News of the Indian Mutiny had taken 46 days to reach London in 1857, travelling at an effective speed of 3.8 miles an hour. News of the great Nobi earthquake in Japan in 1891 took a single day, travelling at 246 miles an hour, sixty-five times faster.

Labour and capital flowed across borders as it never had before. Between 1840 and 1940, up to 58 million Europeans migrated to the Americas, 51 million Russians to Siberia, Central Asia and Manchuria, and 52 million Indians and Chinese to South East Asia, Australasia or the Indian Ocean rim. Up to 2.5 million migrants from South and East Asia also traveled to the Americas One in seven of the U.S. population was foreign-born in 1910, a record that has yet to be surpassed. Britain was the world’s banker, exporting prodigious amounts of capital to the rest of the world; perhaps contemporaries should have praised the English ‘savings glut’ rather than grumbled about imperialism. In the peaks of the overseas investment booms – 1872, 1887 and 1913 – the British current account surplus exceeded 7 per cent of GDP. British firms stood ready to export not just cotton, but the machinery to manufacture cotton and the capital necessary to buy it.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable expression of this first globalization was sartorial. With extraordinary speed, a mode of dressing that was distinctly Western swept the rest of the world, consigning traditional garb to the dressing-up basket of history. To be sure, that was not the avowed intention of the Singer Manufacturing Company. For the Chicago ‘Great Colombian’ World’s Fair in 1892 – the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the New World – Singer commissioned a series of 36 trade cards called ‘Costumes of the World’ which depicted people of every skin colour, all dressed in traditional costumes, happily using Singer machines. From a Hungarian smock to a Japanese kimono, any kind of costume could benefit from a stitch in time under the distinctive metal arm of a Singer. Bosnians and Burmese alike were the beneficiaries of Isaac Merritt’s ingenuity; everyone, in fact, from Algeria to Zululand. Small wonder the Singer became the gift of choice for foreign potentates: the King of Siam, Dom Pedro II of Brazil and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Yet here is the twist in the tale. Far from using their Singer machines to patch up traditional forms of clothing, the grateful recipients used them for a completely different purpose: namely, to copy and wear Western clothing. The crucial new garments were, for men, the frock coat, the stiff-collared white shirt, the felt hat and the leather boot; and for women, the corset, the petticoat and the ankle-length dress.

Prince Hirohito (Shōwa Emperor) and Edward, Prince of Wales (Edward VIII)

In 1921 two royal and imperial heirs – the Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan, the future Shōwa Emperor, and Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII – posed next to one another for a photographer. The thrones they stood to inherit could scarcely have been more geographically distant. Yet here they both were, on the steps of Henry Poole & Co., the Savile Row tailor, more or less identically dressed. The Japanese prince was in London on a pre-wedding shopping spree. A Henry Poole representative had already sailed all the way to Gibraltar to take the Crown Prince’s measurements, which were then cabled ahead to London. Henry Poole’s ledger for the year in question shows the enormous order placed in Hirohito’s name: military uniforms, embroidered waistcoats, dinner jackets, morning coats. A typical item in the list reads: ‘A fancy cashmere suit, a blue cloth suit, and a striped flannel suit.’ Hirohito was far from being the only foreign dignitary in the market for an immaculately tailored English suit. Preserved in Henry Poole’s basement are thousands of suit patterns for clients ranging from the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, to the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. Poole’s most devoted customer was Jitendra Narayan, Maharaja of Cooch Behar, whose lifetime purchases of bespoke suits exceeded a thousand. In every case, the aim was the same: to be as well dressed as the perfect English gentleman – and ‘costumes of the world’ be damned. It is no coincidence that the Japanese word for a suit is sebiro: ‘Savile Row’. Even today the smartest suits in Tokyo are English in design: hence the popularity of the Eikokuya brand, which means literally ‘England Store’. Discerning Anglophiles in Ginza, the West End of Tokyo, still seek out Ichibankan, founded by a tailor who learned his craft in Savile Row.

The Japanese revolution in dress dated back to the 1870s. In the name of bunmei kaika (‘civilization and enlightenment’) and fukoku-kyōhei (‘rich country, strong army’), the imperial elite of the Meiji era had shed their samurai garb and kimonos in favour of replica European suits and dresses. The inspiration for this makeover came partly from a two-year tour of the United States and Europe by Iwakura Tomomi’s delegation, which had to acknowledge that, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, ‘in many respects our civilization is inferior to theirs’. Ever since 1853-4, when their economy had been forcibly reopened to trade by the threatening ‘black ships’ of the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the Japanese had struggled to work out what it was that made the West so much richer and stronger than the Rest. Touring the West – a practice so common that it inspired a sugoroku (board game) – only raised more questions. Was it their political system? Their educational institutions? Their culture? Or the way they dressed? Unsure, the Japanese decided to take no chances. They copied everything. From the Prussian-style constitution of 1889 to the adoption of the British gold standard in 1897, Japan’s institutions were refashioned on Western models. The army drilled like Germans; the navy sailed like Britons. An American-style system of state elementary and middle schools was also introduced.

The most visible change, however, was in the way the Japanese looked. It began in 1870, with a formal ban on the blackening of teeth and shaving of eyebrows at court. At around the same time, ministers began to cut their hair in the Western style. An imperial decree of 1871 ordered high officials to don yōfuku, the European frock coat worn over a high-collared white shirt; by 1887 it was standard wear for all public servants. A year later, on the advice of his reform-minded advisers, the hitherto closeted Meiji Emperor appeared for the first time in public, wearing (according to the Austrian ambassador) ‘a peculiar European uniform, half sailor and half ambassador!’ – a swallow tailed coat with a great deal of gold braid. The armed forces were also required to adopt European uniforms. The new sailor’s outfit was based on that of the Royal Navy, while the army’s was initially French in inspiration, though later a Prussian look was adopted. Elite Japanese women also began wearing Western dress in 1884, when they began hosting foreign guests at the newly built Rokumeikan, though the kimono endured in private. Even children’s clothing was Westernized, with the adoption of Prussian style uniforms for boys at elite private schools; girls’ uniforms followed in the 1920s (and have not changed much since). No-one embraced the new western look more zealously than Ōkubo Toshimichi, one of the principal architects of the Meiji makeover. Once photographed as a sword-bearing samurai, proudly sitting cross-legged in flowing robes, he now sat stiffly on a chair in smartly cut black tailcoat, his top hat in his hand. When his delegation visited England in 1872, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle reported that ‘the gentlemen were attired in ordinary morning costume and except for their complexion and the oriental cast of their features, they could scarcely be distinguished from their English companions’. Seventeen years later, when the Meiji constitution was formally adopted, the Emperor wore the uniform of a European field marshal, his consort a fetching blue and pink evening dress, and the government ministers black military tunics with gold epaulettes.

There were those in both Japan and Europe who were repelled by this ‘aping’ of Western modes. On 14 May 1878, as he made his way to a meeting of the Council of State at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Ōkubo was attacked and brutally murdered by seven samurai, the death blow delivered to his throat with such force that the sword remained stuck in the ground below. Ōmura Masujirō, whose reforms Westernized Japan’s army, was another Meiji-era victim of conservative assassins, who posed a recurrent threat to pro-Western ministers. Yet there was no turning back. Attached though the Japanese remained to their traditional culture, most accepted Ōkubo’s argument that Westernization was indispensable if Japan was to achieve parity with the European and American empires. In the words of one Western observer who knew the country well, the Japanese motive was perfectly rational:

Their great ambition is to be treated as men, as gentlemen, and as the equal of Occidentals. In their antiquated garb they knew that they or their country would never be taken seriously. Very soon we saw a change of dress, not only among soldiers and Samurai but among all the government officers and even in the Mikado itself. … This revolution in clothes helped powerfully in the recognition by the whole world of Japan as an equal in the brotherhood of nations.

The Japanese had understood what a potent agent of development Western clothes were. For this was much more than just an outward makeover. It was part of a pivotal breakthrough in world history as Japan became the first non-Western society to experience the transformative power of the industrial revolution.

The spread of the new dress code coincided with the rapid growth of the Japanese textile industry. By 1900 textile factories employed 63 per cent of all Japan’s factory workers. Ten years later Japan was Asia’s sole net exporter of thread, yarn and cloth; indeed, its exports exceeded those of Germany, France and Italy. Moreover, Japanese textile workers were by far the most productive in Asia. From 1907 to 1924 the Japanese cotton industry increased output per worker by 80 per cent (despite the fact that, as is clear from Adachi Ginkō’s 1887 picture of ‘Ladies Sewing’, the workforce was overwhelmingly young women, with an average age of just 17). By not merely wearing Western clothes but also making them, Japan had ended the West’s monopoly on modern manufacturing.

As in the West, one industrial breakthrough was followed by another. The first British-designed Japanese railway was built between Tokyo and Yokohama in the early 1870s. Soon, beginning with the Ginza district of Tokyo, the country’s distinctive cities began to acquire telegraph wires, street lamps, iron bridges and brick walls in place of paper ones. Four great business conglomerates – the zaibatsu – emerged as the dominant players in the economy: Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and Yasuda. Swiftly, under British instruction, the Japanese moved from buying steam locomotives to building them.

No other Asian country embraced the Western way of life with the same enthusiasm as the Japanese. As India emerged from under British rule, by contrast, there was a conscious effort on the part of nationalists to retain Indian modes of dress, from Gandhi’s loincloth to Nehru’s collarless jackets to Indira Gandhi’s saris. This symbolic rejection of Western norms was understandable. British competition in the nineteenth century had devastated India’s traditional hand-produced textile industry. Unlike the Japanese, however, the Indians more or less completely failed to adopt the technology of the Industrial Revolution. Here is one of the many puzzles of nineteenth-century history. The Indians were introduced to the textile mill, the steam engine and the railway long before the Japanese. By the early 1900s, textile equipment was no more expensive in Asia than in continental Europe. Nor was coal. Wage costs were 16 per cent of those in England. Asian factory hours were not restricted by law as British factory hours were. Raw cotton was much closer to hand than in England. Yet industrial development failed to take off in India or, for that matter, in China (where labour costs were even lower). The explanation is that, cheap though labour was in India and China, the advantage was wiped out by dismally low productivity. An American worker was, on average, between six and ten times more productive than an Indian using exactly the same equipment. British experts offered various explanations for this, ranging from inherent racial inferiority to chronic absenteeism and idling. What no one could explain was why one Asian country – Japan – was making such rapid gains in productivity that by the later 1930s it had forced 15 per cent of Bombay textile mills to close down altogether.

Excerpted from the book Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

Discussion: Western Clothing

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