Japanese designer Issey Miyake said, “Design is not for philosophy, it’s for life.” In no art form is this more apparent than in Miyake’s realm of fashion. Clothing is a necessary part of human life and clothing gives us insight into our personalities, lifestyles, and cultures.
Yet museums dedicated to costumes and fashion tend to be a rarity. Luckily, there are a few museums in Japan that will satisfy fashion lovers, history lovers, or anyone interested in viewing beautiful garments.
1. Kyoto Costume Institute
The Kyoto Costume Institute, which has received donations from top designers and fashion houses like Comme des Garçons and Chanel, is primarily a fashion research institute. However, it does hold exhibitions in a small gallery displaying pieces from its extensive 12,000-item collection.
Established in 1978, the institute is dedicated to conserving and researching Western-style clothes, focusing on its reception in Japan. Now it is a global fashion research institute, and its collection includes items from the 17th century to the present.
2. Kobe Fashion Museum
The Kobe Fashion Museum is the first public museum in Japan devoted to fashion. It opened in 1997 and symbolizes Kobe as a City of Fashion. The museum is dedicated to the appeal and importance of style as integral to human culture and promotes the culture and industry of fashion.
The museum’s collection consists of thousands of pieces of Western clothing from the 18th to 20th century and folk costumes from more than 70 countries, displayed on modern mannequins. Also included in the collection are fashion photos and movie posters, and a library with magazines, books, and films. The museum also holds special exhibits, the most current one focusing on wedding costumes.
3. Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum
Opened in 1979, the Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum is affiliated with the Bunka Gakuen Educational Foundation, which also includes fashion education institutions and a fashion research institute. The museum’s garments were collected for educational purposes and are now publicly displayed.
Bunka Gakuen, established in 1923, initially started its collection to provide better education on the westernization of clothing. This early collection consisted mainly of Japanese Western-style clothing, European dresses, and kimono. Since the museum’s establishment, they have sought to expand their collection, which now consists of items from various cultures.
4. Costume Museum in Kyoto
This small museum opened in 1974 to display the evolution of Japanese dress from Japan’s early history to the modern era. Since 1988, however, the museum’s exhibit has focused chiefly on the costumes and lifestyle of the Heian period (794-1185).
The clothing and customs of the Heian period are on full display through a one-quarter-scale model of the Tale of Genji, with dolls dressed in opulent and colorful period costumes. Costumes from other period tales have been reproduced and put on display. And a major plus is that visitors are free to take pictures of the entire exhibit.
5. Upopoy (National Ainu Museum and Park)
There is much more than clothing to see at Upopoy. Opened in 2020, it is a museum in Hokkaido dedicated to promoting the culture of the indigenous Ainu people. The collection includes stunning traditional Ainu costumes, and the museum is decorated with traditional Ainu embroidery patterns.
Outside the National Museum is an open-air park with several facilities. You can watch Ainu embroidery in the park and even participate in a workshop. The best part is that you can learn about a part of fashion history that is not very well known.